Sunday, June 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 6/26/2005: Centaur


The first typeface I loved
was Centaur, cut by Bruce Rogers
in 1914. It had animal bones,
and reminded me of skinny-dipping at night,
baptized in star water so cold
I suddenly became another
animal from the waist down.

In our family, we knew all about the Minotaur,
Cyclops, and centaurs.
My father read to me about the man-horses,
so I had an inkling
of their danger,
and thereafter leaned toward the horse part
and away from the man.

Chase Twichell 2005

Hallo darling friends and family! Another Monday is come and almost gone, so with it I give you this Poem of the Week. I read this poem sitting in Borders with one of my friends, and I went back to copy it out of the Kenyon Review because I loved it so much. What originally caught my eye was the line "star water," and I later realized that my favorite imagery synthesizes the everyday with the cosmic (does anybody remember Dufault's fountain of planets? Beautiful!). Not exactly relevant to the poem I guess, but isn't it exciting to discover something about yourself? I always find so; even the trivial things are invigorating. It's the same with learning things about other people. And I think that I like the small details almost more than the big ones, because people often ignore the small details. One can always overkill on this, of course, but that doesn't make the details irrelevant. Oh look at me chatting away when there is a poem to work on! Though this tangent does remind one of poetry's personal nature. The Poem of the Week (and all poetry I guess) is a very intimate part of me, so to cut that out of my close readings would starve the analysis.

Just a little justification.

Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not coincidental to note that the poem is also distinctly personal. The title, "Centaur," connotes something quite special for this speaker; I for one did not expect it to be a typeface. Also, Twichell (who is, by the way, a woman) writes later that her family knew about centaurs, but the poem is only about one. This centaur is probably the typeface or the speaker herself. But, then, we ask, what is a centaur? Or, more precisely, what does it mean to be a centaur for Twichell? It is clearly more than a typeface; this small, personalizing detail sserves more as a springboard into the true metaphor. I find it interesting that she chooses typeface, which is really a way of writing, as the opening image, for it's like a second layer of words. We have the visual words on the page, and then we have a means for constructing words within those lines. Just as a poem shakes itself into being when read, this poem's central metaphor clip clops out of that typeface when recollected.

She feels like a centaur because the water agitates her lower-body nerves just so. Twichell seems to say, then, that a strong, seizing physical sensation like skinny dipping can turn us into animals. Or perhaps it simply reminds us of our animal bodies, exposing the animal by peeling away the cerebral layers. Some of you may have noticed that she is animal from "waist down." This connotes sexuality, of course, though Twichell does not follow on this track. I think that the idea of being part animal means, both here and in life, that humans have an instinctual, powerful, noble side along with our delicate hands and quick brains. Simple, but easy to forget.

Twichell, having established the metaphor, leaves it for a moment, giving us more personal history. She provides the Minotaur and the Cyclops as other mythical beasts. I enjoyed imagining her family life as these two partial-humans. Instead of saying that "In our family, we knew / all about the Minotaur, / [and] Cyclops," she could have said, "my family was familiar with bull-headedness and short-
sightnedness." It could also mean that her family was well-read and connected with the past, but I like the more personal response.

Near the end of the poem, the speaker talks of centaurs' apparently inherent danger. Because she chooses to stick with the animal over the man, it seems that she believes this danger comes from man. This part of the poem invites us to think whatever we want about the dangers of man and the positive aspects of an animal. For me, the greatest peril of being a man (against which there is advantage in being animal) is our cerebrality; we forget to simply feel sometimes for one reason or another. Work is tiring, kids are draining, we don't laugh anymore... we fear feeling. That is something to which a horse would not be sensitive in my imagination. It is all about freedom from fear and societal constructs and binary opposites. Of course, there are any number of ways to look at the danger idea - man could be dangerous because his heart can break. Perhaps it is safer to be an animal and procreate without feeling. That interpretation calls back the sexuality in line 8. Man's danger could come from being so destructive. It struck me a little bit ago that animal could also be a metonym for nature, so the poem could be an ecological statement. The dangers of being a centaur could actually have to do with the tension between man and animal, too. Perhaps they are not reconciliable, so one has to choose? Maybe that is the tragedy.

I wrote at the beginning of this poem, "perhaps it is and perhaps it is not coincidental that this poem is very personal." I mean that it isn't a coincidence that I am going off on personal tangents for this particular poem. A personal poem evokes personal responses, and I hope that you think about what is human and animal and neither in yourself. I hope that you can respond personally to this poem by thinking about it - that is how to interact with literature and possibly learn something about yourself along the way. Sometimes articulating something is better than just knowing it; that is what poetry can do for me. It has a way of forcing me to pinpoint and spell out whatever I am feeling.

On a final note, I know that I mixed up the speaker and Chase Twichell time and again here, but it helps me to think of a poem's speaker as the author most of the time. There are of course countless poems wherein it is obvious that the speaker and author are separate, but I believe that this is not one of them. I don't know enough about the different schools of poetry yet to sort out the Confessional poets. With time, with time. For this time, I hope that you enjoyed this poem and good night!


