In the deepest and darkest of slumbers, my bedfellow began to laugh, waking me. He exclaimed "BEEVES!" before he settled back into silent sleep. He had read Jonah Winter for the first time that day, and his outburst is testament to the ability of Winter's poetry to arrest you with its unsettling humour, even in your deepest hibernation.
Winter has two books of poetry: Maine, the winner of the first Slope Editions prize, and his latest, Amnesia, which won the 2003 FIELD Poetry Prize. Maine is regarded as one of the funniest collections of contemporary poetry lately published and it has earned Winter a reputation as a spinner of comical sestinas. Although there are no sestinas in Amnesia, the book is still full of humour.
The humour, however, seems to have taken on a sadness; it is a reaction to what is unknown, incomprehensible, uncertain. Humour is what is offered to oblivion and to an indifferent universe that threatens to forsake one's individuality.
Yet lines such as "A face appears in the window. // Hours later, a face appears in the window. // Some years are like that," from the poem "Ex Nihilo," remind us that this is still Jonah Winter, still the same poking-fun poet who chose "Bob" for all six of the end words in his "Sestina Bob."
It might be said that every poet, sooner or later, feels the need to write a spiritual book. With poems such as "Psalm," "The Ecstasy According to St. Lucy," "Postcards from Paradise," "Exodus," "Revelations" and "Descent from the Ceiling of Heaven," there can be no mistaking that Amnesia is Winter's metaphysical musing.
Winter's religion is a surreal combination of looking to the ordinary to discover the extraordinary. In "Missing Panels from an Altarpiece," we observe scenes of platitudinous life that transcend into the extraordinary and sublime, solely through the suggestion that they are panels in an altarpiece. The profane transforms into something sacred, but with an added dimension of the bizarre and mortifying:
Just then my grandfather stepped into the room holding up a needlepoint rendition of Leonardo's "Last Supper." He had used blue thread for the saints' faces, and Jesus Christ was orange.
In Winter's religion, we proceed as if the sublime inhabits the artificial and the mundane:
The point is not to name, the point is to rename, to speak to the plastic rose as if you, Beatrice, were inside it, completely present-I float through your tresses.
In this book, God is not necessarily what we hope for, but rather what we forget, what we fail to notice, a presence that is merely suggested: "When you light the match, / it goes out so quick // you might not see the flame." God appears when least expected, as in the poem "Hallelujah!":
Just when you thought the world was a crossword puzzle scribbled in some celestial newspaper, day after day a different solution-God descends from the heavens playing an accordion.
Only Winter would make his god play an accordion.
Behind the fun, of course, lurks horror. We find ourselves partaking of cheesecake at "Café Death" while "the century plant / blooms like a death wish." In "Amnesia," Winter reminds us of the oscillating nature of happenstance: "The snow, the snow, the fire, the snow, the snow."
If humour is linked to horror, then so too is sublimity linked to whatever is too close for us to see beyond: "a cigarette machine / becomes a sunrise in El Paso" and "footsteps on a sidewalk" are an "endless telegraph."
It may be that what poets most desire is a witness to their wonder and anguish, an eavesdropper on their thoughts. Winter's poems transport us to a world where, as in Frank O'Hara's "Meditations in an Emergency," even a blade of grass can bear witness to one's joy or pain:
Emptying the trash,
going to sleep at night,
just daring to speak
in any language to anyone:
Our prayers are answered,
even if the words we say
are just dreamt-of
admissions of love to strangers,
shoved away, forgotten, at dawn,
like street lights turned off
as the sky begins to gray
above the black fields-
all of this is being written down somewhere.
Reading Amnesia, I am glad that Winter wrote down these poems. After all, we might soon forget to bear witness to the minor miracles that, Winter reminds us, occur daily in our little lives.
The people in Winter's poems turn into statues upon dying. Postcards arrive from Paradise, and even Michelangelo descends from Heaven (as does the artificial squid from the ceiling of Gargiulo's). Nothing stays affixed for long, not even in the "Hotel of Stars," where no one seems to know anything anymore. We fix ourselves instead into a deep and dark sleep, an amnesia more frightening than mere forgetting.
In these formally beautiful poems-which progress from couplets to tercets to quatrains to a variety of inventive forms-Winter moves us from scene to scene, altarpiece to altarpiece, in a manner that is cohesive and thematically flawless. In "Event Horizon in Bar Valhalla, New York," Winter writes, "It rains I'm in England. / It's almost tea-time. Suddenly I love to read / and overcook vegetables." Winter also has a poem entitled "The Black Hole." In astrophysics, an event horizon is the moment and place within a black hole through which no light or information can pass; to an outside observer, a man being sucked into a black hole remains forever transfixed at the event horizon. Of course, we know that the man no longer exists, at least from his perspective-the black hole has crushed him under more gravity than his earthly body could have ever known. Such is the nature of Winter's poetry, suggesting that our reality is merely the voice of a sleeper, waking, delivering to us a message from another world, of which we once knew but are now unaware.