Poems didn’t start out intriguing me intellectually, aesthetically, or in some ineffable way. They didn’t take the back of my head off or make me so cold no fire could warm me. When I was feeling godawful in high school and not knowing why, trying to aim for the normal in my life that I felt everyone else had, but missing and hitting abysses, instead I would get a hint of something almost okay in Mr. Economon’s AP English class–even though I seemed to also be flunking. It wasn’t where I wanted to find any sense of connection, because it didn’t seem at all cool, but when he passed out poems or prose excerpts for us to write about at the start of class, I found myself participating with that intense, internal resistance, as if smelling something dead. But participating.
Then, on two different days, he gave us two different poems that had an electric effect on me, and I mean that literally. With both of them, the best I remember, the thrill started somewhere below a mental level, went into my limbs, and sent the hair on my arms out straight–sweet, whole-body shock; embarrassing, yes, but more than that, like I was given an order.
One of the poems was Yeats’s “Among School-Children,” and it stuck with me, has stuck with me so much that maybe a dozen years later, with fewer than that many rereadings in between, I recited the start of it whole to a classmate, having followed that pretty relentless call into grad school:
I walk through the long schoolroom, questioning.
An old nun in a long white hood replies,
“Here children learn to cipher and to sing . . .”And there may have been some sense of identification with the “smiling public man” in the classroom, along with that stripping away of false face that the poem seemed to do for me, with its transcendental turn:
I dreamed of a Ledaen body bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of some childish reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy . . .That part I find myself reciting these days, on the night drives between Indiana towns, just because it comes up on its own, and out of my mouth.
The other one was, is, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which seemed and seems too thoroughly, clearly over-the-top sentimental to be transported by. But my arm hair said otherwise. And, again, its theme had to have spoken to me, so similar, I now see, to Yeats’s poem’s–”this facade of public, static figure makes me tired and there’s something more true to me that I can do or be.” Does that fit both of them? Either way, this one went all the way through me too, with some kind of rising feeling at “The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks,” which made and makes a subsense kind of sense to me still, and then that final couplet:
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.It has stuck with me so persistently that I’ve bored groups of people with it, including by showing classes the “Skyfall” clip where M. reads from it.
What she says leading up to it might speak for me, too (except for the husband part): “my late husband was a great lover of poetry, and I suppose some of it sunk in, despite my best intentions.” That “despite my best intentions” describes my engagement with poetry from an early age, when a poem came out of me that I didn’t plan, and was embarrassed by—we were sitting in a Bible class, all in uniform, and I believed I had everything figured out that was supposed to happen there. Not the content of the class, but who I was supposed to be. Then my hand started writing, and my intentions didn’t matter anymore. The kind of itchy, anxious, “what will they think of me” fear seems to also come to me with these poems that have followed me, or stayed with me, maybe, at the times in my life when I secretly felt like no person would.
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
—“No worst, there is none,” Gerard Manley Hopkins
I have entirely rewritten this piece after the November 8, 2016, election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States.
This is a fact about grief: it pitches you past astronomical space and geological time, and past itself. Of relief: there is none. And there shouldn’t be.
There’s a lot I learned from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about sound, texture, figures, visions, language, emotion, form. Literary history and tradition, and its remakings. And there are many reasons why I return to Hopkins, and I would have liked to tell you about more of them here. I think he’s funnier and more audacious than he gets credit for, for example; think about the “ling- / ering” in this poem, and those bald and brassy accents. Also, while Hopkins is often read in terms of his Christian devotion, as a secular reader myself, I suspect that this devotion is much stranger than the manner in which it’s often read; I hear something closer to what Mark Jordan calls a “convulsing body stylized as a capacity for accomplishing the . . . paradox of permanent change.” I think Hopkins operates on—and invents—multiple fragmented registers of Eros, wrests them into music and shape. I think his mind had mountains.
But this At Length feature is called “The Poem That Won’t Leave You Alone,” and Hopkins’s “No worst, there is none” doesn’t leave me alone because of one specific reason: it is uncompromising. It denies any attempt to soften the blow, rejects condolence by spitting in its face. It refuses to find comfort, to pretend it’s in search of comfort, and to think that comfort is even a worthy goal. “No worst, there is none.”
On November 9, the general chatter among the left and left-leaning was more unabashedly miserable than usual. I’d spent the preceding year feeling sure Trump would win, and so amid the dread I also shared on that day (the dread I feel now, for that matter), I also felt a strange freedom. The thing that haunts me the most is speaking and not being heard; I’ve had a lot of experience with that sensation in a lot of different contexts. After all, Gayatri Spivak’s theory of the subaltern being unable to speak is all about the fact that although the subaltern might make utterances, those utterances aren’t heard, and, well, something about what happens when a tree falls comes to mind. In a way, it’s like being “Pitched past pitch of grief”: “pitch” is also a musical term, and even more basically, it’s an auditory one (speaking both literally and figurally). What does it mean to be hurtled even beyond the concept of “pitch,” and especially beyond the “pitch of grief,” yours or anyone else’s?
So, back to November 9. All of a sudden, a changed chorus rang: No worst, there is none. What made you think this would happen? I would find myself reflexively apologizing for responding so uncompromisingly, and—in lieu of hearing responses like, It’s not all like that, or There are enough people out there who don’t want this to happen, or I have to believe in optimism—I heard, No, don’t apologize: I want to hear. Woe. Wórld-sorrow. Uttered and heard.
Here is a section of this piece that I wrote before the election: “Forepangs, n. Not smaller pangs, not more manageable ones, but previous ones. Another fact about grief: it is an education. But here’s something else—this is anachronistic of me, I know, but, after all, grief pitches you past astronomical space and geological time, so I think Hopkins would forgive me—I keep thinking about his word schooled in the contemporary colloquial sense, like, You got schooled, girl! You got schooled. By something that wants to wring your neck. Damn. Who you piss off to get so wrecked.”
This poem is one of Hopkins’s so-called “Terrible Sonnets,” which is a moniker I like because they refer, unabashedly, to the poems’ focus on the terrible. They’re also called “The Desolation Sonnets.” From desolation, I think of the word desolate. More useful for Hopkins is the verb form of desolate (not the adjective), which means:
To deprive of inhabitants, depopulate
To devastate, lay waste, to make bare, barren, or unfit for habitation
To leave alone, forsake, abandon
To make joyless and comfortless; to overwhelm with grief; to render wretched
A challenging moment in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is Spivak’s abrupt shift to sati (or, as the British had it, suttee), a practice—and here I’m citing the essay—of “widow sacrifice” in which the “Hindu widow ascends the pyre of the dead husband and immolates herself upon it.” One of Spivak’s main points here is that close attention to the concept—the kind of close attention that constitutes hearing something, in this definition of “to hear”—seems strangely impossible in both Eastern and Western systems of thought. One of the things in this essay that strikes me as deeply correct is Spivak’s emphasis on the consequences of this lack of attention. Even when on fire, the unheard figure “disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling.” As a result, the unheard cannot speak—because speaking, recall, entails being heard.