Monday, June 20, 2005

Poem of the Week 6/20/2005: Night Feeding

Night Feeding

Deeper than sleep but not so deep as death
I lay there sleeping and my magic head
remembered and forgot. On first cry I
remembered and forgot and did believe.
I knew love and I knew evil:
woke to the burning song and the tree burning blind,
despair of our days and the calm milk-giver who
knows sleep, knows growth, the sex of fire and grass,
and the black snake with gold bones.

Black sleeps, gold burns; on second cry I woke
fully and gave to feed and fed on feeding.
Gold seed, green pain, my wizards in the earth
walked through the house, black in the morning dark.
Shadows grew in my veins, my bright belief,
my head of dreams deeper than night and sleep.
Voices of all black animals crying to drink, cries of all birth arise, simple as we,
found in the leaves, in clouds and dark, in dream,
deep as this hour, ready again to sleep.

Muriel Rukeyser 1951

Hello friends and family! I read this poem among the dying embers of a spectacular sunset, the latest in a series of great, sky-covering sunsets gracing Boulder's skies of late, so I simply paid attention to this poem's imagery and feel rather than its message. Otherwise, I might have chosen an easier one. Alas it will have to be incomplete. This, O best beloved, is quite a complicated poem (who caught the Rudyard Kipling nod?). I have read it at least five times and it is only now beginning to take its shape for me. As in some of the old school PotWs, I think that I am just going to point out some things I have noticed in this poem. As in James Joyce's Ulysses, the poem's tangible action is simple, even boring. A baby wakes a dreaming woman who feeds him and goes back to bed, "ready again to sleep." Rukeyser does not make things this easy for us, though. The difficult and perhaps most brilliant thing about "Night Feeding" is that it reads like a dream. The images cycle and recycle, never settling on a pattern or meaning. It is as if the broken ideas are what matters rather than the poem's universe, for the different ideas and images seem to dance around the real ones. What these real ones are, we have to imagine for ourselves. We do see that love, evil, gold, black, snake, sleep/deep, and (fantastically) dream itself shuffle about. Black sleeps, black is a snake, and animals are black within the poem. In the same way, gold burns, is bones and is a seed. Rukeyser plays with "black" and "snake" implicitly, as sleep, death and even deep often connote darkness or black. Then, too, the poem (and the speaker's consciousness) seem almost like a snake ingesting its tail. The end returns to the beginning, and we realize that the body exists as a digestion (or is it a regurgitation) of itself.

Within this jumble, though, there rests a grain or two of sense. The diction is decidedly Biblical, what with the snake, the burning tree (which, while nodding at the Old Testament burning bush, could also be a metaphor for the destruction of Eden), a woman who knows the "despair" of our days, a mother perhaps of "all birth," and the voices of all of the animals. I propose that the narrator's sleep at the beginning of the poem resembles Eve's innocence in Eden, which a child's cry begins to shatter. Eden, a dream, breaks down as one into a more frenzied and mixed up jumble of what was. The animals are despairing, the earth is despairing, and we live for our children, shown by the line "gave to feed and fed on feeding." This poem is dark and cynical, showing a version of motherhood that rerun's Eve's. This leads to deeper questions about our own originality. Are we just replaying things over and over? Milan Kundera in Immortality suggests that we do not perform gestures because no gesture is unique. With uncountable billions of human beings to have passed across the earth, nothing can be simply ours. So a gesture is more individual than an individual - they inhabit us when we perform them. So this poem asks whether we are just replaying the garden of Eden tragedy over and over. We are born into a state of innocence, it crumbles, and we eventually return to the garden/innocence/death. This is what meta-
narratives are all about anyway! Umbrella-stories attempting to explain our lives and struggles. The Bible is full of meta-narratives, beliefs aside. I could actually keep going for a long time, but I myself am tumbling into the deep of sleep, and bid you goodnight!

And to those of you to whom I owe emails, please accept my apology and my promise that they will arrive post-haste.


Monday, June 13, 2005

Poem of the Week 6/13/2005: V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick

V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick

Science, Pure and Applied, by V.B. Wigglesworth, F.R.S., Quick
Professor of Biology in the University of Cambridge.
-a talk listed in the BBC's Radio Times

V.B. Wigglesworth wakes at noon,
Washes, shaves, and very soon
Is at the lab; he reads his mail,
Tweaks a tadpole by the tail,
Undoes his coat, removes his hat,
Dips a spider a vat
Of alkaline, phones the press,
Tells them he is F.R.S.,
Subdivides six protocells,
Kills a rat by ringing bells,
Writes a treatise, edits two
Symposia on "Will Man Do?,"
Gives a lecture, edits three,
Has the Sperm Club in for tea,
Pensions off an aging spore,
Cracks a test tube, takes some pure
Science and applies it, finds
His hat, adjusts it, pulls the blinds,
Instructs the jellyfish to spawn,
And, by one o'clock, is gone.

