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What passes for poetry in the Holy City

By Thomas R. Ellen

I suspended my annual reading of The Odyssey in mid-March to take up the research for and writing of this essay. I just so happened to pause at Book 17, when Argos hears the voice of his master after so many years away. The canine wags his tail with great effort, his nose down, no strength left to muster. Odysseus, the son of Laertes and the gods of old, raider of cities, master of land ways and seaways, of mind far ranging, wearied from years of war and wandering, sheds a tear upon the sight of his old dog on a dung heap. Argos sees then his master, a flicker, moments before darkness closes. Twenty years waiting, only for a glimpse.

“Timeless”and (one could argue) “universal” are two of the words that describe not only this scene, but the entire epic: Telémakhos searching for news of his father; Odysseus detained on the island of Kalypso; the old knife wandering amongst the shadows of his companions; the lordly soldier worn out and tired on his back riding home one last time. It is the timeless all art must strive for; it must possess and show forth features viewed from eternity. Only this can ensure remainder, only this.

Look no further than our own town. Charleston is a city for the eye, one of architecture — the lamp of memory: to behold what those before beheld. It can turn you vain walking Church Street below Broad, turning left on Tradd, walking up Bedons Alley, turning left or right on Elliott depending on whether you need to make a stop for a bottle at the Exchange. The columns and pillars of our public buildings, the intricate detail etched into a home, none made with austerity in mind.

And yet we lack elsewhere. For all the ordinance, all the zoning, all the attention to detail, why do some of our public arts today take on an ephemeral parlance? Where is the inflection of the old with the new? Where is the old made new again? The instances grow — think of the commissioned images spray-painted on the side of buildings — but none are as glaring as the two appointed poet laureates of Charleston.

Marcus Amaker was our first. Appointed in 2016, he’d go on to serve a six-year term ending in 2022. The only collection I could find was one titled Hold What Makes You Whole, published in 2023 — presumably written during his tenure as poet laureate. There is not much at all lyrical in the prose he splits and indents. Most lines are composed of clichés and platitudes designed as psychological nostrums. They are thin gruel, enough to make the Buddha cringe.

However, if we are to understand his title, his position as poet laureate, then there must be something taken from it, something to give us an idea of what Charleston was in this time. None of his verse better conveys the arts of today than his poem titled “They/Them/Us.” In it, Amaker transmogrifies the Christian notion of in the world but not of it. The metaphors are strange and lead to an even stranger conclusion: “what could be / more spiritual / than realizing / your spirit / has outgrown / the body / it was given?”

Instead of an eternal resting place for the soul, Amaker removes it in the temporal world in an exercise most commonly associated with narcissism. It ends in a most perfect stanza, a perfect distillation of the thought animating our liberal arts: “you are already / the God that / God / intended.”

Dirus Ulixes he is not. There is nothing alluring in this, as one might be tempted to find in the twin tongues of flame holding the wanderer and Diomede in the Inferno to think Man could outstretch the bounds of creation, to know all things and equal or even surpass the prime mover.

Yet there is a certain attractive ambiguity to this poem: It is mostly triple meter (with variance), which suggests a frantic disposition. Was this intentional? This creates tension; he claims to be at peace in erratic verse. Is he so sure he is a god? Perhaps he also questions the slogans chanted to us daily. Ultimately, Amaker invokes no Muse, a source outside ourselves, rather he sings to and from only himself. He is a poet of self-absorption.

The laurel would be passed from Marcus Amaker to another — this one, our current one, is named Asiah Mae. She is not from Charleston, but Georgia. Her poetry collection oxygen deals not with anything here in our town, nor our state, nor even our country. It is a collection of twenty-three poems, four of which do not delve into the libidinal. She is inadvertently humorous at times: for instance, when she describes herself as a willing shore or her relationship as a fire washed away. Shores do not will; they are willed upon. They are conquered, gained, forced — though they can be inviting. And fires are doused by storms; flames do not carry out into the waves.

These points aside, Mae is not far from her predecessor in terms of solipsism. These prose poems seem to this reviewer to be journal entries. As someone who once kept a journal for traveling, verses to be memorized and cherished, along with what I believed to be at the time an original thought, I can’t fathom even the idea of putting these inane musings out for public consumption. Every few years I’d visit the day that correlated with the date I was then reading and find nothing but boring thoughts. Talking to oneself tends to have this effect, at least on the well-adjusted.

Our public arts should not be exercises in personal vanity. They should tell the story of our time, of how we arrived to this horizon, of where we hope to go and how we will get there. They must show forth those preceding us: Whether it be through the style or language or custom or ceremony, it is our duty to carry on what they created. The poets so far appointed are reflections only of a disgruntled few. Wise leaders understand the importance of the arts, of how the arts fulfill and justify and explain the ways of the world to men. Our public arts are due for a reexamination.

What will we hear in 20 years when we return to this time? Sadly, as of now, it will be the disjointed thoughts of the entitled, of those not fit to attend to an age. It will be the same refrain, the ubiquitous drivel of any place. Twenty years hence, we must be able recognize the voice as we recognize our single house. It must please the ear to hear it. Happiness, a sense of the eternal, some bit of laughter. A mere flicker is all we should need to see to find peace.

Thomas Ellen is a writer in Charleston; he and his wife live slightly North of Broad.


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