Monday, December 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/26/2005: A Plain Song for Comadre

A Plain Song for Comadre*

Though the unseen may vanish, though insight fails
And doubter and downcast saint
Join in the same complaint,
What holy things were ever frightened off
By a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?
Harder than nails

They are, more warmly constant than the sun,
At whose continual sign
The dimly prompted vine
Upbraids itself to a green excellence.
What evening, when the slow and forced expense
Of sweat is done,

Does not the dark come flooding the straight furrow
Or filling the well-made bowl?
What night will not the whole
Sky with its clear studs and steady spheres
Turn on a sound chimney? It is seventeen years
Come tomorrow

That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church
Of San Ysidro,** sweeping
And scrubbing the aisles, keeping
The candlesticks and the plaster faces bright,
And seen no visions but the thing done right
From the clay porch

To the white altar. For love and in all weathers
This is what she has done.
Sometimes the early sun
Shines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash
Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash
Like angel-feathers.

Richard Wilbur 1956

*Peasant woman (Spanish); also, midwife, god-mother, neighbor. Plain song: or plainsong; the unisonous vocal music of the early Christian Church; also, any simple melody.
**Village in San Diego County, near the Mexican border.

What a remarkable story this poem tells; what a difficult and singluar thing this Bruna Sandoval has done! To keep the church sparkling and alive, to keep her faith and holiness intact for seventeen years, why, are truly admirable. Why, you might ask, is this so striking? I would answer that change is so constant, so inevitable, that maintaining stability is a feat. "A Plain Song..." discusses weighter issues than mere constancy; rather, it addresses true holiness and devotion in both cosmic and personal terms.

It begins generally, putting forth the abstract (but very real) idea of truly holy things. Human conditions fail; our unseen parts (beliefs, emotions, trust, etc.) "may vanish," and our insight and rationality may disappoint, evoking in doubter and downcast saint the same complaint. I take this complaint to be the complaint of avbsence, of Godlessness. Because their flimsy human intuitions fail, they lose faith in God. The narrator then rejects their faithlessness, asking, "what holy things were ever frightened off / by a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?" Authentic holiness is not so fragile.

Holy things are, instead, "more warmly constant than the sun," prompting the elements of nature to reimagine themselves "to a green excellence." Here the poem nods to inevitable trials en route to holiness, noting the "slow and forced expense / of sweat" and the dark that comes "flooding the straight furrow / or filling the well-made bowl." Importantly, the darkness interacts with the artifacts of human toil, the furrow and the bowl. The poem achieves a wonderful balance between a cosmic sanctity and a personal simplicity. The next lines mingle the two, stating, "What night will not the whole / sky with its clear studs and steady spheres / turn on a sound chimney?" Planets and chimneys sit side by side in the poem's vision of holiness, perhaps signifying the spirituality in everyday things.

I have talked a lot about holy things without actually discussing what they are, though I hinted that they might be the simple things in life, the relics of our hard work. Enter Bruna Sandoval, seventeen year church caretaker, and example of one who lives in holiness. Her spirituality is not in question; the final lines establish it in stating "Sometimes the early sun / Shiines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash / Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash / Like angel-feathers." We may look at her specific case, then, to uncover what constitutes holiness and perhaps what we can do to capture it as well.

She is holy simply and purely by seeing things "done right;" sweeping the altar, cleaning the saints, polishing the candlesticks, and doing the laundry. She has not had any prophetic visions to solidify her faith, and so we should not expect any, the poem perhaps implies. What we have, then, is a surprisingly simple vision of holiness: hard work and faith. An acceptance of the simple things. A revaluation of space. She sustains a constancy by appreciating her space; I suggest that she sustains this holiness by folding it into her surroundings. She has done this "For love and in all weathers." Simply remarkable.

