Monday, November 8, 2010

Heart Turned Back – Bertha Rogers

Bertha Rogers write complex free verse frequently about nature, farming, animals and family. Her poetry, lacking any kind of sound or rhythmic device, relies mostly on image, metaphor and juxtaposition, her best poems leaving the reader enjoying the pictures seen or the language used to describe them. In theme and mood she is something like Robert Frost or Seamus Heaney.

Here’s the thing: her poetry is not easy.

No one says it should be; even before the obfuscatory modernists got their hands on it, good poetry was not necessarily easy to understand the first time through. I’m just saying that many things about Rogers’ poetry make it difficult, like a tight knot of words that the reader must unpick. Consider this poem of hers:

At sixteen I cut into the worm, I
contemptuously dissected the frog,
laid out on mirrored metal—I saw my face.
Who, you ask, will kill the cat that murders
the bluebird’s chick? In that doomed orchard
dying trees forgot how they edged toward
bees, convulsed to fruit. High in the woods,
beneath the hawthorns, the skirted brambles,
deer the color of dying leaves turn and
turn and go to sleep. The clock in the kitchen,
time swollen, ticks. I talk to the dishes,
the immortal cats. Days like this, the dew
dazzling the sky, it’s all beauty to me;
even the stopped wing; the bent, wet grass.
It’s not that it is incoherent, but it does feel like we are playing cards, and I’m trying to guess Rogers’ hand as she lays down one card slowly after the other, her face inscrutable. The meaning lies in the relationship of the images to each other, but like those “magic eye” posters, you have to keep staring until the meaning comes into focus.

Furthermore, Rogers is not bound by typical diction (not that any poet should be, of course). As a result, the reader is faced with phrases like

I beg them back—those gone prodigals; their
sweet hapless speech outvoicing resilience.
Such word choice can induce both insight and head-scratching.  My guess is that Rogers’ appeal will largely depend on the reader and the reader’s mood: read these poems without distraction and hurry, and savor the rich descriptions.

My favorite from this collection is “A Hunting Story”:

The Saturday hunter meant well.
He meant to kill the jackrabbit
jumping from rotten corn stalks
in the winter-rimed field.

Confused, the old black spaniel
forgot she was a hunting bitch;
became the hunted, the white tail.
She jumped, too.

The bullet from the .22
Got the spaniel clean in the chest.
Her heart’s blood burst to snow,
to stalks, to furrows.

She died in slow black circles.

I sat straight on the wooden chair,
comforting the spaniel’s daughter
and crying, crying. Linoleum roses
grew red at our feet.

This happened in another time.

In the evenings, when I tell
my city-provincial dogs, they stare,
then run in happy circles and fall,
glad, on the Turkish rug.

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