speculate, to play a role/in making a nature scene.” But “speculation” begs the question: what is at risk in this venture?
It is difficult to read the book’s title and not rely upon the framework derived from its popular metonymy. However, the politics of The White House are noticeably peripheral. What is at stake in this text precedes a formal interrogation of the relationships between State(s) and governed bodies. The poet starts with baby steps, zeroing in on the space that separates one human from another, and attempts to negotiate those inevitable interventions of the imagination, the body’s desires and revulsions, and inherited ideological structures—language perhaps being the principal among them.
Craig tasks himself with being exhaustively self-aware—“Let me try to lay out what I think I understand/about my life” (“Street Dad”)—while also being mindful that “Life changes and the so-called truth changes with it” (“The White House”). He persists in his query and explains: “very often the truth of the new succeeds/in destroying the discoverer physically” (Stars As Eyes). What plays out in The White House is a poetics in flux, far less concerned with convincing the reader of methodical and theoretical maturity—the speaker ever doomed to be “the I who thought I knew who I was” (“Thin Red Line”)—than it is with measuring the effects of various modes of responsive reading [of poetry, places, histories, humans].
There are signs of Craig’s artistic forerunners, though he declares no abiding allegiance. For instance, there’s a glimpse of Riding, who had resigned to that failure to meet the world exactly by a moment, and a word, as the speaker struggles “to put broad, wide images/into small, tidy words” (“Street Dad”). Later, Pound’s instruction to use only words that might reveal—with no superfluous word, no adjective—echoes in the developing speaker’s insistence towards concrete language, as in “Volunteer”: “no/mystifications, no confusion to the eye, no/gadgetry clutter” (“Volunteer”). Numerous passages also evoke a Modernist preoccupation with the inner life:
It is in the head I am attentive.
In this admission and image from “High Park,” poetry occurs within a private space, “word by extraordinary word” divorced from the ordinary events taking place around and within the body.
Other lines address more directly the problem of social alienation. In proceeding and perpetuating this inward turn: “To be too thorough or specific about sensing possible let-downs/in a possible romance is to establish/a place for them in the subconscious mind”; and later: “Not to be too thorough or specific… but you told me it would be a wonderful experience” (“High Park”). The possibility of a meaningful connection diminishes, because “rather than listen to her I’m making my way and cannot explain/any other way” (“So Far So North”). Thus in tragicomedy Craig lays bare his own trials and errors, and those of his literary forebears.
These poems maintain that to speculate of others—I would also like to include the text in this category—is not only to risk discovery and exchange, but also to disregard their individual autonomies. It is to misread prior to reading. Or, having read, it is to have not read at all. The “great seated Buddha” of “High Park” intimates that self-discovery is on the line, as well as one’s capacity for any emotional or physical engagement at all: “I’m stuck near a river/I can feel the evidence of/but can’t imagine” (The Beach Patrol).
The White House is full of striking aphorisms that endeavor to redeem these human errors, as in “Chairs Missing”:
History isn’t clear. In other words
History is unclear for a number of reasons—those in power tend to write it, after all, and with the intent to preserve that power—but Craig may very well be pointing out the word itself. “History” comes from histor, or “wise man,” which is derived from a root meaning “to know,” or more literally, “to see.” In other words, a truly clear, or transparent, history simply preserves the narrative of human sympathy.
We come across an exemplary “wise teacher” several poems later, in the epigraph of “Rational Rational.” It’s Kurt Vonnegut by way of one of his protagonists, Mr. Rosewater, a rich man whose philanthropy signified a perverse irrationality before the judgment of capitalism. (To evoke even more the earlier poem, “chairs missing” is a British idiom for mental disturbance.) Rosewater, having seen the world and the harm humans could visit upon each other, has one urgent rule for the newly born: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But in Craig’s poem, “Rational Rational,” a number of things interfere with relationships based solely on kindness, from the aloneness of “television all day long” and “interminable/conversations with your cats” to “international politics of debt,” “public housing,/university loans,” “children/who have no families, no food,/no education and no hope,” and “tomorrow.” The accretion of large and small anxieties seems unending—maybe it’s true that the “war cannot be won.” There, Herzog, thought Herzog, is the way it runs. But it can end, as World War II ended for Rosewater, whereafter his commitment to humankind[ness] began. In the beginning of “Rational Rational,” the utopian garden that the speaker remembers amidst the chaos seems nothing more than an illusion. However, at the end of the poem, it returns renewed and real, a “wonderful glow inside my being—”
the expanse of green grass and the shimmering
If this poetry comes from mental disturbance or utter irrationality, let us all hope to lose a bit of our minds to “the dimension behind the dizziness.” Various tributes the poet pays to past and waning rock artists—Harry Nilson, Fleetwood Mac, Mama Cass, Keith Moon, Wire, Ry Cooder, and so on—lead up to the final poem’s “one feeling—the desire/to get out of here” and explore the universe, or to be, as The Replacements’ song goes, the invisible man who can sing in a visible voice—to connect with everyone, and leave behind a “monolithic identity” for a namelessness that invites discovery.