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A. VAN JORDAN - WINTER 2007 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

A. Van Jordan
 

The Synchronicity of Scenes. A consideration
of poetry from the perspective of cinematography
(with video).


A. Van Jordan

Two new poems.


David Rigsbee

Review of Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan.


James Bertolino

The Path of Water. An interview with James Bertolino.

A. Van Jordan

A. Van Jordan is the author of Rise, published by Tia Chucha Press, 2001, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award and selected for the Book of the Month Club from the Academy of American Poets. Published by W.W. Norton & Co., 2004, his second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, was awarded an Anisfield-Wolf Award and listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times (TLS). Jordan was also awarded a Whiting Writers Award in 2005 and a Pushcart Prize in 2006, 30th Edition. Quantum Lyrics was published July 2007 by W.W. Norton & Co. He is a recent recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 2007.

A. Van Jordan - Essay

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The Synchronicity of Scenes    

Establishment Shot:

The city distends in front of me from an aerial view. Black and white buildings, the actual buildings and the shadows they cast, as far as the eye can see. It's daytime. This much is clear by the light and the contrast of the skyline of drab buildings and the clarity of the sky. I'm asking the question in my mind: what city is this? I should say that I'm about to ask this question; no sooner do I think to ask, a title slides across the screen from the left and stops dead center: PHOENIX, ARIZONA. And then before I even think about the time of day, this dissipates and another title slides in from the left again and centers itself again: FRIDAY, DECEMBER ELEVENTH. I pan the city a bit more and I am totally grounded, spatially and temporally: TWO FORTY-THREE PM, spelled out in capital letters.

As if I were floating across this city's meager skyline, my eyes do float across and, somehow, among the many non-descript buildings, seem to focus and stop on one building: a downtown hotel. I fly in closer, even closer and stop at a window, half open, blinds askew over the gentle breeze they provide. I become curious and—maybe I should admit, I become a bit voyeuristic, but this hides so far in my heart, I'm not sure that this is even true, yet—I want to see what is going on in this room. And what I hope to see is exactly what I find: a couple, half naked, lying on a bed. I'm here with a foreshortened view and, now, I move in closer, more intimately, and I might as well lie down with them for the proximity from which I view.

It happened just like that. The first time I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, just after the credits and the dramatic music had stopped and the first establishment shot opened, I was completely grounded and ready not only to suspend my disbelief, but to engage in the fantasy and disengage with the life I left behind as I walked into the theater.

I remember thinking I was doing something quite adult because, as a child, I was now in the throes of an adult situation and I could not wait to see what would happen next. The woman in the scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), was in a bra. This was already more than I had anticipated. I remember her and the male character in this scene—Sam Loomis (John Gavin), someone I would forget about long before Anthony Perkins appears on the screen as Norman Bates—and I thought I'd follow this story line for the next couple of hours and surely they'd kiss again and fall into some hotel bed again and, hopefully, disrobe yet again. But then she mentions that she has "to go to work" and that he can't come with her because he doesn't have his shoes on. This all transpires after a discussion of marriage and his confessing that he's poor and her confessing that she loves him anyway.

CUT TO: The next scene. She's at work as I expect because she's announced this the scene before. Beyond that announcement, she also enters the scene by walking through the door of the office. My view is from the inside of the office looking out through the front window; she approaches and walks closer into the foreground of the frame. The film progresses in this manner for the next couple of hours. A word or phrase is mentioned, the scene changes, and the characters begin interacting. Cut.

Flashback:

I've been watching movies closely since I was a kid. I saw Psycho (1960) on the big screen in high school. Since it was my graduating class' choice for class movie, it was screened in our school auditorium, 1983. I think the first adult movie I'd seen on the big screen, about ten years before, was either Hitchcock's The Birds or a far less memorable film like The Betsy starring Tommy Lee Jones, in his first film, I believe, and Lawrence Olivier. But I watched everything, things a child probably shouldn't watch: Shaft, Frenzy, Klute, The Mack, Lady Sings the Blues (five times), Play Misty for Me, everything Hitchcock had left in him at this point, every Blaxploitation film I could sneak into in drive-in theaters under the blanket in the back seat of my brother's car. Everything. At this point, I had little interest in reading anything other than comic books and non-fiction books on science, nature, animals: all the things that seemed foreign to my immediate world. I sought escape.

