Prufer’s poem traffics, albeit poorly, in many of the conventional ideas that under-gird our poetic moment:
—nailed-down meaning is a world abandoned;
—sure reference is, when not outright abandoned, considered problematic;
—any import of authorial intention is abandoned.
The author is dead, ideas are remixes, text freewheels through the ether and gathers like so much dew if only you set out an object to which it might cling. Prufer, I think, intends us to believe that his plastic bag is such an object. We’re not to watch a plastic bag caught in a tree, but to watch ideas accrue around the bag. “A Plastic Bag Caught in a Tree” is best understood as something completely different, however: an act of a curation wherein assemblage is undertaken with the intent to pile, not to assemble. In Prufer’s poem, we’re not even watching ideas accrue around a bag—we’re watching a blasé speaker imagine ideas that might accrue were those ideas better organized, better articulated. And that’s doubly problematic.
The poem unfolds in spacious, quiet couplets. Metaphors and similes populate the first three of these, which are end-stopped; after, the pace changes through the extension of a single conceit ‘examined’ over the course of a few lines. The move, I think, is intended to persuade a reader of the gathering momentum of the poem, and, indeed, something like a change in tempo is felt, if only momentarily. Unfortunately, the poem stops short, never really giving any of the various approaches to the content enough room to develop. The condensed nature of the piece—which in some poetry can be a virtue—seems more a liability in this case.
That liability is foreshadowed by the use of indefinite articles in the title: a plastic bag, a tree. These imply, I think, that this bag is a single example in a limitless series. Such an invocation—not unlike the anxious, quasi-Gothic atmospherics of Eliot’s The Waste Land, his ‘. . . fear in a handful of dust’—suggests our contemporary horror at the burgeoning world of objects, and, specifically, of those objects that most imply wastefulness and poor environmental stewardship. This environmentalist foreboding, thus attached to the common emblems of our various crises, reads as disingenuous, in part because of the vagaries in the descriptions the poem offers:
Some dark animal’s
Bit of the night sky
Snagged on a limb.
Which animal? How, dark? We’re invited to that territory where a poet’s inability to assimilate the abstract and concrete underwrites the content of a piece, forcing the poet to defer and defer the questions raised by that failure. One of the most common approaches to such a deferral is distracted and ironic shift of focus: we move from the ‘animal’ and the ‘sky’ to a ‘black lung’ and ‘eyeless hood’ before any individual image is given space or time to begin to mean.
These acrobatics begin to push a reader back out of the piece; it occurs to her that she had believed she was shown the things written about in the poem, but instead has witnessed a sleight-of-hand: she is, in reality, invited to hear the speaker aggregate symbolic referents under the organizing principles of a Buzzfeed listicle. Through this listing, the plastic bag—our totem of consumerism turned sour—is not transformed, but has transformations visited upon it. Tenuous, momentary, impermanent changes that, really, insist on nothing more than the image-gathering ability of the poet. So, the reader is invited to this hearing at the expense of a wholly different experience; the best poetry would bring its reader to a place where she must consider something like the forward momentum of a piece and its marmoreal hardness simultaneously, with the incompatibility of those two metaphoric frameworks adding to the mystery and pleasure of the poem; in “A Plastic Bag Caught in a Tree,” notions of the incompatibility of the material and the abstract seem hackneyed in comparison, especially after so many years of directionless experimentation and the sort of formal play connected with the LANGUAGE poets.
The savvy reader asks, ‘Do these complaints really name a contradiction or a failure in Prufer’s poem, or merely a handful of flaws?’ Alright, savvy reader: flaws. But they name, too, an undermining contradiction if we believe (as a scant few still do) that the poem is to act as an orchestration of sound and rhythm, image and purposeful description, a nexus of the various levels of creative engagement with language; and that any poem utilizing only one tool, to the exclusion of those others, has failed to rise to the occasion, has failed, finally, to become a poem.
Prufer’s speaker has an imagination, to be sure, and the ghosted political and cultural content intrigues, even when the various engagements and disengagements with that content fails to satisfy the curiosity. One feels that the poem is on the cusp of becoming something completely different—a poem that garners its images with more intention, and remains with those images long enough for a reader to tease out the various implications of the juxtapositions—but, perhaps in part because of those poetic conventions I pointed to at the beginning of this piece, the poem fails to arrive.
Smatterings of the elements of a practice historically called poetry are invoked, again, but they never turn into a practice in this piece, an approach. We hear the rhythms and half-rhymes as we make our way through the poem:
[. . .] can never quite escape,
so the wind makes a flag of it,
makes a black thought of it.
We are bags filled with bones [. . .]
but something is unsatisfying. The solid thumping of the two instances of ‘it,’ the sure recurrence of the ag sound in ‘flag’ and ‘bag’ are surrounded by prosy sentences and clichés. The idea of the body as a ‘bag filled with bones’ is tired, unsophisticated. The relationship between being pushed by wind and appearing flag-like feels overwrought, as if the poet was claiming a crying statue a miracle before he looked for the leaky pipes above it. The piece moves from image to image in a way that feels jumpy, unfocused. The arrangement of the images disregards category or discernment. The politicization of the ‘Eyeless hood, / shroud, or veil’ in conjunction with our ‘paratrooper’ and the ‘flag’ brought to life by the wind is plain flaccid, the result of constant reassurances by the dominant abstractionists and concept-mongers that simple inclusion of an element is an invitation to the contemplation of its tangential and deeper meanings—rather than merely superficial. The brevity of assemblage and abandonment! Perhaps the reader is invited to meet the poem halfway, to build the narratives hinted at in the ‘oil-thick breeze,’ or the paratrooper falling ‘. . . through the branches / leaving behind his chute?’ No. As the poem draws to a close we must conclude that a different game is being played:
[. . .] and then my thought slipped out,
and now look—it’s rippling
in the high branches.
We’ve been led through the imagery, through flat, unenergetic lines, only to find that the bag, the tree, the paratrooper, the animal, the stars don’t matter: we’ve been brought here to admire the imagination of the speaker himself. We’ve borne witness to an exercise of the speaker’s imagination, an exercise of poetic conventions. And we’ve come out on the other side feeling ourselves utterly underworked.