10.28.2009

on Karl Gartung’s Now That Memory Has Become So Important

Now That Memory Has Become So Important, Karl Gartung, Midwestern Writers Publishing House, 2008

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It’s hard not to be moved by Karl Gartung’s first book, Now That Memory Has Become So Important, published in 2008 by Midwestern Writers Publishing House. Foremost, it’s a beautiful book comprised of carefully crafted sequences that provide numerous examples of the focus of minute attention on language, as well as a radiating sense of how such focus might expand into a life lived in which caring for poetry is coterminous with caring for one’s place in the world. And it’s Gartung’s place in the world, which he’s attended to with dedication and vocation, that makes the appearance of this book especially powerful.

Gartung, along with his wife Anne Kingsbury, owns and operates Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, widely considered one of the best poetry bookstores in North America. A property of Woodland Pattern that lends it a mythic aura in the Midwest is Anne’s and Karl’s devotion to poetry: from making a great variety of books and publications available in the bookstore, to hosting readings and symposia on work they care for, to providing a gathering space of a widespread community of poets, artists, musicians, and itinerants. There’s really nothing else like it, at least not in the Upper Midwest, whose poetry pathways converge in Milwaukee, at Woodland Pattern.

I speak from experience. I learned of Woodland Pattern shortly after completing college, in the early 1990s, making a trip to visit the bookstore from Chicago one day with a friend; I couldn’t believe the good fortune I’d come upon, like Parsifal seeing knights errant for the first time. (I scored copies of the three books in Frank Samperi’s grand trilogy from the 1970s, in beautiful clothbound editions at their cover price – from the 70s! $5 apiece, as I recall.) When LVNG published a broadside of Ronald Johnson’s “Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid” in 1996, I instinctively sent a copy to Woodland Pattern. Evidently, upon its arrival, Gartung pinned a copy of it to one of the walls in the bookstore. This prompted Márton Koppány, a Hungarian poet living temporarily in Milwaukee, to send some of his minimalist poems to the magazine to consider for publication. When I drove up to Milwaukee to meet Koppány shortly after, I met Gartung for the first time. Within minutes of meeting, he wrote me a check for LVNG – a donation, so that we could keep producing the magazine. In the several years of the magazine’s existence, this had never happened before. Gartung and I stood in the large poetry room where we talked about work he cared about, him reaching to the shelves to find an illustration of his point, punctuated with his deep-chested, diaphragmic laugh. (It’s one of the great laughs in poetry.) [I have written an essay on meeting Koppàny, and his poetry, here.]

Since that time, I’ve benefitted enormously from my connection with Woodland Pattern. I’ve read there on several occasions, including for a Cultural Society reading set up in the summer of 2007; I’ve also participated in symposia; I’ve made pilgrimages there to attend poetry readings (including the best reading I’ve ever attended: Robin Blaser in October, 2004); and I’ve spent money there over the years on books, many books. All the while, I’ve known that Karl was a poet. Occasionally I’d see work, most recently in Stacy Szymaszek’s Gam. (Szymaszek worked as the Literary Program Coordinator at Woodland Pattern, a position taken up, when she moved to New York, by another Cultural Society regular, Chuck Stebelton.) But one wondered if and when a book would ever appear. At last, it has. And it’s very fine.

Gartung was born in 1947 in Liberal, Kansas, according to the biographical note appending the book. Typically, in the taxonomy of a poetry book, such notes are places for poets to list their publications and affiliations. In Gartung’s book, this note, paired with the preface that begins the book, explains some of the reason for the delay, and, contrary to the self-congratulation often implied in such notes, adds a layer of richness and meaning to this incredible collection of poetry. The biographical note explains that Gartung “has been involved in the planning and presentation of hundreds of poetry readings, music performances, art and book exhibits. He felt that these activities were as centrally artistic as writing or publishing could have been. This was (and is) really his education. Keenly aware of his late start, he would say ‘we can’t share what we know, so me must share what we are learning.’” In addition to poetry, Gartung was learning how to organize workers. Because Woodland Pattern couldn’t be sustained entirely on what it earns as a bookstore (many of the people involved with the store to this day are volunteers), Gartung took a job as a delivery truck driver for UPS Cartage Services. Over his years on this job, Gartung determined the value of organizing drivers and workers, becoming a union steward. “This necessary though difficult work became a major distraction in his life as a writer, though it finally ensured his job and the jobs of his fellow drivers and restored some dignity.”