As an adult and, now, as a reader, I seek escape in books and, counter to popular culture, I often seek escape in poems. From time to time I will bring a poem to a class—some poem that just breaks my heart when I'm lying on my couch reading it in the quiet of my home, a poem that's so beautiful I just want to throw the book across the room because it's so electrifying—and I'll read the poem to my students from a book or from a handout. The students will look at me blankly or stare out the window or look down at the page as if they're trying to find what I just found. When I ask them why they can't seem to connect to this poem or that poem, they'll say there's "too much happening in the poem," "the images are moving too fast," or they "can't follow where the poet is going from one stanza to another."

This from the generation that plays video games that make my childhood Atari Pong look like a rock I might skip across a pond for fun. This is a generation that has grown up watching films edited in Avid editing suites--a computer program that has revolutionized non-linear editing in the film industry. Since the mid 1990s, most films have been edited with some form of a non-linear editing program—Final Cut Pro, Avid, etc—which has allowed for more freedom with editing. Editors don't have to cut on an upright Moviola, cutting and pasting with tape and a razor; it's on a computer screen, cutting and pasting with a mouse. I won't even get into the computer-generated sets and scenes and even characters—think Gladiator and 300, for instance—to which 20-somethings have been acculturated. Most films today move so quickly that I feel as if I'm on an amusement park ride. I prefer films with a slower calibrated pace than the Tarentino/Rodriguez-paced genre of action films today.


I have as many awkward memories of poetry as a teenager as I have fond memories of film. I remember repeatedly raising my hand in class to answer the question of what does this line or that line mean. . . . I never had the right answer. And I did not like poetry as a result. Consequently, I didn't like people who taught poetry, either. I used to think, why couldn't this be more like going to the movies.


Central Question:

If students of poetry can handle the pace of action films and music videos, why can't they shift between images and metaphor—line by line, stanza by stanza—in a poem? Reading a poem allows for much more control over pacing than watching a movie. In the theater, after all, we can't ask the projectionist to slow down or go back.

I have as many awkward memories of poetry as a teenager as I have fond memories of film. I remember repeatedly raising my hand in class to answer the question of what does this line or that line mean in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "The Song of Hiawatha" or "The Waste Land," only to have the teacher say, "No," and then point to someone behind me or to my side. I never had the right answer. And I did not like poetry as a result. Consequently, I didn't like people who taught poetry, either. I used to think, why couldn't this be more like going to the movies.

Going to the Movies:

When we watch film, we're accustomed to watching patterns of shots. We may not be conscious of the patterning, but patterns persist in filmic language. We hear CUT TO or FLASHBACK or PAN and, in general terms, we understand what these directions mean, even without working with film. The patterns emerge as film styles, and we acquiesce to the movement, and, consequently, anticipate the movement.

One pattern of shots in film is often referred to as "Standard Coverage." Standard Coverage is not only used for budgetary reasons and to make sure shots are covered from all angles on the set, but it's also used to ground and orient the viewer. The series of shots usually goes like this: ESTABLISHMENT SHOT, MASTER SHOT, ONE to TWO SHOT, new scene.

The ESTABLISHMENT SHOT is often the aerial view we get of the city in most Hollywood films. We get a shot of the location and we're grounded in the scene; it contextualizes any action that will take place. Sometimes this shot can simply be the outside of a building, or it can be a hallway in a hospital, or it can be the car bays in a garage. In short, it is any shot that establishes where we are before the action in the scene transpires.

MASTER SHOT further grounds the viewer. We know what the location is, but we may not know who will be central figures in this scene until we get the master shot. Most of the action will now take place based on how we are oriented, spatially, within the scene with the master shot. At this point we see the central characters in the scene and we know their spatial relationship within it. This shot contains all the action within the scene.

ONE SHOT is simply a shot with one character in the frame. A two shot frames two characters in the frame. This is often the pattern we view as the camera moves between characters in dialogue. We get close ups of the characters, over-the-shoulder shots framing both characters in the scene, etc. There could be ten, twenty or more cuts in a ten-minute scene of action and dialogue.

