Monday, October 31, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/31/2005: Death the Painter

Death the Painter

Snub-nosed, bone-fingered, deft with engraving tools,
I alone have been given
The powers of Joshua, who stayed the sun
In its traverse of heaven.*
Here in this Gotham** of unnumbered fools
I have sought out and arrested everyone.

Under my watchful eye all human creatures
Convert to a still life,
As with unique precision I apply
White lead and palette knife.
A model student of remodelled features,
The final barber, the last beautician, I.

You lordlings, what is Man, his blood and vitals,
When all is said and done?
A poor forked animal, a nest of flies.***
Tell us, what is this one
Once shorn of all his dignities and titles,
Divested of his testicles and eyes?

Anthony Hecht 1995

*Cf. Joshua 10.12-13; when Joshua asked the sun and moon to stand still, "the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies"
** Proverbial town (in England) known for its foolish inhabitants.
*** Cf. King Lear 3.4. 101 ff,. where Lear encounters Edgar, disguised in rags as a madman, laments, "Is man no more than this?" and says, "unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art."

Happy Halloween, all! I was going to pick a lovely, etherial poem for today until I realized that it's Halloween! So, I chose Anthony Hecht. He is one of my favorite poets: admittedly a little dark, but genuinely witty, insightful, and a master of form. I may at a future date write about his poem "A Certain Slant," for it is technically brilliant and draws heavily on an Emily Dickinson poem of same name (first line?). At any rate, I encourage you to check it out if you have the chance. Email me for it if you are so inclined!

But back to "Death the Painter." The poem comes from Hecht's collection "The Presumptions of Death" which go along with woodcuts by the American artist Leonard Baskin. I actually have this book, so I will hopefully scan the picture and send it along with the PotW or (somehow) manage to post it on my blog.

To begin, we can note that the title is deeply paradoxical; how can Death be a painter? Painters are artists, and few (if any) things are more destructive than death. It could appear, then, as if Hecht takes a grim satisfaction in representing the artistry of death. This irony leers out from the poem like a skeleton's grin from the page, and the poem's darkness is consuming. Actually, irony is probably the best word to describe this poem. Line after line, Hecht presents us with a Death who is deeply ironic.

In the first stanza, Death is "deft" and stalking. He asserts his power, saying that he "alone [has] been given / the powers of Joshua". It is interesting to think of death as a kind of stoppage of time; after all, when we die, time essentially halts as we know it. Death continues flexing his muscles when he calls humans "unnumbered fools" who he seeks out and arrests. By choosing the word "arrest", Death implies that he is in a police-like position of authority. The rhyme scheme, too, is stronger in this stanza than in the other two; there are only two rhymed sounds (abbbab), which gives it more force. Even the fact that Death is the narrator privileges him.

Irony saturates the second stanza. The first two lines, "under my watchful eye all human creatures / convert to a still life", are sleazy and backwards. "Watchful eye" implies a protector, and yet I doubt that many people see death as a protector, a safe haven. Also, the word "convert" makes it sound like we go willingly, that we march gently into that good night, somehow retaining the vestiges of life without its movement. And though it would be nice to think of one's own death as a conversion to a beautiful piece of art, I have to say that the thought is not comforting. Nor is it meant to be. That Death, with "unique precision" (an odd couple of words, though I suppose that death has a unique sort of power), will daub on white lead with a palette knife is disturbing as well. Though his tools are literally painter's tools, "white lead" could be reference either quicklime that people used to throw over graves or lead's toxicity, while the "palette knife" could be a thinly disguised weapon. It is rhetorically similar, at least. It is ironic as well that Death is a model student, a barber, and a beautician. These are such positive, community-based jobs. And death? Well, community-based (or rather involved, to continue the irony) he may be, but friendly? I should hope not.

