Patchen’s Selected Poems

In making a comment on a recent Berryman poem, Tom indirectly mentioned the poet Kenneth Patchen, a poet I’d heard of but couldn’t remember reading. When I did a search I found this poem, which happens to be the fourth poem in his Selected Poems:

Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?

The old guy put down his beer.
Son, he said,
(and a girl came over to the table where we were:
asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink.)
Son, I am going to tell you something
The like of which nobody ever was told.
(and the girl said, I’ve got nothing on tonight;
how about you and me going to your place?)
I am going to tell you the story of my mother’s
Meeting with God.
(and I whispered to the girl: I don’t have a room,
but maybe…)
She walked up to where the top of the world is
And He came right up to her and said
So at last you’ve come home.
(but maybe what?
I thought I’d like to stay here and talk to you.)
My mother started to cry and God
Put His arms around her.
(about what?
Oh, just talk … we’ll find something.)
She said it was like a fog coming over her face
And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
You can stop crying now.
(what can we talk about that will take all night?
and I said that I didn’t know.)
You can stop crying now.

Though I’m still not quite sure why (which in and of itself is generally a good thing) I loved this poem immediately. I love it just as much after several readings.

When I sent a copy to Mike, he replied, “I’ve loved this poem for 35 years.” He sent me another of Patchen’s poems to look at. Equally impressed by that one, I ordered Selected Poems.

I’m sure the archetypes juxtaposed here are part of the appeal of the poem. Most of us men seem to have two images of women, harlot and saint, and often have a hard time reconciling those images. Part of the appeal is the way the theme is developed, simple dialogue that would do Browning proud, no moralizing.

Something about that last line is compelling, too.

Unfortunately, now that I’ve started reading the Selected Poems I’m much more ambivalent about his poetry, which strikes me as remarkably uneven. Too much of it sounds like some mad prophet expounding mankind’s sins. At times it even reminds me of Blake at his worst.

At its best though, as in this poem:

Nice Day for a Lynching

The bloodhounds look like sad old judges
In a strange court. They point their noses
At the Negro jerking in the tight noose;
His feet spread crow-like above these
Honorable men who laugh as he chokes.

I don’t know this black man.
I don’t know these white men.

But I know that one of my hands
Is black, and one white. I know that
One part of me is being strangled,
While another part horribly laughs.

Until it changes,
I shall be forever killing; and be killed.

The simple direct scene he describes is compelling, while still leaving the reader to make his own judgements, though “honorable” is too ironic to ignore.

But the real revelation in the poem comes in the lines, “But I know that one of my hands/ Is black, and one white.” We are both victim and victimizer, and until we realize it, we shall never escape the sorry mess we have created here, sanctimoniously pointing our fingers at others while continuing to victimize others, never quite realizing that we are also victimizing ourselves.

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