Finally, then, I question whether this is possible; I would answer yes, but, like for Bruna Sandoval, it takes a lifetime of hard work, love, and meditation. More purely, it requires a faith and appreciation of our surroundings difficult to find. I think that it admires a way of life that most cannot fulfill. Positively, though, it suggests that, with work similar to Bruna's, we can find some kind of this balance, if internal. I would actually argue, too, that the crucial pieces of Bruna's constancy are internal: the kind of peace that comes with a job well done and a reinvigoration of space. These are the truly holy things in our lives. They are perhaps not the only ones, but "A Plain Song for Comadre" concerns itself with them so that we may as well.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/19/2005: Aubade


Cold snap. Five o'clock.
Outside, a heavy frost - dark
footprints in the brittle
grass; a cat's. Quick coffee,
jacket, watch-cap, keys.
Stars blaze across the black
gap between the horizons;
pickup somehow strikes
its own dim spark - an arc -
starts. Inside, familiar
metal cab, an icebox
full of lightless air,
limns green with dash-light. Vinyl
seat-cracks, cold and brittle;
horn ring gleams, and chrome
cuts hard across the wrist
where the sleeve falls off the glove
as moon-track curves its cool tiara
somewhere underneath your sleep
this very moment, love --

Richard Kenney 1985

A friend asked me a disarmingly simple, interesting question yesterday: would I rather read a poem about something or experience that thing myself? It caught me so off-guard that I couldn't properly answer. I stuttered and incomplete and scattered thought, but left realizing that I hadn't actually given that issue any thought before. I love reading poetry, and that was enough for me. But reading critically means reading life carefully as well, and slowing down enough to notice whether our actions and assumptions are problematic. His question prompted me to think about whether it can be insulating to read. The question's, at its core, asks whether reading inhibits living, or perhaps substitutes for it.

All I could offer, at the time, was my idea about one of poetry's great faculties. Let's see if I can articulate this. Something happens; say, a child somersaults from an ottoman to the floor. If everything that happened that hour in that particular room, including the kid's acrobatics, was somehow translated into a physical loaf, and if you sliced infinitely thin pieces and peeled off one slice, you would have a complete, 3-D representation - complete with smell, sound and taste - of exactly what happened that moment. Are you following? Now, put a bunch of those together and you have my jelly-loaf.

Poetry can move in, take a slab from the loaf (i.e. from time and life) and compress it onto a page, leaving one chunk of time combed and waiting in front of one. The poem somehow translates the child's somersault to a page without changing its essence. Poetry, in that way, is life.

As such, I think that it can offer experiences that are lost to us, normally inaccessible, or especially revealing. By slowing down on times that often flit by too quickly to notice, poetry can allow us a kind of contemplation not usually possible. Then, too, it has a very selective lens; poets write about things that, even if common, have a special significance, even if it is the specialness that brings us a greater appreciation of our everyday experiences. If it portrays a "typical" experience, along the lines of "Aubade," it may also give us an opportunity to empathize with an Other, or connect our similar experiences to the Other's.

For "Aubade," I want us to notice how precisely the poem draws the morning. It immediately takes us into one moment, beginning with the statement "cold snap." An "aubade" is a morning song, often of a parting of lovers, and this is, to me, a wonderful example of this. There is no bittersweet denial of the dawn a la Romeo and Juliet; rather, this is a regular man going about his regular life, thinking of his love. The first five lines or so capture the chilly air and the surrounding environment. The choppy syntax (those five lines have eight caesuras - pauses in the middle of a line - not to mention three end-stops; punctuation at the end of a line) transmits the freezing air, as if it is so cold outside that the speaker can't quite put a sentence together.

One of the things the poem does brilliantly is relay early-morning mode. Many of you, I am sure, know the feeling: you are so tired that all you can do is mentally move from one thing to the next. It is not really possible to out-think oneself in the morning, much less think at all (for some haha). We also get the feeling that there is a kind of ritual in this man's morning. He does his usual "thing," checking his possessions off almost list-like, noting "Quick coffee / jacket, watch-cap, keys."* The next line, "Stars blaze across the black / gap between the horizons," hands us a new take on the sky; I have never heard the great scope of the sky described as a gap between the horizons. The unusual comment, though, lets us into someone else's way of looking at the world, if only for two lines.

If the earlier lines introduce us to the narrator, presenting us with artifacts from his world and his casual, everyday observations, the next outline his surroundings. The lines, "an icebox / full of lightless air, / limns green with dash-light" literally trace his pickup truck. To "limn" means to outline in clear, sharp detail ( Again, Kenney is careful to etch the important details of this very normal morning.

The narrator, too, limns his pickup truck, again listing his possessions. I think that this is kind of like setting a stage with props; perhaps Kenney is implying, in having the narrator pay so much attention to his physical world, that space is important to who we are. I would agree with that whole-heartedly. Even if things don't make us, they can certainly make us comfortable. And I don't mean extraneous things, but one's familiar watch-cap, the known cracks on the vinyl, the aged and geometric metal cab of a pickup: these things serve as touchpoints in our day-to-day wanderings.

After the choppy lists and notes about the external, the syntax suddenly shifts in the final six lines. The only time the narrator leaves early-morning mode is thinking of the moon and of his love. The last lines are wonderfully constructed: layered, repeated images, balanced, tense emotion, and a remarkable use of enjambment roll the poem to its sudden and beautiful conclusion. It occurred to me about half way through this close-read that there are a lot of arcs in the poem, leading to the final (and privileged) arc of the moon. The final lines cycle these arcs, first in the gleam of the key-ring, then in the chrome cutting the wrist (a beautiful example of onomatopoeia, sound words), and finally in the moon-track's cool tiara. These arcs perhaps imply a sort of cradling, being held.

Then, too, the tenderness of the moon-track (what could be softer than a moonbeam?) contrasts sharply with the cold cut of chrome or even the chilly, fragmented opening lines. This gentleness sets the end of the poem apart as a special moment, a great in-breath. The final hyphen freezes it at that, then, crystallizing the emotion at it's peak, emphasizing the importance of the lover by having "love" conclude the poem, and truncating the slab of time very suddenly and specifically. It never exhales.

All of that said, we can return to the question with which I began this PotW: reading or experience? I know that, for me, there are times when I do hole myself up with books, when a paper world is easier to live in than my own. But I usually get uncomfortable after a day or so of that, and go back into an emotional world. My dad once told me that one of his worries for me was that I would learn that it is very easy to lose one's emotions in work; ever since, I have been attuned to my own experiences reading, writing, and working. I would never sacrifice my own life and my own experiences to stay in and read. At the same time, though, reading is part of my experience of living. I suppose that it's like most things, then; if you don't overdo it, it can be wonderful. Reading enriches myself and (I am confident to say) others. I certainly hope so, at any rate!

And if this Poem of the Week has been somewhat less thesis-oriented, I think I like it better that way. I realized that a close-read is a close read, but I don't want the PotW to be an extra essay a week. I want it to be a forum for thought, for communication, and wherein my appreciation for and love of these poems can shine through. So I appreciate all of you who read this every week, or at least when you can. It really does mean so much to me! I hope that you are all doing well.

*for a picture of a watch-cap, go to this website, a random google find:

Monday, December 12, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/12/2005: Echoes


There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing .. you are not being
heard .. noticed only
by others .. not heard
for the same reason.

The flavor of midnight fruit .. tongue
calling your body through dark light
piercing the allure of safety
ripping the glitter of silence
around you
...... dazzle me with color
...... and perhaps I won't notice
till after you're gone
your hot grain smell tattooed
into each new poem .. resonant
beyond escape .. I am listening
in that fine space
between desire and always
the grave stillness
before choice.

As my tongue unravels
in what pitch
will the scream hang unsung
or shiver like lace on the borders
of never .. recording
which dreams heal .. which
dream can kill
stabbing a man and burning his body
for cover .. being caught
making love to a woman
I do not know.

Audre Lourde 1993

Reason # 2 I am leaving Blogger come winter break: I can't put in the poetic forms with spaces - for some reason Blogger's programming language doesn't absorb the blank spaces I put in. So, if you will, please imagine that the ellipses are blank spaces. if this is hard to do, you could past the poem into Word and replace them yourself... The form is important for this poem, so I had to provide some kind of indication of it.

Alright, anyway. I can't spend too long on this poem because it's finals week, but I will put forth a few observations. (Please note that I am going to go back over winter break and fill in the PotW holes. I know that I have said this before, but it keeps being true!) This poem is, in its way, a love poem. It runs more deeply than a simple love sonnet, however. I want to offer you the fact that Audre Lourde has labeled herself a "black lesbian feminist warrior poet." Thus, the speaker is probably a woman, and the first stanza probably recalls a minority's experience. In this light, then, the poem takes on a weightier social significance - discussing the difficulties of being in a persecuted group of people, extending this to the individual (perhaps personal oppression by society has closed off the speaker's lover), and then making it relevant to the human experience.

The first stanza empathizes with perhaps a specific you (the lover) or the general you (any unheard person). It opens, "there is a timbre of voice / that comes from not being heard." I find that the choice of the word "timbre" is powerful, for it means pitch, though aurally sounds like "timber!" the logger's call for a falling tree. Thus, the voice, un-listened to, is both tremulous and destroyed. That only those who are unheard "for the same reason" can understand beings up the thought that only similar experience produces empathy. Maybe empathy is the wrong word. Understanding perhaps? In terms of empathizing with a minority - there are things one can and cannot understand, but at any experience's core, I sincerely hope that there is something any different person can pick out and empathize with. We are all in the minority in some way or another; for me, people often can't understand my complex family situations. I have had to learn, however, that it doesn't mean that they can't empathize with pieces of it. Specific experiences will of course never translate, but many of the broader emotions transcend divorces, children, or boarding school. I wonder if the thought that "nobody can understand me unless they have been through what I have" is problematic. It is self-righteous and insular, to be sure. I do not mean to devalue the importance of knowing people who *do* understand your experience because their own are common. This is essential. However, limiting oneself to those people (or perhaps opening oneself up to only those people) can be a problem as well. Is that making sense? I hope so. Email me if you want to talk more.

The second stanza moves out of this socio-emotional realm, then, entering a dark and sensual one. The "tongue / calling [her] body through dark light / piercing the allure of safety / ripping the glitter of silence" expresses the thought that intimate interaction breaks down these fear-barriers. It allows for some kind of speech, or perhaps a connection that, in the moment, does not require one. Sexual intimacy may provide a kind of communication that is easier for the lover to engage in. This stanza does not limit itself to sensuality, though; it also demonstrates the narrator's understanding of her lover. The speaker picks up on her lover's defense tactic of dazzling "with color / [so] perhaps [she] won't notice." The erotic connection is not pure and transecendant, for it, too, includes self-defense tactics.

The lover impresses herself on the narrator, seen in the lines "your hot grain smell / tattooed into each new poem." This narrator, we are beginning to see, is smitten. Even though the lover won't talk, her partner is listening. Their relationship is unsure, balanced on the thin path between desire and choice (presumably the choice about staying together).

The final stanza, then, is a question, voicing anxieties and guilt. I will have to go into this later, for finals call! But, I hope you all have a lovely rest of your day!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/5/2005: The Dowser

The Dowser*

With my forked branch of Lebanese cedar
I quarter the dunes like downs and guide
an invisible plough far over the sand.
But how to quarter such shifting acres
when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows
mass where all was bright before,
and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?
All I know is that underneath,
how many miles no one can say,
an unbroken water-table waits
like a lake; it has seen no bird or sail
in its long darkness, and no man;
not even pharaohs dug so far
for all their thirst, or thirst of glory,
or thrust-power of ten thousand slaves.
I tell you I can smell it though,
that water. I am old and black
and I know the manners of the sun
which makes me bend, not break. I lose
my ghostly footprints without complaint.
I put every mirage in its place.
I watch the lizard make its lace.
Like one not quite blind I go
feeling for the sunken face.
So hot the days, the nights so cold,
I gather my white rags and sigh
but sighing step so steadily
that any vibrance in so deep
a lake would never fail to rise
towards the snowy cedar's bait.
Great desert, let your sweetness wake.

Edwin Morgan 1986

*Someone who searches for underground streams by holding a forked branch of cedar or hazel, which twitches when it is above water. A "water-table" (line 10) is the level to which underground water rises.

Oh isn't it exciting to find a poet one is drawn to? There is something about this poem that is mesmerising, though perhaps I am in a frame of mind to be lulled into a supernatural poem's world (I have the Rime of the Ancient Mariner perched atop my thoughts). This is another poem that would be helpful to read out loud; like P.K. Page's "Deaf Mute in a Pear Tree," "The Dowser" exists as an aural piece of art. My Norton Anthology tells me that Morgan has been noted for his creative use of form; I glanced at the MLA International Bibliography to see what kind of work is out there on him and found that he has written a lot of science fiction poetry. He is also a translator, which implies that he has a strong literary command of several languages.

I am interested, in this Poem of the Week, in discussing who the dowser may or may not be and how Morgan achieves the poem's rhetorical artistry. This control is achingly evident throughout the poem; the rhythm and rhyme shift almost organically throughout the poem, perhaps mirroring the seething desert sands. I will discuss this more at length.

In the title and the beginning, we learn that this is a dowser's take. He walks across the desert all day with a forked piece of cedar searching for underground water. Morgan, with the reference to Lebanese cedar, refers to the famous Cedars of Lebanon, out of which King Solomon's palace was entirely built. This helps establish a sense of place; this desert is Egyptian (a claim that the reference to pharoahs later confirms). So far, so good. He then refers to himself as a farmer; this could be confusing (I would hardly call dowsing harvesting water or growing it), but this may refer to the fact that his day to day job involves working with the land.

The next couple lines are perplexing to me. The dowser informs us that "I quarter the dunes like downs... But how to quarter such shifting acres / when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows / mass where all was bright before / and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?" He first says that he quarters the dunes, digresses for a moment, and comes back asking *how* to quarter them. And then he never provides an answer, which indicates that he does not know how to geographically map the desert, or lay one's bounds across it. (This hole in logic is a good indication in any poem to keep that detail in mind. I usually take these little rends in the poetic fabric as indications that there is something that needs to be patched up. I will come back to this idea of "quartering" the desert). The land, like the dowser, thwarts its assumed identity, for it is a supernatural place. One might almost call it super-supernatural, for the wraiths here do not need the cover of night in which to wander about; they walk at noon.

What the dowser does know, however, is that beneath the sands, "how many miles no one can say, / an unbroken water-table waits / like a lake." Water, perhaps a symbol of fertility and life, exists in plentitude under the parched and choking surface of the earth. It is curious that he refers to the water table as "unbroken," for this means that he has actually failed at his job. If nobody has tapped this water table from the time of the pharoahs, he hasn't found an easy-to-tap place for the water, either.

The pharoahs' presence in the poem is a little odd, as well. After all, weren't we talking about harvesting water? I suggest that the dowser, in telling this story, reveals part of his function. The speaker appears to be an eternal, quasi-immortal being traversing a shifting, mysterious landscape. He is almost a catalouger of the desert, a historian of the sands. His reference to the pharoahs hints at the mythic, ancient knowledge he has of this place. Furthermore, he refers to his "ghostly footprints," and calls the desert to wake at the end of the poem. Thus, we may return to the idea of quartering the desert. To quarter something means to establish it, to find the way it lies. But, in an unstable landscape, this is not possible. Thus, its true shape may be internal, intangible. Thus, I suggest that "quartering" the desert means understanding it. His job is to search the desert, to experience it, and to recognise its value.

He describes his process of understanding the desert, saying "I put every mirage in its place. / I watch the lizard make its lace. / Like one not quite blind I go / feeling for the sunken face." He tracks the mirages and biological events in the desert, searching them out always with a belief in the sweetness, in the life-giving essence of the desert. Does this idea of his affection for the desert feel like a stretch? I think not - he accepts his trials there "without complaint", perhaps because he believes in the rightness of his actions. When he says "I tell you I can smell it though, / that water," he asserts his literal sensual belief in the goodness of the desert.

I am not sure if I would want to write a paper on this idea, but I have "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on my mind, which is a poem of the imagination. One can't take it literally (I am having to learn), and so to read it, one has to simply open oneself up to it. This poem works in some of the same ways - we have a wandering, quasi-immortal creature telling us his lonely story and a spectral, shifting landscape. The way to take important thoughts away from it is to throw your imagination into it full-force. Imagine his steps sending out vibrations meant to wake the richness of the desert, the deep black of his skin against the whiteness of his rags, his hot and cold nights, and the well-worn cedar from far away he carries around. Even writing that, more questions come up - how did he get this cedar branch? How have his rags stayed white in the dusty, sweaty desert? Just somethings to think about.

I have a lot more to say about this poem - what if it is an allegory for love, for trying to get to know a person and loving them wholeheartedly? Morgan has a rich (and breathtaking) array of love poems - read "Strawberries" if you come across it - or email me and I will email it to you. At any rate, I have to leave this where it is for the shifting sands of calculus.