In this essay Spivak also studies lists kept by some British officers of the names of women who died from sati. They’re “pathetically misspelled” and skewed by a number of factors. “There is no more dangerous pastime than transposing proper names into common nouns, translating them, and using them as sociological evidence,” Spivak warns, and this is precisely what was done. Trying to trace these nouns backward to figure out what the names leading to them might have been, Spivak comes across the quasi-name “Comfort,” and wonders, “What, for instance, might ‘Comfort’ have been?”
It’s hard not to hear a little bit of the verb desolate in Spivak’s question, and in the “name” of “Comfort”: as Hopkins writes, “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” From where did this “comfort,” this “Comfort,” come? To Spivak, in a way, the answer is that it comes from nowhere:
What, for instance, might ‘Comfort’ have been? Was it ‘Shanti’? Readers are reminded of the last line of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land. There the word bears the mark of one kind of stereotyping of India—the grandeur of the ecumenical Upanishads. Or was it ‘Swasti’? Readers are reminded of the swastika, the Brahmanic ritual mark of domestic comfort (as in ‘God Bless Our Home’) stereotyped into a criminal parody of Aryan hegemony. Between these two appropriations, where is our . . . burnt widow?
Which leaves me with something like this: as the figure of the woman disappears (to deprive of inhabitants, depopulate), so emerges Comfort, which in turn is nothing at all (to make joyless and comfortless). Comfort, in this scenario, can really only come from the disappearance of something else, someone else. This is why Hopkins’s desolation here is more compelling to me than Eliot’s; Eliot’s Waste Land does ultimately rely on the syllabic drumbeats of shanti, whether he also undercuts them or not. Hopkins’s wasteland (to devastate, lay waste, to make bare, barren, or unfit for habitation), on the other hand, directly asks the question, Where is our burnt widow? (To leave alone, forsake, abandon.)
Comfortlessness sometimes seems to imply only a kind of limp melancholy. Hopkins makes space for this “Woe.” But this isn’t the only kind of comfortlessness at work here. Greek and Roman mythologies give us the Furies, revenge-driven beasts with multiple origin stories. For Hopkins, Furies—or “Fury”—say something strange. (Paul Mariani calls this sonnet “diabolically exquisite.”) Not Let me fell, exactly, nor exactly Let me be felled; Hopkins’s phrase seems rather like both, and neither. And then, “force I must be brief.” Here is what I hear in this utterance: fury, when comfortless—when allowed to be fell—has a kind of alacrity to it that doesn’t negate the other moods of grief, but rather complicates grief itself, makes it harder to neutralize.
Scores of poets and theorists have cautioned against the tendency to neutralize negative feelings. Lauren Berlant maybe said it best: when you think about “the good life,” you end up drawn into “a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.”
This isn’t to say that all optimism engenders this kind of affective structure. Hopkins is also the writer of “Pied Beauty,” of course, which unabashedly praises “dappled things”: “rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim,” “Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls,” “finches’ wings,” “All things counter, original, spare, strange.” But it is to say, I think, that the drive for “the good life,” a rhetoric intractably immersed in our discourse of sociopolitical dreams, relies on somehow escaping the idea of inconsolable grief.
Where, in this, is our burnt widow? Where are Hopkins’s heaving cries?
Unheard, and thus unspoken. Renamed “Comfort.”
As Spivak has it, neither sati nor suttee is even an accurate moniker for the practice of self-immolation she analyzes. “Sat,” the word’s root, “is the present participle of the verb ‘to be,’” and sati, “the feminine of this word, simply means ‘good wife.’” The actual word for the practice of a widow’s self-immolation, then, is in various languages a bit more complicated: it is not exactly sati, but a range of words that translate to something more like “‘the burning of the sati or the good wife.’” Think of the number of rhetorical shifts here, Eastern and Western alike. First, to be (f.) becomes to be a good wife. Then, to be a good wife becomes the practice of setting oneself on fire because one’s husband has died.
In addition to widows and cries, what else vanishes in this rhetorical journey? Mourning and pain altogether, I think. Nowhere in the slippage from to be (f.) to to be a good wife to the practice of setting oneself on fire because one’s husband has died is the death of the husband, the fire, the death of the widow. Or, to put it more loosely: what’s lost is loss, misery, pain, suffering, and all of the strange and often complicated choreographies that follow.
There are many practices of self-immolation belonging to different cultures and traditions, and I mean not to treat them all as identical. Nor do I want to detract from Spivak’s focus on the figure of the widow, conflate myself with the concept of the subaltern, or suggest that I understand or have a theory of such a complicated practice. I’m also not interested in romanticizing the widow’s death, or loss more broadly. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the subaltern’s speechlessness is, as Spivak writes, a kind of “taming” enacted by “sleight of pen.” For Spivak, these tamings—which she critiques Eastern and Western thinkers alike for—center around the precise kind of vanishing undergone by the figure of the woman. For me, what haunts me the most is that the discursive journey that created the word sati obscures all of the emotions and affects at play in the practice, its reception, and its representations. The word lets us never have to think about “pangs” or “forepangs.”
“Let me be fell,” writes Hopkins: “on an áge-old anvil wince and sing.” The unabashedness of November 9 wore off somewhere around November 15. It comes back sometimes, on an individuated basis. But for the most part, things squeak back to temperate. Racist and sexist acts don’t make a racist or a sexist, I’m told. Or, There were other factors. Or, We need to bring people around to our cause, not alienate them. We should be careful to retain civility. You never know—something good could come of it. 2018. 2020. Inexorable grief is deemed irresponsible. Let’s not be the scary people they accuse us of being.
Hopkins actually laughs at the idea of comfort. You want comfort? he asks. Well, how about this: “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” I’m interested in Susan Stewart’s reading of these lines, because she finds it to be a “deliberate and theologically bankrupt oversimplification” precisely in order to “offer no consolation.”
I think it’s politically appalling, and artistically reprehensible, to engage only with—or from within–denial, hope, or optimism. I need there to be a place for grief, desolation, pessimism, hopelessness, anger, mercilessness. I need those things not to have to turn into anything, necessarily—to not be productive, to not turn into action. Shame. Regret. Misery. I need them to be allowed to live and breathe, to scream and huddle and cry. I need for our citizens, our thinkers, our poets and our writers, to refuse the concept of consolation. And if they can’t, I need for them to think about why they need it so badly. If you find that “a comfort serves in a whirlwind,” I need you to think about why that is so and what your comfort means and is. Of course, as we know, this isn’t the first time in this poem that Hopkins uses the word “comfort,” and the earlier times, he repeats it in a way that vacates it of meaning, the way a word said over and over makes it sound like jibberish: “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” The repetition of “where” inserted into the repetition of “comfort” emphasizes the shell-like nature of both. Nowhere. Nothing.