Gartung’s book is driven by work – care for work, devotion to a tradition, and interest in “some dignity.” In the preface, he describes the “squared or rectangular spiral in the fields” as “rounds.” This image of a square in a circle, which is the emblem of a field being worked, provides Gartung with the structuring model for his book, and for his perception of the work he clearly values. “The center does not hold,” he tells us, “and not quite as Yeats had it, it is serial. The point here is as physical as a field, an illusive center tilled toward, but never to a lasting resolution. Each field leads to another, worked and reworked, for various purposes in successive seasons, from tillage to harvest.” As the book proceeds, Gartung transforms this visualization into process, such that one sequence – seemingly discrete – opens into the next, not in the creation of some grand design; rather, in the sense of an ongoing operation, where elements from one sequence of poems might be involved in the next – peripherally, centrally, in whatever way needed.

Gartung is a poet in the Objectivist lineage, clearly and plainly. And while Williams, Bunting, Oppen, and Reznikoff are all invoked in the book, his great ancestor is doubtlessly his fellow dweller of the Badger State, Lorine Niedecker, whose precision, focus, wit and wordplay, Gartung appears to have reverently absorbed. The sequence “Needful but to Breathe” concludes with a poem entitled “LN”:

after
love

making
the

night

Five words whose slightly indeterminate syntax, owed principally to a lack of punctuation, work both as homage to Niedecker and as statement of the necessity of observational accuracy. Another from the same sequence runs:

What’s so blue
as chicory?
What other flower
so completely
places sky
scatters in ditches
and across fields

non-native
they say
sky?

(Blue Chicory is one of the names of a posthumously published book of Niedecker’s.) The appeal of this little poem arises from the move from observational to syntactical poetic exploration in the lines “places sky / scatters in ditches,” where places provides an opportunity to shift thought, gaze, and attention from the scene to the words themselves, such that we end with the word sky but off-rhymed with say and they, and lifted up, voice-wise, by the concluding question mark.

Now That Memory Has Become So Important includes a surprising technical innovation that deserves to be stolen. Often, Gartung employs two seemingly parallel stanzas, run alongside each other, to suggest intercourse between two strands of thought or detail. The visual display of these parallel stanzas is important: the stanzas on the left are aligned to a right hand margin in the center of the page; the stanzas on the right are aligned to a left hand margin, also in the center of the page, leaving a clear central column for the reader to orient the Rorschach images of his verse. To his credit, Gartung uses this format as an occasion for play: often, the left column proceeds, thought-wise, into the right column. But just as often, the verse on one side of the divide springs across the gap to the other side. It makes for some giddy associations, as in the opening poem in the sequence “Alive in Her”:

unaccustomed

might come

to this crazy

to mind

truth

but not

no object

coming unbidden

terrified

not no not

of anyone

immune

“Alive in Her” is the most incredible composition in this book. It’s a sacred poem, I think, recording the data and sensations of the stillbirth of a child Anne was pregnant with. (The poem doesn’t say when.) As subject matter, this is unbearably sad to read about. Gartung uses this poem, however, not as an occasion for confession, but to provide an example of squaring an imaginary circle when the center does not hold. Gartung’s innovative stanza begins to represent then the desire to anchor words and ourselves to an invisible axis; but also to the tendency of words, meaning, and memory to scatter out, seeking new expressions of energy.

Another linking element in the book is the way one sequence finds its name in the previous sequence. So, the final poem in “Alive in Her” reads:

we touch so lightly
it is needful but to breathe
being formed
of breath completely

The next sequence in the book is entitled “Needful but to Breathe,” reinforcing the sense that these are poems of a life, integrated, in which some understanding is sought.

I hope this book doesn’t go unnoticed. It is composed with enviable craft and skill, and one senses the patience required to make these poems throughout. Too few are the poetry books published that feel immediately as necessary and generous as Now That Memory Has Become So Important. The final sequence of the book, “Seen or Scene,” meditates on the nature of work. Becoming philosophical, Gartung provides, for a moment, a credo for his book, and for why we should read it:

We live in
barbarous
times act
regardless

not because we
can in any
foreseeable
future change

history but
to suggest and
keep available
certain possibilities.

Keeping available certain possibilities: it’s what Gartung has done with his life at Woodland Pattern and as union organizer, and it’s what his poetry insists we do with our own lives.

Peter O'Leary (© 2009)