Death even goes insofar as to mock us, condescendingly calling man "lordlings" and then asking him what he really is "when all is said and done". Even that familiar phrase halts us, asking us to pay attention to the idea that, at some point in life, everything will be said and done. Finished. Also, the allusion to King Lear touches on the reeling madness that this kind of question can lead to. It is a line of despair tossed in with grim irony and gloating power. The final three lines call on the reader to "tell us, what is this one / Once shorn of all his dignities and titles, / Divested of his testicles and eyes?". It is a sneer, for this is a question for which no human has a definite answer, believe though he might in an afterlife (or lack thereof). The diction is degrading; "shorn" implies a debasement, status as a prisoner. This action involves cutting, severing, so it is an apt choice for the severing that happens in death. The final line is perhaps the most powerful, for Death openly acknowledges that he will take those things that make a man. Testicles and eyes. Now, I don't mean to say that only vision and, to be crude, balls, make a man, but they certainly are key components in masculinity and indeed humanity. One of the most shocking things about coming to college was the absolutely alien visual landscape. To strip a human of sight is like tearing away one of the vestiges of home.

Well, Happy Halloween, all! Some business: keep checking old PotWs. I have been updating them and filling in some of the blanks. This will probably go on for a while, because I didn't actually close-read any of the early ones, and those are some of my favorites. I will let you know which ones I have finished. For this week, I went back and filled in "Skin Full" (10/10). Also, I actually went to school about twenty minutes ago (in the rain! oy vey) to try to scan in and present you with the woodcut, but alas - the library's tech room was closed. In good time, it will come. The woodcuts are really very interesting. They are at once beautiful, grotesque, and deeply ironic. As I read more of the poems, I may report back with the different ways Hecht plays with Death. Odd that in the end the author is the one who toys with death.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/24/2005: Starfish


The stellar sea crawler, maw
Concealed beneath, with offerings of
Prismed crimson now darkened, now like
The smile of slag, a thing made rosy
As poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --

I appreciate the studious labour
Of your rednesses, the scholarly fragrance
Of your sex. To mirror tidal drifts
The light ripples across or to enhance darkness
With palpable tinctures, dense as salt.

You crumple like a puppet's fist
Or erect, bristling, your tender luring barbs.
Casual abandon, like a dropped fawn glove.
Tensile symmetries, like a hawk's claw.

You clutch the seafloor.

You taste what has fallen.

Eric Ormsby 1990

Good evening friends and family! Those of you that know me may know that I love starfish, and so a poem about starfish is very exciting. This poem, however, has more going for it than my affection for sea creatures; Ormsby gives us a meaty, tightly coiled, sensual description of this starfish. His tense diction, image patterns, and consistent use of paradox present us with a starfish that is at once tenacious and physical.

Even the starfish's color is moving and luminous. He imbues it with energy in the first stanza, writing of its "prismed crimson now darkened, now like / a smile of slag, a thing made rosy / as poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --". To begin, "prismed" is an interesting word choice. It is either a made-up (or perhaps composed if you want to be a little more poetic) adjective or a subject-less verb. In either case, though, its association with light adds energy to the starfish. A prism makes the starfish seem special, precious even. All of the descriptions in the first stanza, in fact, use light-based descriptions. "Slag" is a volcanic rock, which was once glowing hot, while "poured ingots" connote a cooling piece of metal or, more specifically, gold. The next description, "suddenly dimmed", points out another of the animatory techniques Ormsby employs; he shifts descriptions of the starfish, knitting different observations together with "now" and of course "suddenly". The starfish is indeed, as the first line suggests, stellar both in its luminosity and its energy.

Several things happen in the second stanza - To start, Ormsby continues with the light metaphor from the first stanza. The starfish has different "rednesses" and reflects tidal drifts as the light ripples across it "with palpable tinctures, dense as salt." This last description demonstrates the starfish's naturalness with its environment, for even its color repeats and indeed deepens the water patterns. Perhaps more compellingly, though, the narrator describes the starfish with distinctly odd word combinations. I have thought long and hard over what "the scholarly fragrance / of [its] sex" could be, but couldn't figure it out until I looked up some information about starfish. There are males and females (starfish are not hermaphrodites), so this probably isn't an issue of gender. A Google search, however, revealed that "at the time the eggs of starfish ripen, the male merely releases great quantities of sperm cells into the ocean water, and a tiny but sufficient number of them find and penetrate distant eggs". If you think about it, smell does nothing more than detect particles flying through the air and interpret them as "vanilla" or "shortbread." And so these creatures reproduce by letting particles go in the water, and their act of procreation could be kind of underwater fragrance. Calling this act "scholarly" is off putting as well; it could allude to the individuality of the procreative act for, though I don't agree, the word scholar can sometimes bring to mind a reclusive researcher. A final note about "scholarly fragrance" for a starfish: this image begins a chain of paradoxical images in the second half of the poem. After all, it is impossible for a human to smell underwater; try as one might, one's nose simply has no use underwater (Think about it). The fact that this paradox makes sense for this animal, however, establishes the starfish's alienness. Its "fragrance" is imperceptible to a human and yet works in its world.

