Lament

Today, another draft of another poem, also recent. Next, I think I’ll move to older work…material that I haven’t submitted for publication (or that I have submitted but has not been accepted). For now, though–this recent, perhaps too-fresh, lament.

~ ~ ~

The Work of the Body as It Ceases

Before we know ourselves
the body exerts itself, pulses,
lungs open into breath
blood sings with that air.

Unless there is ache
or ecstasy, the body labors
unnoticed while we tend
to other forms of work.

Look, now, at the last days
when the reliable diligence
of heart, lungs, kidneys halts
under strain the body can’t abide.

The throat cannot do its job
though body needs sustenance
and consciousness yearns
to say something unconveyable.

There is work always.
The long labor of maintenance
which, being humble, produces
no outcome except living.

The body’s nothing if not persistent
even as it dies, as vision narrows
and breathing weakens.
Those lively nerves? They settle.

Slowing is also work, as is
decay: work of a new sort
to which the workhorse body
can adapt in the quiet room

where those who loved the body
during its years of industry
do the work of mourning
which does not ever cease.

~

sunset1

Advertisements

Lacunae

With some encouragement from friends and colleagues, and with some trepidation, I am posting for the next few weeks some unfinished poem drafts and some poems from my Red Queen Hypothesis manuscript. That’s the plan, anyway. Plans, especially creative writing plans, seem often to go awry.

Given that my last two posts concern how we tell stories and what interrupts us from our narratives, I present herewith a draft of a poem concerning just that. I experiment here with gaps in form; I think of erasure poems (see Dave Bonta’s erasure poems on Via Negative or Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”) though this is not one–the “erasure” here is internal, a series of neurological gaps and stutters.

I don’t know if the poem works as is, could use more tweaking and re-arrangement, or is so confusing as to be far off-base. Perhaps that depends upon the reader.

~

 

Lacunae

Equinox, different

ann e. michael poet

Autumn

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

 

Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
rages.

What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
of Tatars.

Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
their existence.

Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
gush.

Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
Red Army.

~~

If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.

Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.

Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”

In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?

I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.

~~

IMG_0127

Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]

Back to the garden

June brought much-needed rain, a little late for the peas, which were sparse and small this year, but in time to nourish the later-bearing vegetables. Zucchini and beans abound. It is still too early for the zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos to bloom; but the butterflies have arrived to check out the buddleia. I recognize that buddleia has become an aggressive invader and is overused in US landscaping–and may not even be a good host for certain varieties of lepidoptera–yet I confess I love the huge purple blooms that draw so many winged creatures to sport where I can watch them from my kitchen window.

~

Speaking of winged garden creatures, I have encountered a new one. New to me, that is. While sitting on my porch, I watched with fascination as a large wasp, carrying a blade of straw in its legs, poked at a hole in the wooden post. The wasp pushed the straw into the hole, then crawled in after it, stayed a few seconds, then flew out. Some minutes later, it returned with a piece of grass and proceeded to repeat the process.

nest of the wasp

nest of the wasp

Isodontia, apparently: the appropriately-named grass-carrying wasp. I imagine this insect will eventually crawl its way into a future poem.

Here’s a video of grass-carrying wasps at work from Dick Walton’s Natural History Services site (a terrific resource, by the way). And thank you, Google. It’s this sort of thing that I can celebrate about the internet…my library for all things weird and natural, paradoxical as that sometimes seems.

~

My walkway garden

My walkway garden

~

Meanwhile, my perennial beds flourish (with a few too many weeds, ferns, and hostas–but oh well!!). I plan to make pilgrimages to a few gardens further afield later in July. We shall see if the planets align.

And a nod to Joni Mitchell; when I hear the words “back to the garden,” I can’t help but think of her song “Woodstock.”

