Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ellen Bryant Voigt's Headwaters

Exciting and even a bit strange to see Ellen Bryant Voigt, the paragon of formal control, symmetry, and the tight metrical line, produce a book of poems that eschews much of that tradition: no punctuation, sentence beginnings upcapitalized, no blank verse. Yet her mastery of syntax imposes its own strict order. Here is "Chameleon:"

beside myself in Texas the doctors asking my beloved
to give his pain a number one to ten his answer is always
two I tell them eight the holly bush in the yard is putting out new leaves
which makes its resident lizard bright green also light brown
along its slender spine a plausible twig
except the lining of its mouth is red as it puts away
in three quick bites some kind of fly and then at its throat
a rosy translucent sac swells and subsides maybe peristaltic
pushing its meal forward or maybe preening for a mate or maybe
residual from the blooming hibiscus shrub or maybe learned from frogs
that also live in a tree but singing is dangerous if you mean
to replicate vegetation
                                     O exquisite creature
whose dull cousin back in Vermont the brown lizard
navigates our dooryard by alternating pairs of elbows like oars
determined and clumsy moving across the gravel yet moving forward
I see you do not move unless you need to eat you almost fool
the mockingbird nearby in a live oak tree flinging out another's song
which is me which which is me

Yes, there's the challenge here inherent in reading any unpunctuated poem--how is the syntax structured. On first reading, some inevitable stumbles will occur. That obstacle is easily overcome.  But the voice and tone are pure Voigt--incisive observations, just the facts, the cool and penetrating intelligence that guides the endeavor.

Voigt has always, like Bishop, been fascinated by animals; they show up in so many poems. And like Bishop's methods of observation, over and over in this book the poems dramatize seeing. More than description is taking place because the act of observing is the focus of the poem. We see and hear a mind at work, moving from the lush description of the lizard to meditation on how and why it moves and acts as it does. Within that string of "maybes" an act of deduction is taking place. The poems move as the mind does; usually rationally, with the occasional leap in subject matter (from worry about the husband's health to the lizard in front of the speaker in Texas to the lizard back home in Vermont to the question posed by the bird that might also be heard as devolving on the speaker's concerns), which ends up feeling like a rational progression after all.

In an essay titled "Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination," Heather McHugh asserts that "a poem is a vehicle," and the work in Headwaters beautifully illustrates that notion. There's a kind of courage in the act of writing poems that move intuitively as these do, sans punctuation or the other road signs that usually nail readers to the page. The quiet drama of the movement is provided by the speaker's unwavering gaze, and the poems ask the reader's implicit participation in feeling out the syntax as the poem progresses.

I have long admired Voigt's work and it is wonderful to see her taking new risks and finding new shapes and methods for her work. This book is a keeper that I will keep returning to.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Frost's "Mowing"

Robert Frost's sonnet "Mowing," from his first collection, A Boy's Will, is one of a subset of his poems that focuses on the act of physical labor:


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
Among the many things to admire here is the genius of the third line--the fact that, having acknowledged the silence of the setting, the poem puts that quietness to further use.  The silence invites the speaker to listen to what the scythe's passes through the grass are "saying," equivocal though that whisper might be--"perhaps," "perhaps." In the long tradition of the sonnet as rhetorical argument with self, the poem turns inward in that third line; even as the subtle rhythm of the scythe continues in the background, the poem generates another rhythm, that of introspection about why the speaker finds the work so satisfying. "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," and yet it is not just the "mowing" that is being accomplished; the last line reminds us that the byproduct of the labor will be used--it is not just grass that the speaker is cutting, but hay that will be consumed by domestic animals.
And as is so often the case with Frost's sonnets, this poem might at first be all but unrecognizable as one.  It is not until the fourth line that we have a repeated end rhyme, and all the way through the poem the rhymes seem to appear almost randomly--we go five lines before "myself" is enchoed by "elf." The piece rejects the notion of the sonnet as conventional form, finding its own way to braid the various strands into a cohesive whole.
Surely it is intentional that "long scythe" shows up twice, each time "whispering," first "to the ground," and at the end, merely whispering. "Long scythe," long sigh--the sounds are interchangeable, again framing the poem with the ryhthms of work and of pleasure in the labor.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


M. and I are to become grandparents for the first time, early in January.  This little poem arose a week or two back.  Thanksgiving seemed a good time to post it.

For a Granddaughter
You’re not here, among us, yet,
haven’t snapped a fresh carrot
between your teeth, crossed
a windy street after looking both ways,
but we can’t hold that against you.

You’ll be here soon enough,
and your room is all ready
for you—the crib, the stuffed critters,
the mobile that your eyes will learn
to focus on as you drift toward sleep.

