Extremities

Dear Todd,

The deer hunter is an orange dot
among the trees on the hillside
from where his teenage son sits
in their bright red pickup, running
the engine to thaw out his toes.
There’s a spot in the otherwise
uniformly white sky that’s too bright
to look at. A red-bellied woodpecker
taps, listens, taps — a surgeon
tending to whatever succulent
parasites infect a tree. The deer
have left the melted semicircles
where they slept & their soft
brown eyes & beautiful muzzles
are now bent on finding their daily
five pounds of twigs & tree seedlings,
converting the forest of the future
into flesh & excrement. Day Six
of rifle season & they’ve turned
wild again, like any hunted thing.
In the field, the shadows of dried brome
are so faint, you’d never see them
if they weren’t trembling
in every curled extremity.

***

The latest edition of the Festival of the Trees is up at A Neotropical Savanna, after a delay occasioned by the loss of internet service (something I can relate to). Go look.

Also, I encouraged Dana Guthrie Martin to post her statement of purpose as a poet, which she drew up as part of the MFA submissions process. It’s one of the best personal manifestos I’ve ever read, and now it has me thinking maybe I should attempt something similar. If you were to write a statement of purpose — as a writer, as a blogger, as a human being — what would it say? How would you justify what you do, or don’t do?

5 Comments


  1. Dave, you are being really touching and amazing in a whole lotta ways these days. What’s up? Winter must suit you.

    Hey, how do you choose your line breaks? I’ve been thinking about the line and line breaks a lot lately. I might have asked you this before, but please indulge me.

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  2. Dana – I always do my best work in the winter. I wasn’t sure this poem qualified, though. (It seems like it’s missing something – not sure what. I’ll have to remember to revisit it in a couple of months.)

    Lines: eek. I don’t have any consistent approach; it depends on the poem. But my language is always highly rhythmic and tending toward pentameter, and lately I’ve been doing four beats to (most) lines to try and maintain a dynamic tension. I admire poems with a lot of enjambment, but I’m not always too successful with that myself. So usually my line breaks permit at least a slight pause, though they don’t presume it. I also pay attention to line length in most (but not all) poems. I do feel that poets over the last 100 years or so have focused too much on the eye and not enough on the ear; I think that most of the time we need to be conscious of both in roughly equal measure. For example, as a reader, much neo-formalist verse leaves me fairly cold, with its end-rhymes obvious only to the eye, but I love poems where rhymes fall at regular, metrical intervals but are hidden by the arrangement of line breaks, so that one only discovers them after a second reading, or by reading out loud. Ai does this especially well. If I weren’t such a lazy cuss, I’d try to write poems like that myself more often.

    One can’t discuss line theory without considering stanzas, too. I’ve noticed in American poetry over the last couple decades a strong trend toward poems that create an illusion of order with regular stanzas of two, three or four lines. Almost every poem in the book I was reading this morning, for example – Doty’s Atlantis – does this. Often the breaks seem completely arbitrary, but they do appeal to the eye, and the addition of white space can make a long poem easier to take in, for some reason. I won’t deny I’ve experimented with that approach, but I don’t really understand it. So most of the time, if I have stanza breaks, they fall where paragraph breaks would if it were prose. This reinforces a tendency to make lines break along (slight) semantic divisions, too. Of course, in a poem whose momentum depends in part on non sequitors, like the one above, a lack of stanza breaks can be much more effective, I think.

    Does any of this make sense? I apologize for the imprecision of my terminology. As you know, I’ve never taken a poetry workshop, and have rarely read any theory, so this is all stuff I’ve come up with on my own, based on my habits and preferences as a reader. I think you and I share a basic, populist presumption that one shouldn’t require any specialized knowledge to read and understand a poem. This more than anything predisposes me to favor less artifical-seeming arrangements of words on the page.

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  3. Dave, I mean you overall, not just your writing. You are kinda extra awesome right now.

    I should do scansion on some of your poems. It would help me see the beats better. I read your work and I don’t realize that you are writing in a certain number of beats per line. This must mean that you do it very naturally. Or that I am a lazy reader. ;)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the line. It’s all very interesting to me. Nathan and I have been talking a lot – a lot a lot – about the line. It’s interesting to see what different people do, how they approach it. And, um, you are not a lazy cuss. Nobody is going to buy that assertion for a minute.

    Yes, stanzas. That’s a whole nuther issue, isn’t it? I have seen and even occasionally written exactly what you talk about from time to time – regular stanzas whose final line are sometimes end-stopped and sometimes enjambed. I don’t know how I feel about the effect. If I want a strict structure where every stanza is the same number of lines, I try to have a reason for that structure. I feel like the poem needs to work with the form, and that the stanza breaks need to make some kind of sense – enjambed or not. I try to think of it like music. Where is an eight rest needed? Where is a quarter rest needed? A half rest? To me, the stanza break is like a half rest. I think the break can be end stopped or enjambed, as long as there is a reason for the poem to “hang” in that spot for a half rest. Is the half rest really warranted? Would a simple line break, which is about half as much of a rest, do the trick?

    I often find myself rewriting and tightening to make a poem fit the way I want to score it. The paring can be a good exercise and strengthen the piece, but there’s always the fear that the content will bend too much to fit the form, and then the content will take a back seat to form, which would not be a good thing.

    Of course you make sense. Everything you say makes sense and is very thoughtful. Your habits and preferences as a reader serve you well.

    Reply

  4. Dave:
    I’ve always said that I do my best work over winter. I think its my effort to fill in the leaves in the tree.

    I love this poem, everything about it. I love letter poems a lot a lot. And the opening image is perfectly drawn.

    Also, thank you for encouraging Dana to share her MFA statement. It was great.

    Reply

  5. Hi slynne! Thanks for kind words, and I’m glad to know you’re a fellow fan of winter for writing. People talk about the lack of sunlight, but the flip side of that is that the sun is always at a good angle for shadows and dramatic contrasts. And if you live in the woods, winter is actually more light-filled than summer. And I love the long nights and slow dawns. So there are multiple sources of inspiration for me.

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