Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elinor Wylie

I can never tell, when I discover a poet new to me but many years gone, whether I should feel like I have found a beautiful though dusty artifact in an antique store, or like I have simply come late to the party. I had never heard of Elinor Wylie before, but I’m glad I found her. I’m self-conscious, though, at the thought that I was supposed to have known about her all along. I found this sonnet of hers in an old textbook, sandwiched between Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay;
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
I love this. This era—with Frost, Millay, and E. A. Robinson in the States (and Kipling and others in the UK) were writing—this is when English poetry hit its peak: a modern sensibility paired with a classic form. It surpasses the ornate decoration of earlier times while employing a technical skill that at the time was being busily abandoned by everyone else.

There’s a stanza from another of Wylie’s poems that has been buzzing around in my head since I read it—from her poem “Let No Charitable Hope”:
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear
And none has quite escaped my smile.
It somehow brings to mind William Ernest Henley (“Invictus”) and Dorothy Parker at the same time. As if those two could collaborate. I wonder if they would have gotten along.

More reviews to come!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Come, Thief – Jane Hirshfield

This blog is good practice for me; I often react to poetry quickly, and either like it or don’t like it, and it’s good for me to be patient, finish the book, and figure out why I like it (or not). Jane Hirshfield presents an interesting example because I like her poetry—I really do—although it is a style of lyric free-verse meditations I don’t usually like. Maybe that shows the power of her words: she even won over the formalist. Her verse reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s, Jacqueline Berger’s or of Wendy Cope’s when she writes free verse—I admire her skillful use of words to make an observation in a surprising and beautiful way. This manifests itself best in the first poem of Hirshfield’s that I read, which remains my favorite.

These Also Once under Moonlight

A snake
with two small hind-limbs
and a pelvic girdle.

Large-headed dinosaurs
hunting in packs like dogs.
Others whose scaly plates
thistle to feathers.

Mammals sleekening, ottering,
back towards the waters.

Ours, too, a transitional species,
chimerical, passing
what is later, always, called monstrous—
no longer one thing, not yet another.

Fossils greeting fossils,
fearful, hopeful.
Walking, sleeping, waking, wanting to live.

Nuzzling our young wildly, as they did.
Part of what I love about that is it takes on time and mortality—common poetic themes—at new, larger level: the rise and fall of species, including our own. That last line, far from debasing humanity, links us to part of something even greater. It is not that humans are doomed: we are transitory; being an animal, one of many, is suddenly reassuring. We are tiny, yet connected. After that, I was predisposed to like all of Hirshfield’s poems. Sometimes she is more straightforward:

The Promise

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider
who fled.
Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat like a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossilized escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,
But poems like this—patterned, forthright, allegorical—are not typical Hirshfield; she is usually more guarded and complex. Take instead:

“Distance Makes Clean”

Best when gods changed
into rag and sandal,
thinness, wrinkle,
knocked, asked entrance.

Such test is simple, can be passed or failed.
The softest bed,
The meat unstinting.

But when from far and mountain
they would ask
and for amusement, “What are mortals?”

even the flocking creatures came to tremble, cattle, sheep.

Scentless      silent
the distant slaughters, like toy armies in the hands of boys.

It so happens that my daughter, noticing me reading, asked me to read a poem, and I was on this one. I read it, and tried to explain it (it shouldn’t be too far off for her—she likes the Odyssey); I found it easy to understand and difficult to explain, which is a quality often found in a good poem.

Things I like about this poem:

1) It had focus; much lyric poetry can lose its focus.
2) Elision—how she leaves out unnecessary words even if they have a grammatical function (too much of this, by an unskilled author, would drive me crazy).
3) Phrases that make no sense syntactically yet perfect sense intuitively: “But when from far and mountain…”

One more tonight, because I’m a sucker for cool traditional forms: a haibun (discussed in an earlier post)…

Haibun: a Mountain Rowboat
Go for a walk on the mountain. The trail, up many wooden stairs, passes some houses. In front of one, an old man is building a boat. All summer I have watched this mountain rowboat. Like a horse in its stall, patiently waiting for its evening hay, it rests on its wooden cradle. Finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue. Horses dream. You can see this move through their ears. But the hopes of an old man spill, as waking life does, through the hands.
amid summer trees
blue boat high on a mountain
its paint scent drying
By the way, Jane Hirshfield is coming here to Portland this Tuesday, September 13, to Powell’s Books.