In The Lettuce Aisle

By Peter Halstead

On the islands of the dead
Mist surrounds the leafy greens
Risen by the Wonderbread,
Near the valley of Peek Freans;
               In the aisles of Tupperware,
               Whose dazzling seas include
               Armour in the Frigidaire
               And Good Humor in the frozen food,
Lie rapacious grocery carts,
Hoarding god knows what,
Foul with chicken body parts
And packages from Pizza Hut,
               Their underbelly debonair,
               Sparkling with dyspeptic gas,
               Throwing off a certain air
               Of being earth’s prevailing mass,
A moaning ocean in a heaving land,
A debt the reeling world is owed
By undulating rhythms scanned
With an unforgiving code:
               The sunshine’s dial, the cascade’s tide,
               The accidental grace
               Of the universe’s shining pride
               In our prefabricated space
Whose chaotic sun demands
We shade our shy, warm-blooded eyes
From the cold, inhuman stands
Anxieties homogenize.

December 18th, 2005


This started out as an explication, to myself, of what I was doing with rhyme. I was egged on by T. S. Eliot: “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”
Rhyme is one way I organize myself against the weight of sheer cruelty in a savage world. I rhyme to shield myself and my family against a scattered sky and unsure clouds. I rhyme to hide, but also to attack.
Peter Jackson’s movie of King Kong wasn’t out yet, but I was thinking of the comforting inhumanity of Skull Island. We all want to tame the big gorilla. Poets do it in a milder way than filmmakers. They both celebrate wildness in rigidly ritualized formats. Diversity’s orgy is encompassed in monotonous, tiny frames, which together simulate the random energy of reality. We spend our lives trying to understand flowing water through fractals, or trying to duplicate the chaos of movie Armageddon through the daily discipline of computer graphics.
The existence of infinity is made possible by the finities it surpasses. We fence infinity to define it. As Wilbur has said better, naming the nameless is a form of photography, or painting. The urge to pasteurize, homogenize, contain, cure, solve may be suspect, even bourgeois, but it is a form of awe, of worship, of appreciation.
Poetry is a debt we owe to chaos, the unforgiving bar code of a less visibly organized world, although we know the world follows its own recondite codes and has its own debts to a supermarket of assorted string theories, quantum mechanics, tasty teleological treats.
I was also thinking of the fantastic cliffs of Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, the twisted crags of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and Arnold Böcklin’s painting, Isle of the Dead, a tiny painting that has loomed vastly over the gothic imagination and over my own sense of nature’s purple prose. Böcklin painted five versions between 1880 and 1886, but it was a dealer who named it, as it was a critic who named Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, and a novelist Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. Liszt pragmatically felt that the connection between literature and music should be more volubly documented in a “program.” I suppose my notes here are a program for the poem they abut.
The supermarket is an archipelago of produce islands, reefer aisles, departments, sections. It is an organized chaos ruled by the digital rhythms of the bar code. It supplies subliminal rhyme and meter to our lives. In its frozen wastelands lie the sources of our societies, our primal hungers. Its absurd hybrid flowerings are modern primeval jungles, where our libidos roam, dinosaurs disguised as housewives. It is a kind of Forbidden Planet, monsters of the id hiding in the houseware.
I worked on this every day on and off for eight days, a rare instance of one of my poems coming into its own without the perspective of years, either a sign of maturity or of being intensified by concern over my father-in-law’s heart procedure.
I think it was provoked by an extremely insensitive short book about Nabokov, which seemed to be a cringing apology to cretinous readers for the preciosity of its subject, whose sparkling quotes rendered their interpreter consistently foolish. Each generation hides the insights of the past under layers of babble. Treasure is discovered only because it has been misplaced by its heirs. Shakespeare, Vivaldi, Mozart were forgotten in their time and revived centuries later in other countries. Already the greatest poets of my day—Wilbur, Merrill, MacLeish—have fallen into obscurity (from obscurity, of course). Trees both fall and grow in forests both deaf and dumb. Being lit by the occasional self-important ray is no more validation than leaves rustling in the dark. Being noticed is not the point of ocean depths.

Sea-Tac Airport
December 9th, 2005

Rancho Santa Fe
December 10th–17th, 2005