Working with severe restrictions made me think of… working with severe restrictions.
Some people don’t “get” poetry because they’re exclusively visual thinkers. For many others of a more practical frame of mind, the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of words into lines, stanzas, and units of meaning constitutes the main stumbling-block. Debates about how to reach those kinds of folks are anything but academic if you’re on a committee charged with selecting and presenting poetry to an indifferent public.
Well, I’m here to help. I’ve taken the complete texts of the first ten poems in my Public Poems series and run them through Wordle (thanks, John) which discards the most common words (a, on, the, etc.) and puts all the others into a configurable word cloud, a variation on the tag clouds familiar to anyone who spends an appreciable amount of time online. I then made an audio recording of the cloud (here’s a download link for those who can’t see the Flash player above). This sort of thing could be broadcast over a public address system at regular intervals wherever the poetry clouds are displayed, with results perhaps comparable to the well-known consequences of backmasking on vinyl records of heavy metal music back in the 1980s, only without the sacrifices of family pets. From these dense clouds a kind of condensation would take place, poetry falling like rain on the parched soil of the imagination. Or not.
Perhaps because it is flexible
or because it has as many teeth
as a school of piranhas
or because it relies on a pull
rather than a push
or because it prefers circles
to straight lines
or because it excels
at impromptu reconstitution
or because it encompasses
so much empty space
I happen to have — for once — a copy of the King James Bible at my elbow. I open it at random while I’m waiting for the computer to boot up, and read this:
The burden of the valley of vision.
What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone
up to the housetops?
Thou that art full of stirs,
a tumultuous city, joyous city:
thy slain men are not slain with the sword,
nor dead in battle.
All thy rulers are fled together,
they are bound by the archers:
all that are found in thee are bound together,
which have fled from far.
Therefore said I, Look away from me;
I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me,
because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people.
For it is a day of trouble, and of treading down,
and of perplexity by the Lord God of hosts
in the valley of vision, breaking down the walls,
and of crying to the mountains.
That was from Isaiah, the beginning of Chapter 22. I really don’t know what the hell it means — nor, I’m afraid, do I particularly care. Though I do kind of admire the way Isaiah and the other prophets challenged the authorities and institutions of their day, they were all basically a bunch of fanatical whack-jobs, as far as I’m concerned. But isn’t it terrific poetry? “Thou that art full of stirs, a tumultuous city, joyous city” — the way this is phrased, all metaphorical possibilities remain open. Compare the New International Version, that favorite of modern evangelicals: “O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry.” Gone is the familiar, affectionate “thou,” replaced by the affected “O.” Any suggestion that this “thou” might be a female, tapping into that city/woman metaphor so popular among the literary prophets, has been eliminated as well.
Then of course there is the inaptly titled New Living Translation, an almost unspeakable abomination among “translations.” If any book should ever be burned, this nuance-destroying exercise in tone-deaf exegetical hubris tops the list. Here’s what it does with the verse: “The whole city is in a terrible uproar. What do I see in this reveling city?”
Maybe this is why, when I try to explain why I love the Old Testament, I get puzzled looks.
But I guess I’m a mystery-monger and an obscurantist at heart, because it occurs to me that one of the things I most love about the King James Version is the near-impenetrability of many of its archaic phrases. Last week, a post at Read Write Poem asked poets to list the four books that most influenced their writing. My list led off with the great anthology Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975, edited by Hardie St. Martin, but I forgot to mention the book which had prepared me for all that surrealism in the first place, by whetting my appetite for difficult language and nightmarish visions. And I’m quite sure that the kind of rhythmic free verse I specialize in was strongly marked by my youthful reading of the KJV.
I had the Bible out this morning because yesterday I’d been to a funeral, and the choice of readings struck me as a little unusual. Instead of the nauseatingly familar 23rd Psalm, the minister read Psalm 140 — one of the vengeful Psalms. This seemed especially incongruous given that the sermon that followed took the parable of the Good Samaritan as its text, extolling the kind and generous spirit of the departed. And the other reading could not have been more different: Ecclesiastes 3, in its entirety. That’s the one that begins, “To every thing there is a season.” It was, I thought, an inspired choice for a funeral.
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
As most regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I’m not a conventionally religious person; I can’t see having a man or woman of the cloth officiating at my funeral, with all the usual assurances about an afterlife in which I do not believe. But if the Bible had to be part of the last rites for my small portion of supernova excrement, which verses could I stand to have read? Psalm 139 is a favorite — at least up until the 19th verse, when it turns hateful and paranoid. It’s got that whole pantheist vibe going on. And Verse 8 might be especially interesting at a funeral:
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Job 14 might be good for mourners to hear, as well:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days,
and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down:
he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…
But my top choice would probably be Ecclesiastes 11, beginning as it does with an exhortation to be generous, followed by a defense of religious agnosticism, and concluding with the Biblical version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth:
and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north,
in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow;
and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit,
nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child:
even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
In the morning sow thy seed,
and in the evening withhold not thine hand:
for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that,
or whether they both shall be alike good.