Thinking with our feelings has gotten a bad rap recently. Trump voters are accused, for example, of voting with emotion rather than reason. (Before that, Clinton supporters accused Sanders supporters of voting with their feelings, and vice versa.) I get it, but this is a worn-out philosophical debate with long, varied, and sinister implications culturally and historically. My position with regard to its role in prior centuries and other discourses is the same as my side in the contemporary moment: the appeal to “reason” is a destructive ideology, and nowhere is this more evident for me than when in the name of rebellion and resistance we simultaneously find ourselves invoking it to counter “feeling,” as though cognition and emotion were separate, as though only fools have emotion, as though we’ll all be okay if we shutter despair, grief, and comfortlessness and look instead to reason, productivity, progress. And in addition to dodging the point rather spectacularly—I don’t accuse Trump voters of voting with emotion; I accuse them of complicity with bigotry, masculinist fantasies, white supremacy—this unilateral warning against thinking with our feelings (let’s not be the scary people they accuse us of being) is a kind of a “taming.”
This taming implies that in order to be a useful political citizen, I need somehow to ignore (overcome? Forget? Obscure by “sleight of pen”?) the fact that as November 8 turned into November 9, I cried, saying, They hate me as much as I knew they did. It means that I always have an obligation to hear “comfort” as something other than the product of obscurity, or a nonce word. It means that if I hear “comfort” as vacant and lacking merit and significance, I’m out of line.
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” is the epigraph to my poetry manuscript. Just as there is much that Hopkins has taught me, there are many reasons why I feel so strongly toward these lines. (One of them is the basic reason that there is more or less no mountain—and I mean the earthly ones—that I don’t love, in joys and sadnesses alike.) But here, what I want to tell you is that I need for us to take these words very, very seriously—as seriously as I need us to take Hopkins’s follow-up to them, which is the strange sentence “Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” There is a missing subject in this phrase. Hold them cheap, may he who ne’er hung there? May you who ne’er hung there? May those who ne’er hung there and never will?
I suspect that if we are to read a subject into these lines, it should be we, actually, based on the sentence that follows: “Nor does long our small / Durance deal with that steep or deep.” “Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”: Hopkins renders it as a given that we can’t fathom our mountains. In so doing, he’s emphasizing that trying to turn them into something that can be held is “cheap”—Stewart’s word “bankrupt” comes to mind again, which I had earlier used in place of the word “reprehensible” above—and only possible when we don’t “deal with that steep or deep.” “No worst, there is none” is my patron saint of this reproach, my ally in fighting the elision of grief, my brutal critique of comfort, and my rallying cry for lack of compromise.
I first encountered this poem when I was taking a week-long poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence College with Donna Masini in the summer of 1998. On the first day of the workshop she asked us to choose a poem to memorize over the course of the week. I would be lying if I say I can remember why I chose “Among Children” because I don’t, but I am not lying when I say I have held every line in my head for almost 19 years.
I walk among the rows of bowed heads –
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Ha! Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed. Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy. There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
closed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted along,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke of memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.
To my mind this is a perfect poem, and that is because it does two very difficult things at once, all the while making both seem simple: the sounds and rhythms (at the level of the word, the line, and the sentence) are utterly beautiful, and at the same time the larger story that this poem tells breaks my heart.
First, the sounds: Notice how the action of the poem involves someone walking among rows of school children, and yet that too is what we do as readers–we weave in and out of these long and meandering sentences, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing way down to look and listen closely. When we do slow down, we hear the ever-so-subtle off-rhymes everywhere (rows/bowed, through/fourth, ready/ahead) and we notice the moments when the rhythm breaks into a sprint (“so as to be ready”) or slows to an almost stillness (“or truck/bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs”). When I was memorizing this poem, I remember the sensation of galloping through certain lines, only to then be caught off guard by how they turned or ended. It happens in the details, in all of the poem’s brilliant syntactical repetitions and inversions.
But it’s not enough for a poem to just sound beautiful. The poems I love have to tell a story that will change me, and (maybe here’s the point!) will continue to change me. In 1998, when I was 24 years old and memorizing this poem, I think I was drawn to the way that Levine took the details of working class children’s lives (“thick backs,” “soiled hands,” “industrial scum,” “cold winter mornings,” “closed gates”) and transformed their overlooked reality through the language of reverence. By the end of the poem, we (writer, narrator, reader) “bow” to these children for having endured the first decade of their lives, but, as the poem states, we do this already knowing what lies ahead.
But in 1998, I didn’t know two things that I know now: I didn’t know what fourth grade children are like, and I didn’t know anything about Flint, Michigan. In 2017, having now had two fourth graders of my own, and having spent time in their public school classroom, I know what these rows of bowed ten-year-old heads look like. I know what it’s like to look into their faces and see that they are, indeed, tired or hungry. And every time I do, I think of Levine’s poem and how he got it just right.
And then there is Flint. We know now that for years the children of Flint, Michigan, have been being poisoned by their city’s water, which has very high levels of lead in it. Exactly a year ago, President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, and the latest statistics show that between 6,000 and 12,000 children living in Flint have been exposed to water that has or will cause serious health problems.
We say about literature that, as prescient as it might seem, it can’t actually know the future. But I think Levine’s poem did, and does. The future is all right there, in the water that their fathers truck to the suburbs, in the battles they have ahead, in their sicknesses. He writes about the sad, quiet, unnoticed plight of children from the Michigan towns he knew so well with a beauty that makes us want to say his lines over and over again. I think that in the act of writing a poem that made me want to put it inside myself for this long, Levine himself became the children of Flint’s greatest advocate.
The Poem That Won’t Leave You Alone
November 1, 2016
“What was your first encounter with this poem?”
The poem that won’t leave me alone is Marianne Moore’s “An Octopus,” which is her poem about Mt. Rainier (though she prefers to call it “Big Snow Mountain,” or “Mount Tacoma”). The first time I read this poem, I was living in Seattle the summer after my junior year in college. A few months earlier, I’d committed to writing my undergraduate thesis on Moore. I had a fuchsia-covered copy of The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, which I carried around with me until the edges of the pages furred. Most of the poems felt over my head, and that’s why I kept going back to them—they were training my brain with new sound patterns, structures, and vocabulary (jerboas, ichneumons, frangipani, salpiglossis, chrysoprase). Because they were complex, though, I had an odd relationship to them, so that I would read them like tarot cards—I memorized them by general shape and the order they appeared in the book. I would also latch onto individual lines rather than whole poems (Liking an elegance of which/ the source is not bravado… with x-ray like inquisitive intensity the surfaces go back… the wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx… Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti…when one is frank, one’s very presence is a compliment… He/ sees deep and is glad who/ accedes to mortality). Whenever I’d find odd affinities, I’d take them as signs of encouragement, as if Moore’s ghost left clues leading me to a poetic vocation. While I was in Seattle, I saw my first Camperdown Elm, and also my first Monkey Puzzle tree, and, of course, Mt. Rainier, all subjects of Moore’s poems. “An Octopus” had a magnetic pull because I could read it and stare at Mt. Rainier.
“What’s your history with it?”
