Sunday, April 14, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 14 with Todd Portnowitz

Verbal exchange with and between lovers is the subject of two poems by Todd Portnowitz published in the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40. “Epithalamium at an Agriturismo” is as the word epithalamium suggests—a lyric ode in honor of a bride, but it, like “The Physiologist’s Rebuke to His Lover,” is a rather odd exchange. The Steiny Road Poet debated with herself about which to trip through and decided “The Physiologist’s Rebuke to His Lover” was more Steiny than the other and maybe harder to understand. So putting aside logic and ease, the Steiny Poet steps into “Rebuke.” Here are the opening lines:

A heart, seen from inside,
is just an abandoned crab shell,

yet, even nailed to a branch,
skin rumpled like a twisted bed sheet,

a python discourages touch.

So what do we know so far, Dear Reader? A physiologist is a scientist who studies the functions of living organisms and their parts. We are asked to examine a heart and skin. A fact outside the poem is the snake, a python, has a heart that balloons after consuming a big meal. Except in the poem, the python appears to be dead since it is nailed to a branch, its skin twisted up, and the heart is just an abandoned shell. The scientist of the poem, however, is rebuking his lover and one has to assume that he means the lover does not have a vital, let alone big, heart, moreover, the heart appears abandoned like an empty crab shell, but keep in mind the organism all along was a snake. In Western culture today, the operative metaphoric meaning for snake is someone who is sneaky, slippery, and untrustworthy. Now, sculpted into Portnowitz’s description are two damning bits of evidence—the snake skin appears like a “twisted bed sheet” (perhaps vigorous or maybe violent sexual interactions between the partners?) and even dead, the snake seems revolting to the lover’s touch. What follows these two couplets and one-line stanza is this quatrain:

What’s there to do but grab the jaws
of a Siamese calf—eight limb bones loose,
hung by its necks like a one-headed, two-bodied
ventriloquist’s dummy—and give it my balmy words?

So, after the horrible snake comes the monstrous freak of nature—conjoined twin calves. However, logic fails to explain how the narrator can compare a two-headed beast (surely if it has two jaws, it has two heads) with a “one-headed, two-bodied ventriloquist’s dummy.” Maybe the scientist in ecstatic embrace with the partner has locked lips and, in his mind, despite speaking healing (balmy) words, the bovine creature melds into the more human image of the ventriloquist’s dummy having one conjoined head with two bodies.

A second quatrain pivots the poem and the attitude of the rebuking lover:

All joking aside, tell me,
lover of pianos and sex on pianos,
what more is there do than be occupied
with a bottom shelf on a top floor?:

The scientist reveals he has been joking with his “lover of pianos and sex on pianos.” More cordially than the earlier stanzas, he points to a bottom shelf on a top floor where certain body parts seem to be placed and suggests these things could occupy the lovers. These couplets close the poem:

a chimp’s sagging eye socket,
a slice of human face, two human brains,

mine like a pumice stone,
yours like hardened honey.

Although a chimpanzee’s “sagging eye socket” and a “slice of human face” hardly seem acceptable objects of contemplation for most people, this is what interests the scientist. Moreover, the scientist would like to share this interest with his more cultured (as in a high degree of taste and refinement formed by aesthetic and intellectual training) partner who loves the musical instrument called the piano but who also debases this instrument of high culture by having sex on top of it.

The Steiny Poet pauses here to observe that this poem never reveals the gender of these lovers and like Joshua Gottlieb-Miller’s “Power Animals,” Portnowitz offers a politically correct and generously open stance for whom twenty-first century lovers can be.

Saving the best part for last, the Steiny Poet posits that the final objects displayed on that bottom shelf—the two brains of the lovers—represent a conciliatory gesture from the physiologist. Through simile, he likens his brain to the volcanic stone pumice. Pumice stones are used for scrubbing things clean, for polishing and smoothing but pumice is an abrasive. The lover’s brain by contrast is likened to “hardened honey” and maybe that can benefit from the polishing and smoothing of the physiologist’s abrasive intellect. Nonetheless the poem ends on the word honey, which is often used between lovers as a term of endearment.

Because Gertrude Stein was trained as a scientist by her Harvard and John Hopkins professors, the Steiny Road Poet believes that wild man Todd Portnowitz would have been welcomed with open arms into Stein’s milieu.

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