The opening of Psycho is a perfect example of Standard Coverage:


With standard coverage, we begin to anticipate movement and scene shifts much in the way we anticipate repetition or rhyme in a poetic form like a sonnet or villanelle. In short, one action anticipates the next. When Janet Leigh says she has to go to work, we expect to see her at work in the next scene. When Dylan Thomas's poem opens with "Do not go gentle into that good night," we anticipate the third line of the second stanza, the sixth line of the poem, repeating: "Do not go gentle into that good night," because it's a villanelle. Once we establish that, we anticipate that. We also notice the change in patterns once they are established. Changing patterns is fine as long as it makes sense and doesn't disorient the viewer or reader.

In film language, this is called Matching Action. If we see someone walking through a door at one angle, we expect to see her walk through the door onto the other side and into a new setting. If we don't complete that movement and don't cut to her walking through the door, but then show her seated in the new setting, we can also assume that this is the setting into which the character was walking. The action matches from movement to movement. Movement should make this much sense in a poem.


Ideally, there's a certain muscle memory poets build—in my opinion, at least—from writing in form. We learn how to manage movements in free verse through the practice of form. We come to understand the growing resonance of a repeated line over the course of a poem, the duality of a repeated word, the pacing of meter, through the practice of form. We learn our shots, so to speak, and, consequently, we learn how to orient the reader.


Associative Patterns:

This is one of the first exercises I do with Introduction-to-Poetry students: I ask the students to close their eyes. I read a poem aloud to the class, asking them to open their eyes once I finish reading; then I ask them to throw out as many images as they can remember from the poem. I write the words—predominantly nouns and verbs if this is working—on the chalkboard. I then ask them what themes they see emerging from these words, as if we were playing a word- association game. It is a word association game, really. I make a list of these themes. Once we're done, we realize we have taken the words out of the context of syntax and, yet, they still associate and make sense.

Associative language creates patterns in poems that keep the action matching, much in the way the proper shots do in a film. We often have a frame of reference with form: we anticipate rhyme, meter, and repetition. In free verse, this is not always as easily detected. Ideally, there's a certain muscle memory poets build—in my opinion, at least—from writing in form. We learn how to manage movements in free verse through the practice of form. We come to understand the growing resonance of a repeated line over the course of a poem, the duality of a repeated word, the pacing of meter, through the practice of form. We learn our shots, so to speak, and, consequently, we learn how to orient the reader.

When I read a poet like Lynda Hull, the ways in which she builds scenes in her poems is often cinematic. A word or a phrase will repeat and make a logical leap—or cut, if we were thinking in film terms—to the next image or scene. Despite the Avid editing pace of movement in her poems, though, I never feel disoriented. She manages information in the poem that contextualizes every move. Consider the movement in the opening of "Love Song During Riot with Many Voices" as Standard Coverage, an establishment shot that shifts to Master shot to a two shot of the two figures within the poem:


Love Song During Riot with Many Voices
               —Newark, 1967

The bridge's iron mesh chases pockets of shadow
and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window

to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse
their naked bodies make—black, white, white,
black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls

incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded

in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged,
Hanoi, snipers and the riot news helicoptered
from blocks away. . . .
                                                                             (1-9)

The title and the subtitle—Newark, 1967—begin the establishment shot in this poem. These elements begin contextualizing everything that will follow. This preceding is not only the first nine lines of the poem, but also the first sentence of the poem. Syntactically, Hull guides with punctuation as well as line and stanza breaks. The colon in line seven—"in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged"—is as much a direction of CUT TO as any scene shift in a film. The speaker says "radio" and following the colon "Saigon." The images of that location make sense in this context. The poem begins by orienting the city, panning over a bridge, blinds shuttering a corner window and marks on a man and woman—an inter-racial couple, it seems—making love. War is breaking out; a riot is sure to break out; nonetheless, there is also love making, in the present progressive, happening. This would best be described in film terms as Parallel Action.

