Monday, June 26, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/26/2006: The Fall

The Fall

My father died.
I sat beside my mother
writing notes to the family.

She addressed, I sealed.
The responsibility was mine.
If I licked too long
our names would blur--
too quick and the card
might flutter out

where a stranger could see it.
From that high sofa
I could peek into the garden.
Apple blossoms whirled like snow.

What a long way home.
But we were home.
My thigh prickled against hers.

Dusk, and still a pile left.
Why did we have so many cousins?

I watched her severe white shoulder
for any sign of weakness.

Now it was night, May night,
the petals stopped twirling
in deference to darkness

and we'd left someone out
so important he'd be shocked,
he'd be horrified,
but who?
The uncle in Stockholm?
The niece in Australia?

It was past bedtime, a steeple said so,
and still my mother ruined her eyes
under that weak lamp
inscribing a single name
and names of distant cities.
Prague, Vienna, Tallinn.

A moth thudded softly
against the screen,
demanding to be let out.

Now my brother and I
play soccer so gracefully--
before we were sacks of bones,
puppets twitching to desire.

We dribble through each other
like smoke . . . the goal
marked by a shirt and a lunch box,
the score a thousand to nothing . . .

We rule this six-foot gap,
just the two of us.
Our father below
stumbles in his grave.

Nipple with a little brown circle
around it, and a hair--
I saw this in a mirror,
she dressing, he laid out:
the hair astonished me:
then it vanished
in my white cloud of breath.

A child whose father died
is following the body,
limping a little
because he skinned his knee in the championship game . . .

Something holds him back
but something draws him forward,
rivets him to the amber taillights
of the receding black Dodge.

Sometimes he slips in an extra step
or coaxes himself forward
pumping his arms, but discreetly,
so no one will guess the blood is hardly caked . . .

And I watch
from the crest of the cedar
where I've been robbing
the songbirds' nests,
bits of shell in my pocket.

Yolk sticks to my shorts
and dries on my thigh.
I cannot speak, the owl might hear,
but I whisper, hurry.

As if he hears me,
the child stumbles and begins racing
and the gates close behind him.

The bells start tolling,
first mourning, then gloating.
I count noon, midnight, echoes,
until there are no more numbers
but only music,
and the breeze rocks me.

D. Nurkse 2002

I can't decide whether the viewed boy at the end of this poem is just a vision of himself or a real, different boy whose situation mirrors the speaker's own. Furthermore, I think it doesn't matter. In either case, the distance between the little limping boy and the yolk-stealer in the tree represents the speaker's emotional distance following the death of his father. "The Fall" tracks a boy's jarring fall into the first wilderness of adulthood. Nurkse filters grief over the loss of a parent through a child's mind, and we watch the speaker work through his daddy's death with denial, anxiety, and, eventually, grief.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/19/2006: The Poems of Our Climate

The Poems of Our Climate

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations - one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Wallace Stevens 1942

"The Poems of Our Climate" twists back on itself (I love poetry that does this), first offering its own perfect image, and then becoming frustrated with that perfection, that completion. It touches on so many things - let me see if I can straighten my thoughts. The image of the bowl, light, and flowers at once rests as an image of perfection, simplicity, beauty, and domesticity. The poem might easily reduce to "humans are always unsatisfied," but, since the flowers represent so much and the poem goes into more detail, we may discuss fragmentation, beauty, and complexity.

The opening image is breathtaking. Stevens draws out the perfection of the image with simple diction and trumpet-like consonants. The hard "c" opens the poem, echoed in the "k" sound in "pink," "carnations," "reflecting," and "cold, cold." Similarly, the "l's" and "t's" sharpen the image. Also helpful is the lucid diction. Stevens chooses words as literally straightforward as "clear," "snowy," and "pink and white." The only less tangible element is the image of "snowy air," but a little energy goes into the imagining of it, and the hazy room's flowers materialize.

Stevens must work hard to carve this image, because the rest of the poem hinges upon it. The discussion starts immediately; he writes, "one desires / So much more than that." So yes, there is a perfect bowl of perfectly radiant carnations, but we want more. Perhaps the narrator nods at the readers, asking us whether we would be content with a poem whose sole preoccupation was that image. Could we be happy with such simplicity?

Perhaps offering another description for further meditation, the narrator writes of it as "a bowl of white, / Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round. / With nothing more than the carnations there." Important in this description is that the narrator does not add anything to the image. There is "nothing more" than the flowers and bowl. This is what we are talking about, he reiterates.

The second section adds more stock to the argument that humans can't be satisfied with simplicity. The speaker offers a hypothetical, writing that even if "this complete simplicity" took away suffering and cleansed the self, "Still one would want more, one would need more, / More than a world of white and snowy scents." And when we think about it, yes, being cleansed sounds nice but not permanent. In fact, it sounds a little dull, or even stifling. No matter how clear the snowy air was, the purity would inevitably fade or stagnate.

Or at least the mind would, sitting in this unbearably perfect room with its flawless bowl of flowers. No matter how incredible this immediate reality, the mind wanders, wants to escape, go into the past, the future, other, more, beyond, back.

Stevens gives little more reason for the tendency to roam than that "the imperfect is so hot in us." This contrasts nicely with the cold porcelain, suggesting that perfection slows movement, while the imperfect moves us with convections of "flawed words and stubborn sounds."

This explanation, though, still leaves something hanging; it doesn't explicity treat why the imperfect burns us so, content to observe that it does, and embed the fragments of why within the poem. It's a good question - why might the imperfect move us so? I suggest that it has something to do with the infinitely unreachable ideal of perfection; when we see something incomplete, the tendency is to try to complete it. This may sound trite, but think about it, even in terms of this poem.

The reason I write this blog is because the "meaning" (though I hesitate to use that word - it reduces the poem to content only) is not immediately present. In some ways, then, it is incomplete without a reader's conscious input, for the meaning isn't spelled out on the page. It requires work, and this mingles the won concept with value.

I have another thought about the vase of carnations. If they represent beauty, then the never-resting mind might be a reaction to their beauty, a desire to replicate the perfection of the moment (Scarry 3).

But in any case, it's a wonderful poem, and I will fine tune this last bit later later later!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/12/2006: Poetry

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against 'business documents and

school-books'; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
'literalists of
the imagination'--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them', shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore

I don't dislike poetry, and I don't think that Marianne Moore does either. I do dislike egotism, pomp, and I think one could definitely dislike being honest and genuiine. I am reading Unbearable Lightness of Being (novels are easier when abroad, because they don't require such intense alone time and concentration), wherein Kundera writes of characters who are in love, forever, inescapably in spite of themselves, and I think one might think of poetry or honesty that way.

Oh I do miss writing on this blog. I kind of can't wait to chip away at this great stock and process the trip through poetry...

love and love

Monday, June 05, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/5/2006: Portrait d'Une Femme

Portrait d'une Femme

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you -- lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind -- with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that's quite your own.
Yet this is you.

Ezra Pound

I visited the Tate Modern today, and was so moved by the great artistic shapers of the 20th Century that I needed to honor that with the PotW. Unfortunately, I can't honor it with more than that for a bit. If you are craving more close-reading, I did work on the Ariel close read a bit. love to all!