Monday, August 28, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/28/2006: The Embrace

The Embrace

You weren't well or really ill either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out--at work maybe?--
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual
look of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you--warm brown tea--we held
each other for the time the deam allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

Mark Doty 1998

Mark Doty draws upon his partner's AIDS-related death to craft this poem about that lover's visitation in dream. Written four years after the loss, it explores the concept of memory. Dream animates memory, giving the speaker some assurance that he hasn't lost his partner. "Loss" is not physical death; rather, it is the forgetting of a physical presence, forgetting of a body in motion, seeing a life instead of a photo.

The poem opens with such familiarity that we are instantly aware of the pair's love. In the first line, "You weren't well or really ill yet either," the speaker places his partner's condition between ill and well. Picking up on the subtlety of the face, the narrator remarks that it's "tinged with grief or anticipation," again demonstrating the visual intimacy of their relationship. His descriptions lend the partner a slightness, a delicacy, a lightness of form that brings into (soft) focus the couple's tenderness. "A little tired" doesn't make the lover seem haggard or worn; it gives him "a thoughtful, deepening grace."

This familiarity so makes it seem as if the lover is alive that the speaker notes in the next stanza that he "didn't for a moment doubt that [he] was dead," but that somehow that death doesn't matter. It is as if the lover had been out and about "-at work, maybe?-" and so, in this dream, death does not seem the most pressing issue.

Indeed, there seems to be an idea of progress and change in the speaker's grief, for the narrator notes that the couple "seemed to be moving from some old house / where we'd lived, [with] // things in disarray." As a metaphor for the changing nature of their relationship, or instead, the speaker's grieving process, this seems to be a signal that things are moving forward. The old house is cluttered with boxes, presumably of emotional junk, the kind of detritus that piles up over time and time.

But this healing: this is not the point. This is only the narrative, and without people, a thick and real human, narrative is merely an outline, a series of facts, of challenges, of events. Sure, the speaker could have thought of his partner, even remembered different realities, but nothing is so real as a person's "physical fact." Memory only takes us so far. This is one of the facts of mankind. Perhaps it is a blessing, for it forces us to see, really look at, one another, and prevents us from being haunted by a lost person's exact presence (if that made sense). This poem, on the other hand, wonders if the lack of this exact presence haunts us, if what really marks a person's departure is that we can never remember them fully...

Which is why this visitation in a dream is such a gorgeous compromise between the two - it is one night, and one night only: enough to assure the speaker that his lover is not lost forever, that there is the possibility of life again. This is closure: the lover's face looming up out of the dark, smooth and real.

Okay, this is all I am up for tonight.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/21/2006: Geometry


I prove a theorem and the house expands;
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

Rita Dove 1980

I take my friend Mark's point; this poem does deal specifically with the instant revelation of

More than a poem about strictly mathematic revelation, this poem is an incredible illustration of any kind of expansion of knowledge. Expansion by itself is a thin term, but say expansion with an exhale, sigh it and open your eyes; this kind of revelation is what Dove is talking about.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/14/2006: To My Twenties

To My Twenties

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman--
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten- year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another--and water!
I'm still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For a moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X------N--------, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren't a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.

Kenneth Koch 2000

This is exactly the right poem to post today. Why? Because I am, officially twenty (subtle, Sarah). So there's a lot to think about for this poem. It is perhaps not the most difficult poem in the world, nor the most provocative, but it is clever and funny and energetic. It's not necessary to ask for much more than that in a poem, I think. My grandmother said two things that stick with me about poetry, particularly popular poetry.

One: all she'd want somebody to say of her poems is, "it's like that." No exploration of immense themes is needed. Just life.
Two: that popular poetry is necessary for people.

I have thought a lot about this, especially regarding my own thoughts and needs about poetry. I find that having read a good number of poems in my now-twenty years adds new ways of thinking, or gives me words to express feelings I'd otherwise struggle to explain. Lines rise to the top of my consciousness, and I often find myself saying "there's this line of a poem that describes what you're talking about." It's not meant to be pretentious, nor a way of showing off (though there is some pleasure in knowing these poems. And it's only the beginning. I am in my twenties! Anything's possible! See, there's this poem that... Oh, wait. You all just read it.)

What I mean to say is this; poetry provides shapes and beauty to the thoughts we have every day, helping us to sort daily floods of experience.

And today, my experience is being twenty. So it gives me a few things to think about. I love Koch's poem because it is so candid, and because, yes, it's like that. Eager, sprawling syntax and energetic diction underline what it means to be in one's twenties. Koch is even gentle with the mistakes that decade makes, understanding that one trades youth for wisdom.

The first, oh, thirty lines gallop from pleasure to pleasure, excited to even think of a woman! It is a time when the awful, necessary labor of becoming in the teens, and the first signs of bodily decay appear at thirty. Furthermore, everything on that oasis (wonderful island) is exciting; the narrator imagines being exicted over "A palm tree, hey! And then another / And another--and water!"

Stepping out of the imagined twenties for a minute, the narrator wonders where this decade has gone. He thinks of the unemployed, overqualified twenty-something, acknowledging one of the less-scintillating bits of being twenty. But true to the energy and optimism of that time, his thoughts gallop to better things, racing to find a nickel he dropped out of a window. Even there, a friend! I know this feeling - sometimes it is frustrating, but more often than not what a wonderful thing it is to have friends. Sounds silly to write, but so few adults have a lot of friends now. I hope to always have friends, but who knows. Maybe I am saying that because I am twenty.

The final section begins when the narrator talks of meeting twenty in a bar (along with her friends teens and thirties). He would definitely hit on twenty: the most supple, the most interesting, the most generous of those decades. Twenty will throw herself whole-heartedly into your arms, but she may not be able to tell you what to do from there.

I think this is right - the kind of bumbling, unknowing energy that races around being this age. I feel it now, milling on my bicycle, meeting friend after friend, being mauled by hugs constantly.

A final note: the last line. The speaker shows a kind of grudging acceptance that twenty is not going to come back, but that he would welcome lovingly that kind of energy once again, that kind of freedom and unknowingness. The world is just enough with us at this age.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/7/2006: A Certain Slant

A Certain Slant

Etched on the window were barbarous thistles of frost
Edged everywhere in that tame winter sunlight
With pave diamonds and fine prickles of ice
Through which a shaft of the late afternoon
Entered our room to entertain the sway
And float of motes, like tiny aqueous lives,
Then glanced off the silver teapot, raising stains
Of snailing gold upcast across the ceiling,
And bathed itself at last in the slop bucket
Where other aqueous lives, equally slow,
Turned in their sad, involuntary courses,
Swiveled in eel-green broth. Who could have known
Of any elsewhere? Eve of out-doors,
Where the stacked firewood gleamed in drapes of glaze
And blinded the sun itself with jubilant theft,
The smooth cool plunder of celestial fire?

Anthony Hecht 2002