Today’s Poetry Friday piece arises from a wonderful collaboration between two good poets and good friends of mine, Graham Isaac (last week’s poet) and Shane Guthrie. “Ouroboros” is a reference to a mythic serpent that devours its own tail—Shane and Graham used that concept to create a ceaseless cycle of poetry. It began (as I understand it) when Shane wrote a poem whose first line was, verbatim, the last line of a published poem of Graham’s. Graham responded by using that poem’s last line to begin his own, and so on. Eventually, the snake wrapped around on itself (that is, eventually a poem’s last line was the first line of the poem they’d begun with), so that the published work Ouroboros by Graham Isaac and Shane Guthrie is spiral-bound, and has no first page. You begin anywhere you like, and will work back around to the beginning.
Needless to say, given my fascination with form and structure in poetry, this really appealed to me. I chose one of Shane’s poems (at least, I think I kept track accurately), but of course its opening line is one given to Shane by Graham. I chose it for two reasons: 1) it shows, in my opinion, the “cruelest” moment in the Ouroboros Project, since Graham’s line (as you’ll see) was designed to make it challenging for Shane, and 2) it’s the only poem in the cycle to reference the Pulitzer Prize. I also happen to enjoy a lot of things about it, as you’ll see. The poems in Ouroboros generally aren’t titled, and there are no page numbers (of course), so all I say is that this is a poem by Shane Guthrie, inspired by Graham Isaac:
Steer the ambulance into a snakepit and scream ’til your voice splits:
The photoeyes want blood, you’re ruining their shot.
They don’t care about your pleas to step back.
They would be happy to see a head crushed under falling concrete,
A woman holding a gaping wound closed,
The shocked tears on a child’s dirty face.
Take out your bandages, take out your stitches,
Fix this fucked-up world where people will
Just observe the tragedy.
They won’t remember your name.
You’ll be a hero in the footnotes—
Thank you to “everyone else who helped”.
And they’ll win Pulitzer Prizes,
Go to the Hamptons on vacation,
And you’ll be here with the burning corpses,
The people swearing at you and begging you not to let them die:
You are Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple.
Don’t expect a trophy.
Now, for some thoughts. First of all, I called attention to this project in part because I think the “Ouroboros” form deserves to be spread more broadly around — I think it’s a great challenge. Graham’s “gift” to Shane, as you can see, was a really startling, borderline absurd image of an ambulance steering into a snakepit, which forced Shane to do some really quick thinking about how to swivel that image (which suited the surreal setting of Graham’s preceding poem) so that it opened into something else. In Shane’s case, the poem that follows it is a gradual unwinding of that kinetic energy that begins the poem, wrestling the image slowly to the ground and stripping it for parts to make a new idea, and a quieter one. He leaves Graham the straight-forward line “don’t expect a trophy”, which Graham responds to in similar fashion, resituating it and pulling the energy elsewhere entirely. Combined with all of this is their awareness that they’re not just “getting a first line”, they’re playing a tennis match whose goal is to get back to love-love: eventually one of them will write a poem that ends with the first line of Graham’s poem that began the cycle. And on some level, they want all these pieces to fit together, to talk to each other (figuratively speaking) so that it stands as a whole, and not a collection of parts, when read all together—this they achieve to a remarkable extent (especially given that an ocean and 8 or 9 time zones separated them for at least part of this project). On its own, a cool notion.
Now to the poem. I’ll say at the outset that the poem is missing an element for you, since Shane Guthrie reads his work aloud better than almost anyone I know, and a lot of his pieces take advantage of his great voice (and skill with speed and tone variations) to put the right spin on a lot of the phrases. But there’s no helping that (short of Shane sending a recording). I like the way Shane works with the poem’s energy, like I said. Starting with that over-the-top ambulance image, he has to hit us hard, and so he does, throwing us into the middle of some over-exposed paparazzi cable-news death match. Our culture celebrates and repackages as entertainment so much human misery that I think a lot of us forget to question it most of the time. What I really appreciated, though, is that rather than getting on his poetic high horse and just bashing American culture (let’s face it, we’ve all heard “open mics” at coffeehouses that are virtually nothing but that kind of rant), Shane brushes past it like it doesn’t matter. YOU matter, in this poem, because there’s work to be done and it’s not getting done without you.
It’s matter-of-fact about this issue. There’s no appeal, no winding guilt trip. To the contrary, Shane is pretty blunt about your future in this line of work—you’ll be unappreciated, and the soulless corporate shills will have their days in the sun. They’ll have it easy (here’s a little stumble: I wish Shane had switched out “write books” for something else, since the preceding Pulitzer mention half-implies their writing already). You, on the other hand, will be mistreated even by the people you’re serving.
I don’t want to overplay the novelty of the “moral” of this story. Fundamentally Shane’s echoing a message that’s present in many philosophies and sermons and the advice we get from wise relatives. But I like the way the poem puts it because it’s easy to push this kind of advice another direction—to claim that there are “great rewards” downstream if you just hang in there, or that “someday someone will care”. Shane’s much too cynical about the world (at least in this poem—he and I could go a few rounds about whether he’s really this cynical as a person) to think that kind of message is worth sharing. What’s most life-affirming, for me, and most inspiring, is that Shane thinks it’s time to pick up our tools and do what needs to be done. No appeal to authority. No list of reasons why it makes us “good people”. We know what to do. We just need to do it.
That’s one of the qualities I like best about Shane’s poetry, overall. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to share another poem or two of his, over the coming months. Regardless, I hope this gives you something to think about…and maybe inspires you to take a shot at an Ouroboros Project of your own.