Monday, May 14, 2007

"The Narrows"

Daniel Tobin is the author of three books of poems, Where the World is Made (University Press of New England 1999), Double Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2004) and The Narrows (Four Way Books, 2005).

He applied the "page 69 test" to The Narrows and reported the following:
“One must start from home,” John Montague writes in his preface to The Rough Field, his classic long sequence about his ancestral townland in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. My own book, The Narrows, took some of its initial impetus from Montague’s ambitious poem, though the Narrows I grew up beside — with its ships passing in and out of the harbor, its confluence between a vast continent and a still vaster ocean — evokes more a world of routes than of roots. As a body of water it is Janus-faced, looking backward toward a sea of emigrant crossings — my own people among them — and ahead into a continent forever changed by those endless arrivals. The Narrows is a threshold, physically marked by the enormous bridge that spans it, itself ultimately a gateway to the West and the far coast with its own vast ocean — an Interstate in every sense, one that has some traffic with Hart Crane’s ambitious structure: at once retrospect and prospect, and not unlike Thomas McGrath’s attempt to span history and the metaphysical in his Letter to an Imaginary Friend: “I am a journey toward a distant wound.” They present the self as journey, the old story that never leaves but is always new.

The poem that appears on page 69 of The Narrows comes at a crucial moment in the sequence where the speaker — let’s call him the poet as protagonist — returns home to the apartment where he grew up and hears the song of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from a make-shift mosque. Written two years before 9/11, the poem embodies the book’s effort to confront the complexities of history and its legacies in our own time, as well as the fraught desire to transcend history as cultural fate. And it does so — as finally it must be done — through the prism of a personal encounter with otherness:


There is no prayer that can abolish history,

though in this basement mosque the muezzin's history

gathers in his throat like a tenor's aria

and he calls to God to put an end to history.

From my courtyard room I hear his song ascending,

the divine name whirling its rebuke to history--

Allah, Allah--above the crowded rowhouse roofs.

Their rusted antennas, stalled arrows of history,

would transmit a daily riot of talk and news,

the world boxed inside a glowing square of history.

I've seen them on the street, the faithful in their robes

walking along store-fronts, a different history

clothing them, like me, in our separate skins,

though here we are at the scope-end of history:

Goodness is timeless, the great English poet wrote,

and not just for himself--the crime is history.

But as if to prove the old Sufi fable true

these prayers are lifted on the thermals of history,

and sound strangely like that congregation of birds;

no, the remnant who survived a blighted history,

having stayed their quest into the final valley

where a Great Tree rose, its branches thick as history.

And there they lost themselves, flourishing into the One

without division, without names, without history.

This poem, like each poem in The Narrows, is part of a whole that comprises a mural in verse in which individual poems and sequences link together recursively to form a single dramatic arc, a suspension of movement in time. The Narrows begins where I began, in the life given before it is chosen, and ends on the threshold of the one life that is always an afterlife of lives that went before. Page 69 captures that intention surprisingly well.
Read more about The Narrows at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue