Monday, May 23, 2005

Poem of the Week 5/23/2005: Burden


I called you because I could not stand alone
looking north to that skyline-
tree globed with its yellow apples
balancing like a fountain of planets
in the bright light and the blue air.

And because on the way there
I looked at a smooth cirque
the brook had worn in a stone;
and nothing as soft as water
could, by taking care,
have so pestled and polished
that granite mortar; only
by a thousand years of indifference,
of aiming elsewhere.

I wish we might do -- or no,
look back and find we had done --
some un-advertized thing,
overwhelming and un-self-aware
as water streamlining a stone, or a tree's
kindling in an empty meadow
its casual Hesperides.

Peter Kane Dufault 1978

Good evening! Before I go into this poem, I wanted to tell you all something I found when I was doing a little extra research on Dufault. Brad Leithauser writes that he is "a "little-known poet"-even if nowadays that's something of a redundancy, like "commercial athletics" or "formulaic top 40." He's someone who doesn't appear in most anthologies, and whose name is likely to raise a fuzzy look of semirecognition when dropped among contemporary poets" (the New York Review of Books). I like this comment because it brings to light something we talked about in my Brit Lit class one day - that poetry has essentially dropped off of the cultural radar. My *professor* could barely tell us who the current US Poet Laureate was (to be fair, we had just switched laureates), so how many average citizens are going to know much about any kind of American poetry? Besides, oh, the Beats or Billy Collins or Dickinson or Yeats or Plath, how many poets could most people actually name? Poe would be in the list, and Shakespeare of course, but really. If there is a poem of the week that you particularly like, I would encourage you all to take another five or ten minutes and look up the author - I choose lesser-known poets fairly frequently because I generally like later 20th Century poetry the best. Granted, they are still anthologized, as I get most of the PotWs out of my beautiful Norton Anthology of Poetry, but they are by no means popular. So that's my little rant, and on to the poem!

I chose it for its imagery, first and foremost. The entire first stanza is literally breathtaking; the mythic and fantastic quality of the image of a "tree globed with its yellow apples ... like a fountain of planets / in the bright light and the blue air" gives an immediate sense of both deepness and nobility. This stanza is also refreshingly clear. Dufault uses direct, simple words like "north," "yellow," "bright," and "blue" rather than more esoteric words. The stanza would be less piercing were he to substitute yellow with ochre, blue with azure, or bright with effulgent. It might still be beautiful, but it would sit less like a Techinicolor fantasy and more like a crinkled, faded, sepia-postcard. That crispness lies directly in line with the poem's simple structure; Dufault arranges it around one action (I called you). And the speaker is straightforward enough to explain *why* he called, though that explanation is not so simple.

This anwer has something to do with man and nature, time and myth, and free will. The speaker finds truths in nature, both of which compel him to call the "you". (*note: I know there is no way of knowing what gender the speaker is, but in my mind the speaker, if left unknown, takes the same gender as the author. I do not presume to say it is always a man or always a woman. It is the poet's sex, for me. Feel free to think of it any other way, and I am sure that this in some way limits me. I don't think that it's important for this poem, though, or I would address it, at least in passing). Thinking about who the "you" is becomes interesting, though, because it could be a parent, lover, friend, child, or reader. If the you is actually you reading the poem (and this response) right now, then it brings up the question of poetry's function. Maybe the "I" is Dufault himself, and the natural metaphors explain why he writes poetry. As Harriet the spy writes, think about that.

At any rate, the first reason he calls is that he cannot bear to be alone. That is simple enough, but why? What about this tree means that he cannot be alone? The key here may lie in the title: this clear vision, this mythic garden is a burden. We can read this myth at least three ways. The tree of youth (that is the tree with golden apples in the garden Hesperides, a mythic Greek garden) is perhaps too heavy to bear alone. Societal ideals of everlasting youth and beauty would be the culprits here. Or maybe our past, represented by the Classical era, is too much to deal with. The myth possibly alludes to every person's inavoidable trials, too, pointing to the possibility that he wants someone else because we need another to go on, day after day.

But this may not be the real reason that he called. It is certainly part of it, yes, but the second reason inhabits 16 lines to the first explanation's 5. Dufault presents this reason beautifully as well; the diction has a nice bit of self-similarity across scale in that it is as soft as the water it describes. "Pestled," "polished," "thousand," and "elsewhere" purr their way onto the page, seducing us as readily as the first stanza did. (Perhaps Dufault wanted to make these separate images so striking and gorgeous to convey their power over him, or their significance. Or not - another thing worth thinking about). The speaker notices that the water inadvertently creates something whole and wonderfully circular (this process is actually called potholing, in case you were wondering). Stanza two's final lines reminded me of that awful cliche "life is what happens when you're making other plans." Unfortunately, that may be the simplest way of conveying what the speaker noticed.

His version is mercifully more complex than the cliche, though. It questions free will, acknowledging that our actions, no matter how thoughtfully directed, may actually work towards a larger, unseen result. This just reminded me of when somebody told me that, if a pool ball were earth-sized, it would have higher mountains and deeper trenches than either Everest or the Marianas Trench. If you are miniature and on that ball, you have no idea how smooth it feels in the palm of your hand when you are so much bigger than it. The minute obscures the ball's larger design. It is ultimately significant, then, that the speaker corrects himself in line 15, saying "I wish we might do -- or no, / look back and find we had done." He wants to make the mistakes and (to continue my metaphor, helpful or no) have interesting geography rather than knowing immeadately that the earth is round. Everyday life matters, our choices matter, but perhaps more important is the wisdom that accompanies the ability to step away from those things and see the greater shape. Our incidental truths are perhaps the most important and organic ones, an idea with Dufault captures in "Burden."

Ahh you can tell I am getting tired by that last line's stunning middle-school wrap it all up feeling, so I think it is time for me to turn in. Here are some more questions that I would have addressed were I feeling more lucid, just in case you are totally bored and not drained from heat because you don't live in Colorado. What function does myth play in the last stanza? I touched on how it can be a burden in the first stanza, but how does this idea of burden play itself out in the final stanza? Why does Dufault use "un-advertize" and "un-self-aware" rather than a simpler term such as self-ignorant? And why does any of this make him want to call this you??? Maybe he realized that his person is part of his "plan", his greater arc, or maybe that is completely off-base. It's up to you! Dear friends and family, I hope that this poem has given you something to think about, or at least that you can appreciate one of the images within. I just realized that this close reading was enormous, but if you made it this far, I appreciate you! And if you didn't (you won't be reading this, for one) I completely understand. Goodnight!


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