~

What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

About art (a poem)

While trying, I fear in vain, to tidy up and organize my poetry files, I came across this poem composed before 1997. Despite its flaws, I decided that rather than revise I should post it here, because it offers a narrative about how a person–shall I specify, this particular person–might come to love the wide, multicultural, historical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent “world” of art.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)
A Life Saved by Art

The library’s card catalog led me
to shelves of art books: oversized, glossy-paged,
crabbed with tiny, inarticulate commentary
about volume, form, structure,
perspective, light and shadow,
innovation and rebelliousness
and the emotive content of the line.

What did it mean? I was eleven.
I made a hagiography based upon
the beauty of still things, life arrested,
mid-gesture, on canvas, wood, stucco,
merging all my saints and artists into
a collage of stories as naive
as Rousseau’s jungle scenes–

but I believed Rousseau, and Breughel
and the intimacies of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba
and the endless processions of amazed Magi
through the narrow streets of precarious Italian towns
and Degas’ women tying up their hair
and the rich invitingness of Gauguin’s flowers
and the stark heart of Georgia O’Keeffe–12-01-05MagiFraAngelico

I believed I would learn to comprehend my life,
put it into perspective through
Giotto’s tiny and exquisite backgrounds,
Dürer’s precise grids, believed I would discover
an understanding of the abstract.
I wanted to be transformed through art,
the sanctity and structure of the line,
and, through them, out
of the coming confines of adolescence.

I forget so much of what I learned,
but still I possess Arles, and Athens,
the buff-colored pages of
Da Vinci’s notebooks, ink and ideas:
ink which now sprawls abstract upon the page
while I consider the emotive content
of each line–and brilliant fields of color
daubed in wild and perfect order:
a moment, a childhood, a life
saved by art.black-hollyhock-blue-larkspur-georgia-okeeffe

~ © 1997 Ann E. Michael

~

There are better poems about art (even by me); but I treasure the yearning outlook this piece suggests, and its tendency toward overstatement as well.

Gestation

Without committing to any resolution to do so, I spent some time recently with my own poetry: the unfinished drafts, the partially-revised pieces, the fragments and the poems I had put aside for the time being. “For the time being” was, in some cases, over a decade.

This putting-aside led me to wonder what process–other than forgetfulness–leads me to abandon a poem for such a long time. I am aware that artists in other media experience this sort of pause in the working of making; sometimes, the years on a project are full of revision and detailing (Rodin’s doors “The Gates of Hell,” for example) but often, the composition just lies about for a perhaps-indefinite number of years. I believe the poet Donald Hall refers to this as a poem’s necessary gestation.

In a 2008 interview (by Wendy Andrews), Galway Kinnell said, “When I can take a poem of mine that I think is finished and put it aside for a month and pick it up and read it and find it interesting, and if I encounter no place where I think it should be changed, and if at the end it surprises me, even though I wrote it, I think it might be done.”

That’s what I have been endeavoring to accomplish for the past two weeks or so: a reading of my own drafts to discover whether any of the poems are capable of surprising me, or if any of them might be revised into achieving that state. It is a lengthy project and a quiet one that requires considerable internal analysis and an objective stance. And maybe that is one benefit to letting the work sit around for so long…by the time I peruse the draft again, I have forgotten the initial inspiration, so the poem has to operate on its own merits as a composition rather than through any residual inclination or emotional attachment I may have once had for it.

If my own work manages nevertheless to impress me in some way, I tend to harbor the hope that it may be salvageable. If not, I can keep revising, or put the drafts into my “dead poems” file and consider it incapable of resuscitation.

The parallels to pregnancy and gestation may be inevitable–parents harbor hopes that their children will be good people who are successful in the world, just as poets want their poems to be “good” –but that sort of gestation analogy only goes so far. We cannot revise or rework our human offspring, and an objective analysis of their strengths and weaknesses is unlikely to lead to betterment of either party. But a work of the imagination can be re-envisioned, reconsidered, and made new.

That’s the work of the next many weeks. I am curious indeed as to where the work, after its long gestation, will lead me.

chick-hatching