As an undergrad, I gravitated towards Moore’s more straightforward poems, especially “What Are Years”: Rising/ upon himself as/ the sea in a chasm, struggling to be/ free and unable to be,/in its surrendering/ finds its continuing. Lately, though, I’m drawn to the wilder, longer poems, and I’ve spent over a year now trying to write an essay trying to define “An Octopus” in terms of what I’m calling “the great distance poem.” I’m studying the way Moore uses cinematic strategies to create a sense of scale (i.e., close-ups, panning shots, etc). As I say in that essay, I think one of the main ways that Moore builds scale is by making the reader feel lost in the dense collage of quotations, facts, and lists. The truth is, I got more lost than I expected–I thought the essay would take me a month to write, and I’m still fiddling with it after a year now. As she writes in “An Octopus”: Completing a circle,/ you have been deceived into thinking you have progressed.
“What aspects or parts of it are most persistent?”
In the way naturalists identify different types of birds or bugs or trees, I think you could organize a whole field guide to Moore’s poetic techniques in this poem. Since this reflection is like a quick, one-mile loop trail, I’ll focus on her use of lists. Like an organic response to the dozens of waterfalls that you can hike to on Mt. Rainier, Moore arranges numerous lists and catalogs throughout this poem. The lists work as a kind of leitmotif—the tumbling sentences echo back to earlier sound patterns, and that music activates the poem with an implicit sense of motion. Moore’s attention to craft always astounds me, and her lists are no different. In fact, Moore doesn’t stick to one kind of list, but she switches up her technique. I’d call some of them “guidebook lists,” where she riffs on lists of provisions and what to bring; I’d call others “cinematic lists” where she performs close-up, panning, and zoom descriptions to capture the flora and fauna on Rainier. For this excursion, however, I’ll focus on what I call the “color camouflage” list.
Like her dear friend Elizabeth Bishop, Moore deploys a lot of color in her poems. I think invoking color is one of the most powerful tools we have as poets for creating atmosphere. When I read names of colors in a poem, I feel walls open in my brain–the poem suddenly becomes spacious, like a field, and not just a field, but a field with an emotional tone, from Dickinson’s “with blue uncertain stumbling buzz,” to Blake’s “crimson joy,” to Lorca’s “Green I love you green.”
In several places, Moore creates a dazzling palette by listing gems and precious stones. Take for example, this description of rock:
The rock seems frail compared to [the fir-trees'] dark energy of life,”
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather. (18-20)
or this description of the bears’ den:
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den is somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of “blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if whole quarries had been dynamited.” (49-53)
The colors Moore describes, the palette of earth’s core, open in my mind like gaping caverns and massive space. Most significantly, by using multiple colors, Moore adds dimension in the way a painter would, and I can feel my mind’s-eye shift across the various hues, like it’s perceiving shape. I believe this layering is one of the many ways she creates a sense of massive scale.
Maybe one of the most curious color camouflages is her description of the lake she calls the Goat’s Mirror. In this description, again, she uses colors in a list, which creates a sense of shifting light and movement, and this enhances the sense that this is a natural environment:
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror—
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human foot
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
“merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes of ripples.” (30-38)
In the way Moore layers those shades of blue side by side, I get a sense of light playing across the colors of the lake, and I also picture the varying depths of the lake, as though my eye were traveling along with the storm gusts, from the light shallows across to the darker depths in the center.
Why do I call these color lists “camouflage”? Because, in fact, the lake Moore is describing is most likely Lake Louise, in the Canadian Rockies. The Goat’s Mirror is Lake Louise in disguise. Moore practices what I like to call anachorism. If anachronism is “something out of its proper time,” in this case, Moore describes something out of its proper place. I believe that Moore creates a sense of scale by leading us, via image, across the country, and even across the globe. Most often, she does it by way of metaphor–another example is the beginning of the poem, when she compares the mountain to an octopus, and then a python (creatures you wouldn’t find on Rainier). As we try to get our bearings, Moore spins the compass.
“What would you say is its influence on you?”
For years, I wrestled with what I’d call a negative influence of Moore’s work, which was that I couldn’t shake her cadences, and they weren’t authentic to my own voice. I had a tendency to fall into Moore-like appositives, but in my poems those sentences sounded expository and weird. It wasn’t until I recognized that I was parroting Moore that I was also able to tune into my own voice. I’m still ambitious to emulate Moore’s precise vocabulary and ornate description, and I hope that I continue to learn from her how to create a sense of atmosphere and scale in a poem, and how to arrange lush, non-iambic music.
There is another way that I hope to emulate Moore, and that is the integrity with which she portrays her subjects. There are several theories about what “An Octopus” means; one that I find especially compelling is Fiona Green’s reading in “’The Magnitude of their Root Systems’: ‘An Octopus’ and National Character.” In that article, Green argues that “An Octopus” charts Moore’s rejection of the “eugenicist polemics that frequently accompanied calls to reinvigorate the American race” and stands as a response to the political climate that produced National Origins Act in 1924, “the immigration bill that legislated a quota system whereby the proportions of new immigrants would be based not on patterns of recent migration, but on the distant national origins of the whole white population” (137, 146). It’s devastating knowing that we are still rehashing these arguments today—it seems like racism will never not be with us. How should poets respond to this ongoing crisis? As Green argues, throughout “An Octopus” Moore makes a case for “hybridity over pure bloodlines”(146), or as Moore would say in the poem “the original American menagerie of styles”(124). The whole poem is a celebration of diversity in all its forms. Throughout the poem (and in many of her poems), Moore also critiques possessive impulses, and champions the dignity of animals. I mention all of this because in addition to the craft and technique that I can learn from Moore, I would also like to study what it means to be an artist who lives by her convictions, so that my poems, like Moore’s, can answer back to injustice, and like the dust-brush-looking trees at the end of “An Octopus,” help readers imagine “strength in union” (184).
To Dance with a Pliant Cane: On Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque”
I first encountered Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque” in a sophomore English class at Colgate University, a class called, elegantly enough, “The Whitman Tradition,” with something like five people, and our mentor, the recent Pulitzer-prize winner poet, Peter Balakian (Ozone Journal, University of Chicago, 2015). We read A LOT––a fair amount of Emerson; most of Whitman, including letters; we read a lot of Williams, including Paterson and In the American Grain; we read all of Theodore Roetkhe and all of Hart Crane; we read Hyatt Wagoner’s seminal American Visionary Poetry. It was both an opening salvo to a life in poetry, and a heady introduction to the oracular strain of lyric poetry in America, and the complicated garden mythology it tended.