Parallel Action:

First the action is stopped, then the tension is screwed tighter.
                —Sergei Eisenstein

Parallel Action takes place when two movements of action are inter-cut or two actions are taking place at different points in the same scene. Time is a constant, but place shifts. We are oriented to understand that action is taking place at the same time in two or three or more different places. Think about the final opera scene of The Godfather III during the aria. Or the scene from Sergie Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin on the Odessa Stairs Massacre, to which Brian DePalma pays homage in Untouchables, during the train station scene. The oppositional action within the scene creates a parallel action, which creates tension. That is to say, many things are happening at once in many different places within the scene; sometimes one action seems in conflict with another, but they work toward a single effect. Tension builds when the action stops and then moves again, as figures enter the scene from opposing sides, representing the conflict within the scene. Also, within this scene, Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) establishes order. Every action is predicated on his point of view. The staircase is askew on a canted angle, until he actually steps onto the staircase; then the scene is set in its proper order. Movement either enters the scene vertically, on what is called the Y-Axis, or horizontally, on the X-Axis, or through the depth of field, forward and backward in the frame, on the Z-Axis:


In a poem, the Y-Axis could be considered the movement down the page from stanza to stanza. The X-Axis could be considered the movement across lines, horizontally. The Z-Axis could be considered the movement within the line: syntax, alliteration, associative patterning, etc. In the Hull poem, action is taking place on each line, but the action accumulates as the poem extends down the page, stanza by stanza. This can be said of any poem, really. In this case, though, the action offers duality. Consider, once again, the line and stanza breaks between lines five, six and seven:

. . . black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls

incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded

in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged, . . .

Any one of these lines holds meaning and imagery autonomously, but the image and meaning and action all distend as the poem extends down the page. Each line break broadens the frame. In some ways, the images, war and love-making, are in opposition, but, ultimately, this poem is about the tension between the two themes.

Another apt example of this is offered in Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It":

. . . I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
                                                   (14-31)

Komunyakaa's speaker stands in front of The Vietnam Memorial and looks for the names of comrades. Once he finds the name of "Andrew Johnson," the speaker sees the scene of Johnson's death, from the past, and the details of the present moment:

. . . I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall. . . .
                                                   (17-21)

In one strophic stanza, the poem's speaker moves between the moment at hand and the recollection that's associated with the image before him: war. The device that orients the movement is the memorial, which stands to commemorate the past. The action of flashing back to a battle and the reflection of "a woman's blouse" in the stone of the memorial, makes sense in this scene in a manner that would normally seem incongruous. The poem toggles between life and death, the past and the present, flashes of light as violence and light as shimmers of peace; there are many tensions managed in the poem by cutting back and forth between parallel action. The poem transcends war, or survival, or loss, or a celebration of life; it's about all these elements at once.

I offer this as an example of the texture that's built in poems through not only scene building but also the management of the elements within the scene toward a singular effect. Eisenstein in his two volume book Film Form and Film Sense calls this effect the Synchronicity of Senses: the lighting, props, ambient noise, soundtrack, title cards or dialogue, setting, actors and movement all working toward a singular effect. These elements could all be present or all could be present in a poem as they are in "Love Song During Riot with Many Voices."


I look to film, now, as a way to solve some of the artistic problems I encounter in poetry. The joy of working through these artistic problems in poetry is that I can be my own director, editor, costume designer, prop master, and cinematographer: all the craft of these artists comes together in a line or a stanza under my pen.


Fin:

I'm a poet, of course, and, therefore, see the world visually. If I don't see through my window—or, indeed, into any one else's window—to understand people and their actions, if I don't view them through imagery and action, I am lost to the process. I look to film, now, as a way to solve some of the artistic problems I encounter in poetry. The joy of working through these artistic problems in poetry is that I can be my own director, editor, costume designer, prop master, and cinematographer: all the craft of these artists comes together in a line or a stanza under my pen. Yet, the difference between film and poetry, poetry as perceived via one's imagination or lack of experience or bad experience trying to learn it, has an indelible and bewildering effect on one's mind: rarely are we instructed to think of poetry as a visual art form with progressive action and scene. As a result, we don't think inside a scene in a poem in the way we do inside a scene on film. Yes, they are different art forms, and a poem requires a reservoir of patterns and forms unlike those in film. Nonetheless, they have many similarities. Once we recognize how they are similar—once we understand their nomenclatures autonomous of each other, that is—we can put the two art forms into conversation. From film, we begin to orient ourselves in the movement from scene to scene not simply because of the grammar of film as an art form, but for some other reason: Film, like poetry, answers questions of how we behave, move, interact with others and anticipate outcomes of natural phenomena, because it mimics how we hope—especially once we understand where we are and what's happening in the scene—elements in our lives will make sense as the focus sharpens.

 

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