You Never Know
Coffee House Press
Ron Padgett's poems barely exist. Plainspoken and translucent, airy and modest, they could be sweet crisp wafers that melt quickly on your tongue. For some readers, not very filling, but for those who believe that hugeness and mystery can reside in the small and fleeting, a single poem from Padgett's latest collection, You Never Know, might feel like a feast.
This poetry takes very seriously the task of not taking itself or the world too seriously. "It's not that hard to climb up/on a cross and have nails driven/into your hands and feet," begins a poem called "Fixation," nearly debunking Western culture's founding mythology in a single swipe. The poem ends with a quiet celebration of the pretty view from up there, along with "a breeze/that cools your leaking blood"--a reminder that there's plenty profound and amazing beyond our personal-size suffering.
This self-effacing tone is manifest in the surprising number of ars poetica pieces scattered throughout You Never Know. Rather than bowing down to the muses, Padgett seems bent on deflating them. Ruminating on Whitman's famous dictum "I contain multitudes," one poem's speaker can imagine saying only, "I contain a sandwich and some coffee and a throb."
Padgett certainly shares his unpretentious attitude toward poetry with others of the famously droll and chatty New York School. Along with his Tulsa childhood friend Ted Berrigan, Padgett became a central force in the NYS's second wave in the 1960s. Following the lineage of originators like Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, Padgett's imagination tends toward the everyday and the mundane, reported with near-diaristic intimacy. Such is the case in his poems about sweeping up dust ("The Sweeper") or talking to a pet dog ("Voice and Fur"). Also like his predecessors, Padgett can squarely face the sentimental without being sentimental, as in a poem about the virtues of hugging ("Hug") spoken not with irony but with such frankness, there's no choice but to trust it.
A handful of poems in You Never Know are forgettably flat or merely cute, but it's astonishing how often Padgett makes so little resonate so much. What may energize these crystalline utterances most is a lingering sense of the absurd and the fabulous, which is how a slight prose poem like "And Oil" sings, with its ability to just barely elude logic:
A poem like this is a goat worth embracing with whatever arms we've got.