Indeed, the machine was in the garden early; I see only now, writing this essay, just how much that class initiated a line of thinking I am still working on today––ecopoetics, field notes, the immanent sublime. Reading that much, a real “saturation job,” as Olson described it. Reading Crane specifically, I was transfixed by his music, and his soaring vision of modernism, not the least of reasons being I was suddenly in New York City (occasionally), walking across the same Brooklyn Bridge that was Crane’s model in “To Brooklyn Bridge”:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay water Liberty––
Part sail of a ship, part airplane wing, part urban lyre, there’s something extraordinary about Crane’s urban figurations:
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetelyene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
A vision, to be sure––”noon leaks?!” “cables breathe?!”––something sweeping and also scary to counter the existential dryness of Eliot, which still––this is 1983 or ’84––seemed to hold sway as the dominant voice of academic Poetry. It was thrilling, New Yaawk! Secretly, I also swooned to the Four Quartets, Eliot’s elegant cadences, even as I realized how wrongheaded they were as a vision for American sustainability. Poetry was cracking open. Crane countered Eliot’s infertility with a sprung lyricism that spawned a voice in my head: “O harp and altar, of the fury fused,” an ode to a bridge, a bridge figure that figures the magnitude of American space:
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
The acute plea is simultaneously mournful and celebratory, poised to embrace both “the bedlamite speeding to the parapets” and Crane himself: “Under the shadows by the pier, I waited.” An obvious reference to his homosexuality, Crane’s poem also seemed to invoke the clubbing nightlife that was then exploding in 80s NYC. Tragic and prescient, I’d never read anything like it. I recall writing a fifty page paper for Balakian, comparing Crane’s “The Tunnel” (the dark, vehicular nightwood of his Bridge) with Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” My hands ached (this was pre-computer). I wrote out and typed up my relentless close reading as two visions of an American possibility, split by century, modernity. It was nature and city, road and pit, East and West, Romanticism and Modernism, the healthy body and the sick body, dialectical tensions in the Aeolian harp of American lyric poetry. I would, before too long, immerse myself in the more spectral inheritances of that narrative, discovering the New American poetries, and Olson in particular, and through him, Ed Dorn, with whom I would study at the University of Colorado. A long ways from Crane, but oracular nonetheless. Poetry is a path you walk as you read, and so much of that came from Hart Crane, whose ear I owe as a starting point to my own. Everything somehow inducts from that cut.
• • •
“Chaplinesque” is, while tragic and visionary, also playful of the mischief of poetry, a stick in the eye, or more accurately, a cane. Musical, quick, elegiac, and deeply empathetic to its subject, Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque” is a classic poem of his middle period. There’s not much early, and no late––he dies at 33, jumping off a steamer returning from Mexico in 1932––but the poem’s brevity and relative clarity is of a different order from the more densely mythic textures of the last work, the book-length poem The Bridge, to which I’ve commented. “Chaplinesque” is lighter in its step, a little less mad. It moves by two principal means: an irregular but haunting iambic pentameter, and a process of identification with “the little man” against the world. These evolve through a delicate tension that places melody against dissonance, light against dark, comedy against tragedy, us vs. them.
Essentially a movie montage of Chaplin (think City Lights, Modern Times), the poem tramps through the streets of the city by way of point of view. Each stanza structures the encounter. It is importantly “we” who make our “meek” and “random” adjustments to the vicissitudes of “the world,” and it is “we,” in our humble, ground-level humility, who are able to see the “kitten on the step,” a haunting image of existential modernity. Anthemic in its pronoun, Crane’s collectivity is striding, confident, even as it is “meek.” And yet if the meek are to inherit the earth, they better have game. Crane’s ear juxtaposes iambs against amphibrachs in the first stanza, a three foot line to an alternately dancing triple step. Notice how the iamb finds the kitten, regularizes: “who find a famished kitten on the step.” Balances happen across lines: “still love” accentually rhymes with “warm torn”; we are dancing. And what exactly are “worn torn elbow coverts?” I take this as more Cranian “curveship,” protective and projective arcs that enclose us, give us pirouette. As such, we dance, “we will sidestep”; we will “dally the doom,” and “face the dull squint” with innocence intact.
Is it straight? Is it ironic, the Chaplin twinkle? This is the strange duality of the poem; Crane’s narrative evokes Chaplin, but also something profoundly empathetic, the agency of poetry itself. In other words “we” work hard, poetry works hard, I continue to buy the resistance. By the third stanza we are decidedly alongside him. Or alongside Crane and Chaplin, swept up in a theatrical play that suspends, or perhaps allows, sentimentality, “surprise.” Yet is this acting? Is acting an analogy for being? The performance resists Time’s “inevitable thumb / that slowly chafes its puckered index toward us.” The poem is an ars poetica, deft and countervailing. In the wake of the recent presidential election I cannot root hard enough for the little man. “We will sidestep,” we will survive.
By contrast, it is important to place Hart Crane’s writing in its own context. Coming of age in mid Modernism, he writes to and against the cataclysms of World War I. The great poem of the era is, of course, Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Crane’s response––most largely in The Bridge––is to push back against both the bleak endgame of Eliot’s exhausted civilization, and its misreading of American character. Crane finds his avatar in Chaplin, the dominant cultural figure of the period, and an artist who both celebrates the excesses of the roaring 20s and anticipates the despair of the coming Depression. The poem’s dialectical dance is a strange prophecy of the “slithered and too ample pockets” of American acquisitiveness. How thereby true the poem rings today; how premonitory against the dance of Twitter.
And yet, and yet; the fourth stanza is the turn: “…these fine collapses are not lies / More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane. / Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.” Chaplin’s signature move is taken to be a defense. The dispossessed require a dodge, something to push back against the “game of smirks” in the final stanza. But it is not simply an “enterprise,” is, in fact, no business at all The key word is “obsequies,” colloquially an evasion, a bow, but also a death rite, a funereal procession. Our antics both hide and provide a means of resistance. Here the poem shifts to second person, a surprise address that reveals complex motives in the poem: “We can evade you, and all else but the heart; / What blame to us if the heart live on.” What is at stake is indeed the heart, true feelings, art and love. Hear the pun on Crane’s given name as he stakes his writing on immortality. But who is you in the poem? God is one possibility, or the Muse, or oneself, and most certainly the reader. One can’t help hear the apostrophe as Capitalism itself.
A more localized recipient might be the beloved. For Crane, that rises as the homosexual other, a coded spectre that carries with it an ever-deepening sense of identification. Remember him in “To Brooklyn Bridge”: “Under the shadows by the pier, I waited.” Crane’s always outside. And the artist, the tramp, the trans, the dispossessed, the beggar, the brutalized, the innocent––these swirl as a complex of alterity. The poem spins yet again on Chaplin’s cane, both a recursion to the identity of ‘we’ and an enlargement of that strange symbol of the kitten in the alley. For all of those imminently dispossessed in Trump America, the poem stands as a shield. I did not understand the poem then as I do now, as I did not understand then that I would always be politically dispossessed as an artist in America. I’m not sure I know how things have changed exactly, and yet I keep writing and resisting as a way of considering how.
Thus, and sadly, life and love and art are seen, in the fifth stanza, as a game, an endless game of deal or no deal. It is the old dance of comedy and tragedy, and we stand on the brink today, Janus-faced. Through the poetic agency of “the moon” we stand revealed: “we have seen…in lonely alleys make / a grail of laughter of an empty ash can.” Seen reveals scene, the alley, a place of dispossession; loss becomes a kind of crucible of being. If we find ourselves painfully there, we also find something out: “through all gaiety and quest” our tragic isolation is exposed as something holy. Happiness and sadness, laughter and tears, alone and together, these opposites depend on each other, are necessary for a full life. The “meek adjustments” of the opening become, in art and love and close reading, an ability to feel and think with the heart. Crane gives us his, something multitudinous and American. It is a daring of our collective humanity to listen, to hear that “kitten in the wilderness” who is both I and Thou.