If the above statement was paradoxical to an extent, the third stanza is rife with paradox. "Crumple like a puppet's fist" mixes a weak action (crumpling) with a strong image (the fist); fists generally "clench" or "tighten". However, if you have ever seen a starfish either on video or in real life, you may know what the narrator is talking about. Starfish skin does have a certain cloth-like quality, just like a puppet's fist might. And cloth certainly doesn't "clench." The paradox, perhaps more obviously, alludes to the starfish's simultaneous power and delicacy. Some starfish are so poisonous that they are deadly to humans, but starfish have no hard parts other than (sometimes) prickly skins.

There is tension, too, in the line "tender luring barb". Who has ever heard of a tender barb? I think the "tenderness" actually reveals the narrator's perspective. He sees the delicacy of the starfish's jutting angles as softly as we might see feathers on a bird. The next two lines lie in contrast with one-another. A starfish may be as casually abandoned as a "dropped fawn glove" or as rough and leathery as a "hawk's claw". It is important to note as well, though, that both images are those of fingers or feet. The shapes are carefully chosen to line up with that of a starfish. The word choices have appropriate textures, too; as my little 6-year old sister could tell you, starfish can be leathery and tough or as smooth as the softest velvet. I also love the choice of the word "tensile", for it implies a sinewy, mutable, coiled strength. Starfish have very unique vascular systems, so the internet tells me, but I would have thought the word apt anyway.

Until now, we have simply been discussing the rhetorical devices Ormsby gives the narrator to describe the starfish. We can look at what the starfish is by examining tone as well, though; it helps us understand both the narrator and the starfish itself. It seems, in the beginning, as if the narrator will simply discuss the starfish, albeit in beautiful, lyrical style. It fascinates him more and more, however, and the poem calls out to the starfish. By using apostrophe, the narrator establishes a relationship with the starfish. He ponders its color and its idiosyncrasies for a stanza or two, the sea star eventually takes hold of his imagination. Because the last two lines start with "You" and sit alone on the page, we see that the starfish almost consumes him. It has become the sole object of the poem; the "you" dominates the all-important final lines. Even without this privileged position, the statements have energy; "clutch" and "taste" are intensely physical verbs. In fact, the entire poem is devoted to the sheer physicality of this starfish - its unusual and powerful behavoirs, its scholarly sex, its luminosity. The final two lines reinforce this, for it is as if everything other than the starfish's movements have been stripped away, and we watch with the narrator, breathless.

It has been wonderful to spend some time with the starfish in this poem - I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I encourage you all to go learn about starfish, for they are beautiful and fascinating. I tend to like celestial imagery in poetry, so I will leave you with the final fact that a sea star's scientific name is "Asteroidea". I like thinking that the starfish is some tensile, alien being that shot down from above and plunked in the sea.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/17/2005: Prayer


Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn's opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough--
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset--
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia 1991

Hello friends and family! I am excited to bring you the poem of the week this week, because this one is so crystalline and tender. Sometimes spending too much time with one poet or set of poems will rub me raw; I have been working on Richard Hugo poem after poem for my Lit and the Environment class, and I am starting to ache with the cold vision of nature he presents. So I wanted to choose something a little more delicate.