John Updike 1954

Good morning friends and family! This poem is somewhat lighter than most
PotWs, as this is a vacation Poem of the Week! Yes, I am on vacation, but I
refuse to abandon the Monday poetry post. So this analysis will be a bit
shorter as well (possibly with more typos, as this keyboard is difficult to
navigate). This poem is actually stuck in my head right now because it is so
rythmic and structured. I find it sticky, too, because it is nearly unbearably
clever. Updike managed to fit hilarious acts of science into one 20 line,
heavily structured poem. The imagery is hilarious, too, my favorite being
"kills a rat by ringing bells." This line is possibly a sinister
nod to Pavlov and his famous dog experiments.

What I like, also, about this poem (besides its hilarity), is its self
similarity across scale. Just as V.B. Wigglesworth manages to accomplish so
much in the short span of an hour, the poem also includes much in its tight
twenty lines. For that matter, actually, it accomplishes as much as any other
poem in its form and rhetorical complexity. Who says that a poem has to tackle
the Meaning of Life etc. etc. in order to utilize a rich form. Updike, a
writer for the New Yorker, incorporates every bit of detail from the quote
from which his inspiration came. He does what many other poets do, which is to
notice a detail about life and expound upon it. And he does it so that the
idea retains its humor rather than having the laughs explained out of it. Have
you all noticed that when somebody explains a joke, it maybe gets a groan but
loses everything that was funny? Well, this poem is Updike's way of explaining
this real-life funny moment. Anyway - that's vacation Poem of the Week!


Monday, June 06, 2005

Poem of the Week 6/6/2005: Filling Station

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
-- this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color -- of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret* *drum-shaped table
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

Elizabeth Bishop 1965

Oh Hello Everyone! A note about this poem: "Esso" is the name of the gas provider - the company turned into Exxon. I just didn't feel like putting more stars there for some reason, so you get that information here! Anyway. For this poem, I want to point out how there are several levels of emotion at play in this poem. To begin, there is the narrator's somewhat bemused attitude towards this station. Thanks to decidedly personal statements like "Be careful with that match" and "why, oh why, the doily?", we get the idea that the narrator is lamenting this gas station's awful taste and ubiquitous grime. Bishop repeats "oil" and "grease" very often, which underlines the station's filth. The hirsute (hairy) begonia is simply awful, as is the dingy-gray doily. Even choosing a doily is important, because the station's design touch is d-oily. Oil is everywhere.

Bishop heightens the idea of this po-dunk station by saying that "comic books provide / the only note of color -- / a certain color." First, the reading material is, shall we say, less than intellectual, while the final piece of that statement, "a certain color" could imply several things. The comics could just be faded in that certain way the sun has of taking all colors but blue. It could also point to the fact that the place has its own sort of flavor; the comic books provide visual color, though the place has its own color without them. Plus, the fact that she calls the visual arrangement a "set" demonstrates more of the speaker's amusement about this scene.

To this point, the filling station seems like a place nobody would actually want to visit - it's grimy and ugly and probably smelly. And yet, I don't hate this place. I actually kind of appreciate and love it, thanks to what Bishop discusses in the final stanza. She notices that these objects don't just exist as bastions of bad taste; somebody chose them. Somebody made that doily and somebody picked out that hairy begonia. She asks why they're there and then answers it in the last stanza. It's important to note that "somebody arranges the rows of cans" is in present tense, because this feeling is not simply one of fond nostalgia. These are lives.

That she doesn't find so much love and appreciation for life in, say, a meadow or a kiss maybe seems a bit curious. After all, shouldn't something that loves her spark the final insight that "Somebody loves us all?" I think not, actually. It makes perfect sense to me that this disgusting station inspires love in her (and in me). Perhaps it's that beauty clogs emotion or truth or something, stifling the genuine feeling with one of temporal surface beauty. For me, at least, ugly things often inspire more affection and compassion within me than beautiful ones. I can admire a graceful vase, but I don't know if I can love it the same way that I could love an awful vase at a thrift store. The coarse-ness allows space for empathy, for a thing's flaws make it real. It's a little sad to see the 80s chipped and cracked vase sitting there, but it, at least, has a history and a life. In "Filling Station," the father is more likeable, oil-
smeared as he may be, than the "high-strung" and presumably clean automobile at the end.

So anyway. One final point I want to add is the function this poem serves. Just as beauty can clog, disgust can, too. This poem gives us the imaginative distance from the actual grime so that we can appreciate that grease is an intrinsic part of this family. It may not be perfect or lovely, so this flawed space opens up room for love. This brings up the question of reader-participation. A poem gives us the opportunity to imagine or ignore as many aspects of a proposed image/scene as we like. So - one's interpretation can vary depending upon how much reality one gives the station. For me, I allowed myself enough room to appreciate and love the people.


PS Hey - I was organizing my PotW database this weekend in a fit of boredom, and I am missing several of the earler PotWs. If any of you still have copies of 12/1, 12/7, 12/27, 1/3, the Change in the Poem of the Week (1/17), or 4/4, I would be much obliged if you forwarded me a copy. Thank you and have a wonderful day!