Reading the poem today, that Thou is also the planet, the moon its shining emissary that makes over fields and in alleys a new wilderness, the perhaps of a sustainable future.
In the impending collapse of the NEA, the NEH, PBS, and anything smacking of Art in the current orange miasma, Crane’s “Chaplinesque” is as good a place to start as any––something witty and pliant and parrying to the insanity of fake reality and fake language. In the words of a recently published “resistant” poetry anthology, itself drawing its name from a Whitman poem, “Resist Much Obey Little!” The poem dances on, resists the rancor of the street.
Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge
(Hart Crane, 1889 – 1932)
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;
And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!
Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Crane’s poetry wasn’t widely taught when I was an undergraduate, partly because Romanticism was as unfashionable as T.S. Eliot was the opposite. I never read any Crane poem before the late 1960s, and I don’t recall who urged me to. At first I was put off by his elevated and recherché diction. Rereading accustomed me to it. And then, as with nearly all acquired tastes, his work became indispensable to me. I read the Unterecker biography and began to identify with this young man, provincial, gay, who came to New York, hoping to be a published poet. After all, I’d come to the metropolis with the same hopes.
Gradually, after many rereadings of “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge” and the long poem it prefaced, Crane’s reverence for the structure became clear to me. It crossed the span that had once been navigated by the Brooklyn ferry, which had been the subject of one of Whitman’s greatest poems; and Whitman held a very high place in Crane’s pantheon, as he did in mine. Built in 1886, the Bridge fused state of-the-art technology with design elements dating back to Gothic architecture, a feature lending it symbolic resonance for a poet who wanted to draw on past poetic tradition even as he was forging a style for the future. Crane’s goal was to create a myth based on a material object. In so doing, he deployed a diction designed to imbue a practical construction with spiritual qualities. Like the poets of French Symbolism, Rimbaud in particular, he used words and syntax in a prismatically inventive way. I’d taken a graduate degree in French literature, so I was familiar with this approach. But to find it in a poem describing the city I was living in (rather than Paris) was a new and exhilarating experience. Throughout the poem, familiar phenomena from daily life in the city—seagulls, elevators, cinemas, derricks—are referenced and then transformed into something more than they are. I considered it an example of what Rimbaud termed the “achimie du verbe” (alchemy of the word), the dull lead of actuality transmuted by poiesis into the incorruptible gold of artistic experience.
In my first book All Roads at Once there’s a poem titled “The Bridge: Palm Sunday ’73.” It takes its epigraph from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and recounts a walk a friend and I took across Brooklyn Bridge in search of the building in Brooklyn where Crane lived, an apartment with a view of the Bridge. The poem presents the connection between Whitman and Crane as a metaphoric bridge across time that could lead to connections that came later. Rather than explain the poem further, I will simply recommend it to the reader. Writing my own Brooklyn Bridge poem, though, did not exhaust my admiration and devotion to Crane or to the “Proem.” I’ve continued to reread it, taking great pleasure in its rare diction, evocative metaphors, and subtle handling of iambic meter, rhyme and sentence rhythm. If not Brooklyn Bridge in itself, then the poem has the qualities that make it a sort of “curveship” able to convey intimations of divinity, just as Noah’s ark does, or the nave (“ship”) of a Gothic cathedral. Among twentieth-century American poems, it is the most seaworthy.
Click here to download the audio file and listen to Perrine reading “One Art.”
I don’t know when I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I have a copy of Bishop’s Complete Poems that I bought in 2002, shortly after I began graduate school, but I feel I must have come across the poem long before then. Perhaps I only believe that, though, because the poem has haunted me for so long that I have trouble remembering my life without it. I find myself singing the poem as I walk my dog, as I cook dinner, as I drive to work. It comes to mind not just in moments of loss but also in these humdrum and quite happy spots in my days. Maybe some nook of my being recognizes that even in the hours well spent, I still must practice the art of losing. It’s the nature of life.
For the ten years that I was a professor, I taught “One Art” nearly every semester to introduce students to the villanelle. The form is certainly part of what won’t leave me alone. Bishop lulls us into a false sense of security, reciting losses both mundane (“door keys”) and fantastic (“some realms I owned”), but all that repetition leads us to imagine both the speaker’s grave losses and our own. “One Art” is the reason I fell in love with the villanelle, its ability to constrain and compress, to make a seeming orderliness of devastation and unwieldy grief. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that the poem led me to love received forms in general and to understand more clearly how to claim and adapt forms to serve what it is we cannot say in any other way.
V. PENELOPE PELIZZON
The blackbird knows the season. From the tangle of rushes along the pond’s edge, I hear a nesting redwing. Out flings that unmistakable blazon, fearless through the cold air. Then another.
But the woods are still gray and white, snow deep in the shadows, the antlers of the oaks along the old farm track paled with ice and lichen. It’s the last day of March. More snow is predicted tomorrow.
Entering the woods again, my eyes catch on the pronged branches of a downed pine. Two impulses quicken–the thrill of seeing an animal; the limbic kick of verse:
The hart hath hong his old hed on the pale
It’s not a deer’s cast-off rack, just a branch. But the hart is always with me.
You’ll recognize those antlers from this poem:
The soote season, that bud and blome forth brings,
With grene hath clad the hill, and eke the vale:
The nightingale, with fethers new she sings:
The turtle to her make hath told her tale:
Somer is come, for every spray now springs,
The hart hath hong his old hed on the pale:
The buck in brake his winter coate he flings:
The fishes flete with new repayred scale:
The adder all her slough away she slings:
The swift swallow pursueth the flies smalle:
The busybee her hony now she minges:
Winter is worn that was the flowers bale:
And thus I see among these pleasant things,
Eche care decayes, and yet my sorow springs.
Appearing publicly in the first edition of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), “The Soote Season” is the most famous of the volume’s poems by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. It is, in fact, the first sonnet in the book that drove the Renaissance sonnet vogue. For this version of Petrarch’s “Zefiro torna,” Surrey has traded Petrarch’s octave-plus-sestet rhyme for a more obsessive pattern, an adaptation of medieval through-rhyme. Formally then, the poem is a mating of continental and English influences.
Michael Haldane, the poem’s most thorough reader, observes its allusiveness. The opening adjective summons Chaucer’s “Aprille with its shoures soote,” while the avian list gestures toward the “Parlement of Fowlys.” Surrey also recasts elements from popular medieval reverdies, or spring songs. A number of these have come down to us in The Harley Lyrics, and we can see how Surrey is revivifying older generic features of poems such as “Fowles in the Frith,” “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” and “Spring-tide.” The latter, with its list of vernal celebrants, seems a clear antecedent. Here’s its winsome last stanza:
The mone mandeth hire lyght; The moon sends forth her light;
So doth the semly sonne bryght, So does the lovely brilliant sun,
When briddes singeth breme. While birds sing gloriously.
Deawes donketh the dounes; Morning dews soak the downs;
Deores with huere derne rounes Animals with their secret sounds
Domes forte deme; Wishes may express;
Wormes woweth under cloude; Worms make love under ground;
Wymmen waxeth wounder proude, Women grow wonderously proud,
So wel hit wole hem seme, As well it beseems them.