That is not to say that this poem is fragile; perhaps delicate was the wrong word. It might be better to say that it is intensely personal and deeply affectionate. In this way, then, it asks us to read sensitively, with delicacy. After all, the narrator is sharing both his words to God and his thoughts about Him, adn these are some of the deepest pieces of a person. The poem calls to attention the sacred eddies swirling about us every day. It is obviously a prayer, and then immediately an unconventional one. Rather than saying "Dear God," as if he were writing God some sort of letter, the narrator offers the prayer to the tiny manifestations of God. These fragments are soft snapshots: a list dealing with sound, weather, and movement. The narrator's God lives in the details, big and small. While the other deified elements are commonplace but often unnoticed, lightning seems a surprising choice for its lack of subtlety. It seems large and almost too clich├ęd to be on the list with dewdrops and the "sweep / of the wind sifting the leaves." However, Gioia refines the vision by calling it a "blade of lightning / harvesting the sky." "Blade" recalls a blade of grass, which filgrees the imagery, and the observation that an electrical storm works like a scythe "harvesting the sky" is unique and sharply insightful.

The narrator then moves from examining God's place (for we get the sense that God was in all of the first two stanzas' components) to looking at his role in our affairs. He is "keeper of the small gate," a comment that confuses me some. I feel like I am missing a mythological, biblical, or autobiographical reference here that is thwarting my understanding. That said, the gate could mean some kind of passageway, perhaps between life and death, or maybe between stages of our lives? I would move to say that the gate does not lie between life and death, for much of the rest of the poem concerns itself with this division. By implying also that God is a "coreographer / of entrances and exits, midnight / whisper travelling the wires", the narrator expresses that, to him, God is graceful, has a fair amount of control over our lives (he is apparently not all in the details), and takes silent part in communication.

Now we arrive at the meatiest, most interesting part of the poem, in my opinion. By calling God a "Seducer, healer, deity, or thief," the speaker raises social and nature-of-God issues. Two of the labels the narrator gives God are straightforward and conventional: namely "healer" and "deity." These require little if any explication. Where this line gets interesting in the narrator's appellation of God as a "seducer. This label could be a social criticism - religion itself has a notoriously potent and aggressive tendency to convert the heathen (or even the occassional atheist). However, this reading doesn't fit at all with the poem's major thrust. If we are examining the narrator's vision of God, it is only paritally helpful in that it relays that this is an unconventional occurrence. "Seducer", with its sexual connotations, could mean that God is present in a lover, or that God acts as a lover. This in itself is somewhat surprising; there is such a Christian insistance on abstinence that to see Him as even possibly sexual is surprising. However, it does challenge the assumption that this is a Christian God (I will discuss this in more detail. For now, I only intend to point out how this narrator has a unique view of God).

Then, too, it is utterly surprising to think of God as a thief. Isn't He supposed to be benevolent and giving? Isn't He supposed to love us and cherish us? What could Our Father possibly steal from us? This assesment of God as a thief could imply several things. On a fairly basic level, this God could be stealing life from us when we die. In this way, he is the ultimate crook, stealing our most spectacular and singular position. He is also the ultimate culprit; people can (and often do) assign God responsiblity for death, destruction, natural disasters, disease etc. I guess that Uncle Ben was right, and "with great power comes great responsibility."

I also find it interesting that, while the narrator so desperately wants God to protect the "him" at the end of the poem, he acknowledges and even accepts his own death. This death, too, is peaceful and misty, occuring "in the shadow of the rainfall, / in the brief violet darkening a sunset --". I have to say that "the brief violet" is one of the more beautiful images I have come across. It acts within me like a pulse or a tug - death, from this description, is just a blink of richness and then a finality. No grand illusions about continuance or choruses of angels, just a dark petal falling and then night.

The final note of importance in this poem is how fiercely the narrator wants God to protect the unnamed boy. He asks Him to "watch over him / as a mountain guards its covert ore / and the harsh falcon its flightless young." Ore is a brilliant metaphor for a person, because it implies veins of wealth streaked in raw stone. Our richness intermingles with all of the other flaws and cracks and duller elements, but that makes it no less precious. The narrator again expresses his love for the boy by wanting God to fiercely protect him.

