[University of Michigan, 2007]
The Musicality of Michelle
She uses words as vessels of containment, he says. She creates the pleasure of sound as a feeling, not as a sense. Then again, it’s not nonsense, either, now is it? It simply is, what it does.
As Michelle Noteboom was introduced to the small audience crowding the back of Shannon Drum Bookstore on Monday, my anticipation for the poetry reading increased. It was my very first reading, and I had no idea what to expect. I felt somewhat out of place, sitting in the back row in jeans and a hoodie, my Moleskin and pencil in hand. I kept wishing I had worn a beret, or at least made a pit-stop at Starbucks. I wished I needed glasses, or at least needed fake glasses, so I could look at the world through a discerning writer’s eye. I wanted to look artistic and creative like the people around me. I wanted to look how I felt.
A graduate from the University of Michigan, Michelle is currently working as a translator of French poetry in Paris, said the introducer. My heart swelled a bit when I discovered the latter; I was first proud that my school had turned out a poet that was actually published, and it also gave me hope that if I wanted to, I might accomplish the same.
Michelle began by reading from her first published collection, titled Edging. After a long pause, she took a deep breathe and dove in. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. My initial impression was that she was falling into the usual rising and falling tone that many poets employ when reading their poetry. She wasn’t exactly monotonous, but she wasn’t extremely emotional, either. She certainly tended to stress each-and-ev-er-y syllable, of each-and-ev-er-y- word. Up and down went her voice, ending each line as if ask-ing-a-ques-tion? During the first poem, I was so busy listening to the sound of her voice and getting used to the pitches of her phrases that I didn’t follow the actual meaning of her poetry or even listen to the points she was trying to make. When her first poem was finished, I was left wondering what the hell it was about.
But the thing is, I didn’t mind that I had no clue what she was talking about, or that her vocabulary was sometimes beyond my comprehension. In fact, the words emitting from her mouth seemed to be completely random, as if she had opened up a dictionary and extracted the largest words she could find, then connected them with prepositions and conjunctions. After a while I simply let myself go to the rhythm of her voice, and it didn’t even matter what she was saying. She could have been speaking a foreign language, and I would have been content to simply listen to the music of Michelle.
Next, she read another poem from Edging titled “The Edge 5.” She talked of a visual triptych and moist pebbles, and I again struggled to follow the themes she was
conveying. But again, it didn’t even matter. I hadn’t really expected to understand all the poetry when I went to my first reading, so I continued to listen and prayed that
soon the words would shrink syllabically and that the tone would lighten up a bit. (My prayers were soon answered.)
In between poems, there was no clapping. Is this normal? I wondered. Aren’t we supposed to snap or something? The silences weren’t awkward, but as she turned the pages of her book to find the next poem she would read, I found myself wanting to encourage her. I love your work! I wanted to shout. Keep going; I want more! I wondered if she wondered how we liked her poems. Was it hard for her to go on without the audience’s approval?
She told us she would read a villanelle, and explained to her listeners what a villanelle is (a nineteen line poem with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeated throughout). I’d never heard of a villanelle before, and thought to myself that I might try one soon. Sounds like fun.
Her eye contact was always amazing. She was consistently locking her eyes with mine, as if she was communicating her words, her thoughts, her poetry, right into me. Just to me. It was hard to unlock my eyes from hers. I felt as if looking away would break the connection we had, and I didn’t want to lose it, whatever “it” was. Her poetry was like music, and I was enthralled, addicted. Half of the time I wasn’t even comprehending the words that she was saying. Just the rhythm of her voice, the rise and fall of her words, had me spellbound. Her words were melodious, and I was perfectly content just to listen to the sound of her words. When the meaning of her words finally began to reach me toward the end of the reading, the experience was indescribable. It was like going to the opera and having the members of the troupe sing at only me. I felt isolated and connected at the same time, and while she made eye contact with everyone in the room, she and I seemed to be the only people there.
Before reading a lot of her poems, Michelle explained some of the background behind her work. For example, she explained to us that one of her poems was based on “The Illustrated Man,” a man whose entire body was covered in tattoos. The illustrations on his body revealed the future of the person who was looking at him. This was the first poem that I believe I truly understood: “…a crystal ball inscribed in the flesh,” she read.
Michelle then read a series of poems from her most recent work. She explained that her new poetry was different from Edging because of the shift from serious themes such as disease and skin to more humorous works.
“Road kill,” one of her new poems, was one of the best poems I’ve ever heard. It was funny, extremely original, and at the same time thought provoking and inspiring. She referenced John Baldessari’s popular “I am making art,” theme, and repeated the words “I am making poetry.” It was long, but I enjoyed every single word. She used the poets on poetry motif, as I saw in the movie from class, by emphasizing the point that she was creating poetry. “If I ever read this poem in a reading,” she read, “then I am reading a poem. I am reading a poem, I am reading a poem.” Everyone laughed, but without hesitation she went into an in-depth discussion of road kill. “Road kill is postmodern,” she said. “Road kill is fun.” She reminded us that the word road kill is fun, not road kill
itself. “If you don’t like this poem,” she said, “then you can suck an egg. Fuck a duck!” I was smiling throughout the entire piece. “George Bush equals road kill,” she stated,
and if there was anyone not listening to her before (which I doubt) they were surely interested now. “George Bush is about to be squashed. Flattened. George Bush is road
kill. Poems don’t make road kill.” It was incredible. Michelle Noteboom is an incredible poetess, and I loved her work, especially the reading of her work. I spoke with her briefly after the reading, and she thanked me for coming.
My first experience at a poetry reading was everything I always thought it could be, and more. I left feeling inspired to write, inspired to read (specifically her book!) and inspired to strive for the unordinary. I’m not sure if every poetry reading I attend will be as enjoyable as my first, but I know now what every poet should strive for in a reading: the originality and musicality of the works of Michelle Noteboom.