Yef me shal wonte wille of on, If I shall lack the favor of one
This wunne weole Y wole forgon Such joyful abundance I must forgo
Ant wyht in wode be fleme. And flee to woods in exile.1
Like “Spring-Tide,” Surrey’s poem is a lover’s complaint offering, in the words of Emrys Jones, “a tissue of traditional phrasing” drawn from earlier lyrics.
But it wasn’t mournful erotic yearning that captivated me a quarter-century ago when the hart first hung his hed in mine. Nor was I paying conscious attention, I’m sure, to the poem’s subtle yet persistent alliteration. (In this line alone, five of ten monosyllables begin with “h,” though the meter makes all but two of them timid as their subject.) What caught me was simply the poem’s imagistic loveliness, its vivid depiction of the countryside in March and April. An avid sportsman, Surrey kept his ears and eyes open on his hunts. Then he took his listeners to the woods with him.
I grew up on an old farm surrounded by Boston’s suburban expansion. My nurses were the marginal woodland and blueberry scrubs and bayberry-colonized pastures, all within a mile of the town’s first mall. One neighbor had a nineteenth-century barn and a herd of cows; another boasted a vinyl-sided ranch house with a paved driveway and a basketball hoop. It was the 1970s. My parents were both working crummy jobs in Boston to keep the farm going. The fact that I could occupy myself happily by wandering the nearby nature preserve on the family pony was a relief to them. One time a neighbor asked my mother if she didn’t worry about letting an eight-year old disappear for hours on a Shetland. My mother said something to the effect that, even if I was a nitwit, the pony was very sensible.
It’s true. Suzy was a creature of depths. I’d sit on an overturned bucket next to her head while she ground meditatively through her portion of hay. She would regard me, the mild fog of cataract on her brown eyes in agreeable harmony with the white hairs flecking her dark cheeks. So old that her teeth had assumed an oblique angle, she’d tolerate my putting my fingers into her mouth to feel the soft toothless pads near her molars. After I learned that the scabby buttons inside her front knees were actually vestigial hooves from her multi-toed ancestor pliohippus, I put dabs of Hooflex on them when I treated her feet against cracks. We had an understanding. To this day, I feel safest when I’m in the woods with an animal.
Critics have disparaged “The Soote Season’s” static syntax and blocky end stops. I’d argue that the list, with its mix of present and past-tense verbs, suggests an unfolding narrative. Animals fill the woods. Some have left their trace just before the human comes on stage; others are still present. The observer enters, catching one detail after another. Some of the creatures, like the nightingale, are undisturbed by human presence. Other notably shy animals, the turtledove and the hart, leave only the memory of their song or the castings of their body.
Certainly the list appealed to my woods-going self, since Surrey’s progression of fauna closely matched the phenomena of New England spring. Birds signal the change—reliably around the third week of March, there’s a dawn when their song wakes me. Then, in March and April, the whitetail deer cast their antlers. Testosterone levels fall as the days lengthen, triggering osteoclasts, bone-dissolving cells that loosen the base of the antler until it drops from its pedicle. Every year I look for them. There are so many deer in the woods of rural Connecticut that I ought to be tripping over antlers. But they’re hard to find. Rich in potassium and mineral salts, they’re quickly eaten by winter-starved mice, fox, coyotes, and even bears. It’s much easier to find tufts of shed coat in the brakes where deer have lain, or lodged in treebark along the trails where they’ve scraped.
A pair of bald eagles is nesting by the lake. Who could have imagined we’d have bald eagles here again, after the DDT devastation Rachel Carson addressed in Silent Spring? I’ve also seen wild turkeys. Pheasants. Foxes. Last August I found a small ermine, perfect lithe and sleek in his dark summer coat, looking asleep on a stone, with no sign of who had left him there. A moose was here for a few days last May. People speculate that he migrated south along the electric line cutways that traverse the state. Then he was gone, perhaps further toward the coast. The likeliest route with enough water would be the cut that follows the scrub behind Walmart and Home Depot, down through the boglands along route 395.
I’ve fallen in love with another Surrey poem, probably composed in 1546 while he was leading a military campaign in Boulougne. Biographers have remarked that with Lady Frances de Vere, Surrey seems to have had a remarkably companionate marriage, and the poem is presumably in her voice. Desire and worry permeate “Complaint of the absence of her lover being upon the sea” (Tottel #17):
Alas, how oft in dreames I see
Those eyes that were my food,
Which sometimes so delited me,
That yet they do me good.
Wherwith I wake with his returne,
Whose absent flame did make me burne.
But when I finde the lacke, Lord how I mourne?
The rhetorical satisfaction in opposites–absence/presence, dreams/waking, finding/lack, delight/mourning–is amplified by the poem’s seven-line stanza form, a ballad quatrain tailed by a triplet rhyme of two tetrameters and a pentameter. Once I’ve become accustomed to the heavy Totellian punctuation, the emotional movement through these lines slays me:
When other lovers in armes acrosse,
Rejoyce their chiefe delight:
Drowned in teares to mourne my losse
I stand the bitter night,
In my window, where I may see,
Before the windes how the clowdes flee.
Lo, what a mariner love hath made me.
I find this image of a wife standing at her cold window to check the stormfront wrenching. The Boulogne campaign, a military disaster, was one of the factors leading to Surrey’s swift downfall at court. With hindsight, the speaker’s fears about her husband’s safety take on a historical plangency.
Days lengthen. They dilate at evening into a real dusk, a blue hour, the hour between dog and wolf. It’s my favorite hour, and March gives it back to me. Winter is worn that was the flowers bale.
The dog and I come to the narrow sandbar between the lake and the pond. Where an ice sheet lay last week, there’s open water, sand submerged by snowmelt with otter-sized bergs of choppy ice bumping in the current. Gusts of wind make the shallow water bounce, slush and ice chunks bite against the reeds high up the bank. But we’re a mile into our loop and don’t feel like turning back, so I take off my boots, balancing on one foot then the other to peel off my socks and keep them dry. Rolling up my pants, I wade across. It’s only calf-deep, but it burns in my bones, an ache that’s also sharp. On the other bank, I have to stamp in the snow to push blood back downward before I can reverse the heron act, standing on one bare foot while I shake the other, weaseling its wet skin back into its sock, and sheathing it again in boot.
Surrey’s contemporaries would have recognized his fish in “The Soote Season” as emblem of the zodiacal Pisces, a late winter sign, and perhaps read the “scale” as an allusion to Libra, the sign ascendant as late summer turns to fall. In one line, then, the poem suggests the half-year cycle of bloom, fruit, harvest, and decay.
Unaware of the fishes’ symbolic role, I’d read them as part of the taxonomic pairing the poem establishes, a sort of pre-Linnean vegetable-mineral-animal kingdom organization. In a sequence of Chaucerian doublets, bud is paired with the bloom to which it leads; hills are coupled with their opposite geographical feature, vales. Representing the avian order, a shy day bird sings with a vivacious night bird. Two different types of deer shed different winter features. Fish and reptile, the cold-blooded chordata, both renew their mail-like skins. Insects of the hymenoptera order and the musca genus zip through on cellophane wings. Only homo sapien is alone and aware of his loneliness.