It strikes me now that, throughout this poem, the speaker avoids sinking into cliches or a sentimental mush. Sinking is quite easy to do when discussing death, God, and a dear love (i.e. the boy), so to avoid it is quite a feat. Well, I hope that you all found the poem as beautiful as I did, and that your next week is good! Check back this week for me catching up on old PotWs. I definitely don't have the time, but I am wanting to get serious about english, and want to flesh this project out.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/10/2005: Skin Full

Skin Full

I laugh till my jaw unhinges,
we hold me in with ribboning fingers.
Moderation in moderation. Who said that?
It makes extraordinary sense to me.

You say that life is a three-legged race.
They show us the door and we have some difficulty,
bound like that from thigh to ankle.
The street is a blanket. We will sleep

with you on your front, me on your back.
The night will be endless and we will be endless,
layer on layer, infinitely warm.
I sing as we lie shoulder to shoulder

and tell you there is no such thing as anything
that is not a small circle. Now it is morning.
Can the bones we broke out of be mended?
My eyes . . . The sun picks over their embers.

Lavinia Greenlaw 1997

Hi friends and family! Apparently I am on a deconstructionist poetry kick - the last four poems have been modernist or post-modernist. They have certainly been abstract and difficult, but maybe my life has been that way. Or I am craving poetry so intensely (thanks to far too much math homework) that I am needing extreme jumbles of words to satisfy me. Plus, I have used up most of my comfort poems/poets, so I am getting to explore some new and different territory.

At any rate, this poem begins easily enough - the narrator comfortably addresses us, laughing and chatting away. The imagery is nearly cubist right off the mark, too, though. Body parts morph and separate in the act of laughing. This kind of deconstruction establishes both the strength of the emotion felt and the connection between the narrator and her date. After all, a laugh so hearty that it becomes jaw-unhinging is pretty powerful, and fingers "ribbioning" together is at once graceful and conective. The first stanza's message is clear as well; live all out. The narrator is explicit about this, agreeing with "moderation in moderation".

The second paragraph discusses relationships and, more specifically, these characters' relationship. The idea of life as a three-legged race is an interesting one. That we have to work with others is obvious, but it is perhaps a little more interesting to think that we have to be bound to them. A three legged race sounds a little enforced to me. The line "the street is a blanket" is odd as well; the best that I can do with it is to think that this poem is the story of one night. After all, the actions are very specific, and each stanza fits into the one-night theory. On this night, then, the couple decides to sleep on the street. The suddenness of the line makes the decision seem spur-of-the-moment, an extreme choice in an extreme night.

The third stanza has the most exuberance of any in the poem; its wheeling, drunken optimism saturates the four lines. That the couple will sprawl upon each other underlines their youth, energy, and spontaniety. The diction in this stanza is extreme as well. Literally, "infinite" and "endless" are so large as to be incomprehensible. I would actually pair the first two lines of the final stanza with the events in this one, for they finish one of the sentences.

Where the poem really is interesting, however, is in the final stanza. After the singing and the careening and the sleeping on the streets, bones are broken in the morning.

** again, I will tailor/finish the last two paragraphs later **

Monday, October 03, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/3/2005: House on a Red Cliff

House on a Red Cliff

There is no mirror in Mirissa

the sea is in the leaves
the waves are in the plants

old languages in thea rms
of the casuarina pine

parampara,* from
generation to generation

The flamboyant** a grandfather planted
having lived through fire
lifts itself over the roof


the house an open net

where the night concentrates
on a breath
on a step
a thing or gesture
we cannot be attached to

The long, the short, the difficult minutes
of night

where even in darkness
there is no horizon without a tree

just a boat's light in the leaves

Last footstep before formlessness

Michael Ondaatje 2000

*parampara - one following the other, succession (Sanskrit); the Hindu method of transmitting knowledge through a guru's answering a disciple's questions
** plant with flame-colored flowers

Hello All - sorry this one is late, but rehearsals go as they will (i.e. forever). I hope and trust that you are all doing well - it's been some time since we've had a meeting at the PotW site - for I do consider this a meeting place. If nothing else, your consciousness is meeting with that of the poem, and, if you read this respone, with mine. My lit professor was surprised that I thought about school stuff on my trip to Montana, but when better to think about ideas? We have to apply them - this poem of the week is just one way of practicing interacting with our environments.

