Elegy 702 and Form


Form, in the Cheltenham Elegies series, is meant to elongate an impression of plasticity. Form itself is, at its most congenial, a mode of implied Inter-Dialogism with an assumed audience. When the brain registers that a formal gambit has been made, the elegy (or any piece of writing which might be formal) at hand becomes something beyond a series of thematic gestures, meant to evoke sorrow, pity, and compassion; it becomes a way or manner of expressing that the elegy is being used as a mode of possible innovation, pushed into the front-lines or avant-garde, as the elegy has not very much been pushed before. In 702, an implied palimpsest over Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats puts the emphasis on a tone that mixes the normal elegiac imperative with archness. The apostate figure in the poem, who is obviously meant to be construed as a writer himself, casts a spell over the elegy, employing Keats’ formal parameters in a way that conflates Keats own melopoeiac imperative with a nod to both Modernist fracturing techniques and post-modern irony. The form becomes a tribute to the apostate’s vision, as channeled through a Keats lens, and also an implied jest at his youthfulness, and youthful sense of exultation in the Romantic. The form itself is fractured lens, because seeing through it as we do a succession of scenes which we are unlikely to find in Keats or Wordsworth, it manages to ironize itself:                                       


His heart ached within a drowsy, numbed trance.
     Cameras panned to him pacing the black-top, even
blacker at 3 am, which opens out on the expanse
      of Mill Road, down the hill, past the school. Night deepened,
he was lonely enough to cry, heartsick for being
      the only one of a scabrous tribe gutsy enough to say the name
           which even then had rent Cheltenham, riddled
with bullets like a dog’s corpse, assassins fleeing
     the site of the hit, where the one kid, bound for fame,
          did for himself the trick of ditching a tepid middle.

 He levitates past himself, flies with bugs into crevices,
       is the pilot of the few airplanes wafting by, Pegasus-like
for a mind intent on flight, meeting divinity, heaven’s bliss
       from a cockpit. Myers’ schoolyard glistens like spikes.
She knew him then, at her end— saw how the spine
    imposed truth on empty gesture, feeling on pretense,
       vital life on the living death of their shared enterprise.
This, he could never know; yet without knowing how, why,
    he strode past her emptied house that night, tense,
        sweating in summer’s stew, pallid in cold surprise.

 The apostate flies around a small room, piles of books,
    papers scattered, forests of drafts, faintly heard bird-song.
Verdurous plains suggest themselves; moss-softened nooks;
   just out of time, to a mind o’er spelled by word-song.
He can only fly as he reads, over & over, the lays
      already fastened to moss & flower, secured above
          shallow stream. His friend waits, in stealth. 
The early morning ride he caught then, from love
     given, wasn’t her— she had gone the way
         there is no coming back— yet he slept himself back to health.  

The topos which is mixed into the Cheltenham Elegies series— a community maintaining a shared fixation on ostracizing a threatening or menacing individual— takes flight here, into a sense that the characters most prized by the series are the ones who hold out against this impulse, towards a stance of entrenched rebellion and non-conformity. John Keats, as a poet, is not a Byronic outcast or a Shelleyan pariah— he tends to present himself as middle-grounder. Yet, the co-opting of his form to perform a literary task which raises this topos puts Nightingale in a new space, where Keats is emphasized as something with, potentially, an explosive sense of rebellion and non-conformity built into him, beginning with the odal form, invented by Keats himself. Keats is unwitting here, but everything about the poem leans on the odal form to make its own obstinate statement of the individual’s triumph over a community, and the sense of embracing a writerly identity built into the form itself, which Keats may or may not have intended (but one which one thinks Byron or Shelley would have smiled on, satanically). Co-opting the individuals who have supported him into the matrix of the poem, with form embraced as a mode of punkish rebellion, so destabilizes the Keatsian impulse, perhaps even deranges it, that the palimpsest over Nightingale makes an awkward fit with the original model, towards a recognition that the usage of Keats, or at least a portion of it, leans towards instrumentality. Yet, ultimately, and oddly, the poem is about love— individuals rising up with certain integrity to defend the innocent. Because this is the truth, the betrayal of John Keats is not a complete one. Even if love here is more beleaguered by worldly concern than is usually found in Keats.