We are animals and our bodies feel the widening light, despite the cold. It wakes something in us. Intrepid, the dog mushes across the channel and disappears after smells in the brush. I watch him, wind burning one side of my face. He knows there are muskrats here; last week he killed and ate a large one as if he were a python, simply crunching the skull, then swallowing it. There was very little blood. His carnassials snipped the body in half. Then he engulfed the upper torso, along with the webbed feet and claws, with a few up-and-down cranking of his jaw. His eyes were half closed against the blasts of sun and his eyelashes fluttered while he chewed. He looked like the young dog I remember, so I left him alone.
With some horror, I read about Surrey’s fate. The Tudor court was an easy place to run afoul of power. Surrey was first cousin to Anne Boleyn, and cousin also to the later ill-fated replacement queen Catherine Howard. As a teen, Surrey was an intimate of the Duke of Richmond, Henry the VIII’s illegitimate son and, as Richmond’s companion, Surrey travelled in the king’s entourage to France. Here, as guests of Francis I at Fontainebleau, Surrey absorbed Renaissance innovation.
But fifteen years later, the same king who had been his patron charged him with treasonous acts. In one of the last political executions ordered by Henry, Surrey was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. Ultimately, his punishment was commuted to beheading. The hart hath hong his old hed on the pale. I don’t really want to know if, as was customary, it was suspended on the walls of the Tower.
Climbing, we ascend the esker’s stone spine. White pine covers flanks that slope sharply down on either side of the trail. To one side steeps a kettle-hole of water, tannic from all the oaks that have dropped their leaves like tea-bags into it. On the other side, an overgrown field edged with wolf trees and a stone wall shows where a farm’s boundary once lay, before the land became part of the State forest.
I’ve been walked this ridge for the better part of fifteen years. O esker, I always tell it silently, your mother was a glacier. It answers with the rocks under my feet.
The body is an animal, the land is animate. Rhythms, smells, sounds heard below the level of conscious recognition move through it. Useless questions circle on the mind’s hormonal drifts. What is it like to witness your cousin the queen placing her neck in the cradle of the block? Was Surrey afraid on the water when he sailed to France? What was the name of the horse he rode on the terrible day at Boulogne when, according to a Welsh officer, he galloped desperately among his retreating soldiers, trying to make them hold their ground? What meal had he just eaten when the knock on the door interrupted and halberdiers removed him, age 30, forever from his table?
Over-development has shifted the deer territory, lack of predators has led to overpopulation. We need wolves, argue some conservationists. The deer host ticks. I’ve seen photos of ticks, fat as pine kernels, packing the cones of a doe’s ears. They carry Lyme disease, so common here now that that half the people I know have had it. Come home from the woods, I’ve had ticks scattered like freckles across my body, even after I’ve dosed myself with Deet. I’ve picked them off, I’ve missed them, I’ve found them gorged with my blood and embedded in my skin. Twice now I’ve had Lyme. I recognize the tell-tale neck ache and sore throat, even without the bulls-eye rashes blooming on my body.
The woods are buggy. The woods keep me calm. The wood walks themselves are vulnerable. Land along the field beside the esker has been divided into lots. Someone is selling it to keep themselves afloat. I fantasize about buying 100 acres and leaving it alone. We’ve built so much already. Already there’s almost no time of day when I can’t hear the watery rush of Route 6 traffic from the lake’s edge.
Last night I heard the year’s first spring peepers. They’re an animal missing from Surrey’s list, since they’re endemic to the eastern part of North America. (For peepers in poetry, we need Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” which gives them to us as the “ghost of sleigh bells in the ghost of snow.”)
Inflating the testicular balloons of their throats, the frogs chirp out a song, They have a special glucose-rich blood that allows them to survive freezing without tissue damage. Tonight they’ll need it.
Along the esker’s shoulders where sun has worked all day, there are smells of mud, acorn mast, pine needles. To the west, an opaque density of cloud is gathering. We love the things we love for what they are. Lo, what a mariner love hath made me. I know that when I lean out my window at midnight to check the stormfront, I’ll smell snow.
1 This translation, by Susannah Greer Fein, David Raybin, and Jan Ziolkowki, is from the digitized version of MS Harley 2253 edited by Fein for the University of Rochester’s Middle English Texts Series, available at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/fein-harley2253-volume-2. If you geek out at the idea of the reading your way through Anglo-Norman love lyrics alongside early recipes for colored inks, saints’ lives, and the fabliau about “The Knight Who Made Vaginas Talk,” then MS Harley 2253 is your book.
I often remember images from poems such as the way a father lets down a mother’s hair in Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Early in the Morning”: “But I know/it is because of the way/my mother’s hair falls/when he pulls the pins out./Easily, like the curtains/when they untie them in the evening.” Or the way tops of cars are described in Rick Barot’s poem, “At Point Reyes”: “the view from a window down to wet cars,/each roof a nail painted in black polish.” But it’s not often that whole poems stay with me the way Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s well-loved poem, “Song,” from her book of the same title, remains and never leaves.
The narrative poem tells the story of a group of boys who, as a joke, steal a little girl’s goat, behead it, and hang the head in a tree. It’s a simple story, but the poem has never left me and has somehow become a part of my existence, my body and brain, a part of my daily life. I could intellectualize the poem, deconstruct all the reasons why—such as the way the story unfolds, beginning in medias res with a strong call to action: “Listen,” then flatly revealing the horrific act, introducing the girl, and returning to the details of the how the boys killed the goat, and then the poet’s masterful commentary at the end. Or I could point to the mesmerizing use of repetition throughout the poem so that it feels like a gradual braiding of hair, returning to the same three strands over and over so that the poem builds a sense of lyrical urgency. Or I could point to the flat diction and storytelling style and the lack of sensationalism in describing a horrendous act: “Some boys/Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.” Or I could point to the images and similes such as the goat’s “eyes like wild fruit.” Or the continuous metaphorical thread of songs throughout the poem. Or…
But these things mostly talk about how a poem is put together—its bits and pieces that make a whole, its architecture. They don’t really fully explain why the poem has memorable power. I think that the poem stays with me because of the wisdom of the poet, as channeled through the storyteller/speaker, about the continuous nature of loss, of death, of kindness, of remorse, of memory, and of all fundamental paradoxical human emotions. The omniscient speaker seems to understand the multiple aspects of human nature, that even the kind people who try to hide the goat from the girl are not all kind and that the cruel boys may not be cruel their entire lives or might not always be cruel. This isn’t told to us, but implied by the phrase: “What they didn’t know”: “What they didn’t know/Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them….” The poem itself and the knowledge of the speaker are almost deity-like, serving as a guide to understanding myself and the others around me which are never static but always fluid. “Song” is a poem that is memorable because it seeks understanding of the continuous and never-ending complexities of human nature and in this way, the poem itself is never-ending.