My two lit classes this year are pushing me in a slightly different direction in terms of what poetry I like. We are examining so much of the social context of texts that I am starting to really appreciate when a poem or novel puts forth a strong sense of place, culture, or history. The very title of this poem suggests a place - specifically a House on a Red Cliff that we soon learn that it is in Mirissa - a town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. This is the most solid assertion of place we glean from the poem, however. It might be better to discuss the "sense" of place, for Ondaatje stacks image on top of image and discourages exact specifity at every turn.

After all, "the sea is in the leaves / the waves are in the palms / old languages in the arms / of the casuarina pine". Nothing is where it is supposed to be - everything is contained. This is not, however, negative in the least; it is simply an interconnectedness of being. The past continues to the present, each generation learning from the last as a disciple learns from his master. "Parampara," the word describing this process, illuminates the idea that this is an exchange, but not tangible or laid out. It travels through the air, from ear to ear, based on personal experience and curiousity.

Nor is the containment restricting. The poem encourages throughout this sense of disembodiment; a house, usually a place of closure, ceilings, and walls is here "an open net," ready to catch someone or let her slip through the openings. This is why Ondaatje presents us with the lines "night concentrates... [on] a thing or gesture / we cannot be attached to". He wants to put forth the idea of ephemerality. This is somewhat ironic, actually, expressing an ephemeral thing through the long-lived vessel of poetry. Perhaps this idea can help, then, underline the concept that these actions, no matter how short lived, are still important.

Contrary to self couched in others (the sea in the leaves), the whispers of the past, and containers that don't restrict, Ondaatje says that there is still a point. Things are finite, and there is "no horizon without a tree". This could mean several things. Either there is always a bound no matter how far the eye can see, every vista includes nature, or simply that the landscape is tree-filled. I like to think, though, that the tree is actually a reference to the flamboyant that appears earlier in the poem. This way, everywhere one turns, there is a reference to the past, an artifact of perseverance (for the grandfather's tree flourished despite long years and fire).

I am realizing now that I am jerking you around a lot in this poem, first saying that it has a strong sense of place but that the place itself is mixed, then that it references images of containment that don't actually set boundaries (is this containment then? It may instead challenge our conventional methods of containment - i.e. the self containing identity, a house containing people, memories, or nostalgic ties) and finally that the world is actually bounded with images of perseverance. And I am about to jerk the meaning of this poem one more time by pointing out the closing line, "Last footstep before formlessness." This line seems to tend toward the dissoultion of self that (one could argue) exists in the rest of the poem. However, I think that it actually expresses a sense of identity through place.

This thought requires a little background on Ondaatje, not to mention that his personal experience has informed the narrator, even if Ondaatje is not the narrator himself. He grew up in Sri Lanka, moving to Canada to go to school and write. He often references the places he knew growing up, which I why I move to say that this poem is actually a story of home. All of the transitory images, the conflicting concepts resolve like beams of light if you think about the poem as an expression of a home. What is home, anyway? How does it connect with our identity? The answers to those questions are necessarily connected and immeasurably complex. Were someone to ask me about my deepest memories as a child (and perhaps how it feels to remember them), I might cite the poplar tree that got struck by lightning, a bonica bush in the rain, leaves against the sun, brown carpet, a Tonka truck, and flashes of my family. These images are varied and vague; if I mixed them with how I see myself now, how I understand my family history to have unfolded at home, and how that will affect me in the future, it might come out somewhat like "Red House on a Cliff."

If this discussion has been hard to follow, I apologise. The poem is difficult and scattered, requiring a more rigorous approach than I have given it here. This is one I may come back to and give a more comprehensive, argumentative treatment. Let me just leave you with the question of how identity gets tied to place. I think that, just as the selves, natural or otherwise, reflect each other within the poem, so do our selves enter and leave different elements of home. We become invested in them, momentarily losing our form by interacting with leaves, the casaurina pine, the house, the night etc. The last line, then, may also be the beginning of another of these encounters.