Sleep!  You must already know
about that, there in that quiet
place you live in now.  Also,
there are two cats you’ll meet,
who will find you strange at first

and whom you’ll have to learn
to pet carefully.  Their claws,
little one, are sharp and crisp,
as are so many things we’d like
to protect you from.  You’re set

to arrive in the darkest time
of the year, when days are short
and nights long.  But your parents
are tall and strong, and people
have made blankets to cover you.

We can’t wait to make
your acquaintance.  We know
your name but won’t say it
yet, not here.  Some things
are meant to be secrets though

everyone knows all about them.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Quiet Times

I woke at three last night (not an uncommon occurrence) and was struck by how quiet it was. The weather being warm as it can be in December in Florida, we have the windows open, and I listened to the silence. A screech owl was repeating its steady quavering note (not the one that descends), and that was the only sound.

It reminded me of a couple of passages in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Twain evokes the rural countryside of 19th-century America. There's this one at the beginning of the book:

The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving.

And this one, as Huck rides the raft down the river:

And how far a body can hear over the water such nights! I heard people talking at the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too -- every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights now. T'other one said this warn't one of the short ones, he reckoned -- and then they laughed, and he said it over again, and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn't laugh; he ripped out something brisk, and said let him alone. The first fellow said he 'lowed to tell it to his old woman--she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn't nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o'clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn't wait more than about a week longer. After that the talk got further and further away, and I couldn't make out the words any more; but I could hear the mumble, and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

Maybe I like to wake in the middle of the night because I enjoy that silence, find myself craving it during the day sometimes, when the next-door neighbor's dog barks incessantly, and jets pound overhead on the way out of OIA, and a Harley Davidson farts its way down Bumby, half a block away.

I suppose it's almost a cliche--I know I've read it several places--that poetry arises out of silence, or out of listening, at least. I know that I need silence to engage with the material that becomes a new poem, and can't imagine trying to write with music in the background. How could I hear what was trying to come through that way? I love Frost's sonnet "Mowing," which begins,

There never was a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself.
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound,
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

I don't own an Ipod or any other device that requires my ear or ears to be plugged. Give me bird song, even if it is at times challenged by the ambient sounds of the city. It's still there if one practices listening, elemental, intense, something almost said, like any good poem.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

As If

It's happened again. Ten years after my first book, A Small Fire, was published, a new one, As If, is out. As far as productivity goes, that's a pretty weak track record. The Hass's and the Olivers and the Glucks can put out a book every three years or so. I've stopped wondering why I'm not prolific. I am what iamb. Ten years' work is maybe something to celebrate, though. Here's the Wind Publications page for the book: http://windpub.com/books/asif.htm

Monday, January 31, 2011

Booking It

For the last several months I've been finalizing the content and ordering of my second book of poems. The publisher has it now; it's out of my reach, on its own, is what it will be. I had a lot of help in this process from poet friends--Phil Deaver and Debra Kang Dean--and I appreciated that help. For while I had little trouble deciding which poems belonged in the collection, I was stumped at trying to decide on the order/arrangement of the poems.

Gregory Orr's essay "Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry" was a revelation for me. In it, he defines the four temperaments necessary for poets to possess in some degree: story, structure, music, and imagination. I've always felt that my strengths as a poet are structure and music. And, while it might risk being reductive to say so, story and imagination seem required in the arrangement of poems in a manuscript. The individual poems tell stories, but, ideally, the ordering/clustering of the poems in the book will at least suggest a story, or something that approaches story (a color? motif?). The more I write here, the more this idea seems to recede. But especially in collections that resist narrative continuity, manuscripts like mine that contain a predominance of lyric poems, some kind of coherence can be difficult to come by.

And maybe it's just easier to work with someone else's manuscript; maybe I've just been too close to these poems for the last ten years to be able to see how they're meant to play off of each other. That's where good editors like Phil and Debra come in.

The book, titled As If, is due out from Wind Publications in a couple of months.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I've written two new poems in the last week, after a nine months' drought. I mean, I've been trying to write--jotting notes, making lots of false starts. This happens every few years, so I've not been particularly concerned about it. But it's strange, coming back to the blank page and finally having something coherent appear.

Even odder, one of the new poems focuses on an event that occurred 50 years ago, something that, presumably, has been lurking in memory all this time. To try to analyze why that showed up now--and why it offered itself in a poem--is probably pointless, maybe even destructive of the creative process. It was hearing the barred owl almost every morning for two weeks of late, or it was re-reading Greg Pape's American Flamingo. It was putting in the fall garden last weekend, or something my old friend Phil Deaver said about writing.

The danger here, for me, is to make too much of the fact that poems have come through the door again. They might disappear again next week and be gone for months. I can't just grind them out. I learned that years ago. But I do have to be ready for them, and that means listening.