Truly the light is sweet,
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all;
yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many.
All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth;
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth,
and walk in the ways of thine heart,
and in the sight of thine eyes:
but know thou, that for all these things
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart,
and put away evil from thy flesh:
for childhood and youth are vanity.
What about you? What Bible verses can you imagine being read at your funeral?
Father’s Day dawned clear and cool. After making an appointment with my dad to cut his hair later in the morning, I took my camera for a walk. Along the Road to the Far Field, in one of the large clearings created by the icestorm of 2005, I surprised a chipmunk next to a fruiting red elderberry bush. It froze when I hove into view, and the bright sun might’ve helped dazzle it a little as I inched closer for a clear shot through the brambles. Ecologists who study the effects of deer on forest health consider red elderberry a good indicator of low browse pressure, and we’ve been happy to watch its spread through moister portions of the property in recent years, thanks to the abundant patience and excellent marksmanship of our hunter friends. As this photo graphically demonstrates, lower deer numbers are good news not just for plants, but for other animals, too.
I made my way to the thicket below the Far Field, where I knew the dense carpet of mayapples would be entering their autumn now as their fruits approached maturity. First they break out in a rash of yellow spots. Then larger areas of brown appear around their edges, turning them thin and brittle as old newspaper.
A few paces into the woods, in a patch of shade too dark to permit a decent photo without a tripod, I found a dense network of slime on the ground, as if a snail had been trying to weave a spider web. Then as I circled the field on a path I’d mowed just a few days earlier, I found two orange and olive tentacles poking out of the ground, foul-smelling and rubbery to the touch, about four inches long and half an inch in diameter at the base. They were in bright sunlight, but still I managed to screw up and didn’t get a single clear photo.
This was the best I could do. It reminded me of a web comic I’d seen recently, in which an apparently fortuitous discovery has unpleasant repercussions. They turned out to be stinkhorns of the Mutinus genus, which lack the bulbous heads of their Phallus cousins: probably Mutinus elegans.
Many of the metaphors we use to try and come to grips with the inherent weirdness of nature aren’t terribly accurate, but the association of stinkhorns with human sex organs is right on target. In Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, author Nicholas P. Money writes,
Most of the volume of the erect fruiting body is air. But mechanically speaking, the stinkhorn is comparable with the mammalian penis because both erections are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than a column of solid tissue. The penis contains flattened reservoirs that become engorged with blood, while the tissue of the stinkhorn receptacle is built to tear apart to make a honeycomb supported by pressurized water within its hyphae.
One major difference, of course, is that mammalian erections don’t bulge with fertile spores or smell like rotting corpses, and aren’t designed to be eaten by flies and slugs, which will plant the seeds of a new generation of stinkhorns in their excrement.
That wasn’t the only place where bizarre reproductive rituals were taking place. All along the top edge of the field, the 17-year cicadas were singing and flying, clicking and crawling through the scrubby locust trees — appropriately enough, given their alternate common name, “17-year locusts.” I shot a video and posted it to the Plummer’s Hollow site, in an entry headlined “Cicada courtship in full swing.” I like the way biologists persist in referring to mating behavior as courtship: such an old-fashioned word, conjuring up visions of hay rides, shucking bees, and minuets in the parlor.
I was surprised to see several male ebony jewelwing damselflies on the ridgetop, half a mile at least from the nearest stream. They were, however, engaged in classic jewelwing flit-and-pause behavior. I like the video not just for the jewelwing — which is out-of-focus part of the time — but the soundtrack, which features a wood thrush, a scarlet tanager, a pileated woodpecker, chipmunks, and a train whistle, all set against a background surf of cicadas. (This was a couple hundred yards in from the edge of the field.)
In Indian musical theory, I’m told, the drone note symbolizes the inescapable horizon. Over the past week, the cicada chorus has contributed an almost constant, high-pitched drone as a backdrop to other elements of the soundscape. And from my front porch, first thing in the morning, that drone does literally emanate from the eastern horizon: the crest of Laurel Ridge, where the sun first strikes. By mid-morning, though, the cicada choruses become more dispersed.
Speaking of Laurel Ridge, the mountain laurel was at its height of bloom yesterday, meaning that no more blossoms remained in bud — and that the earliest blossoms were already on the ground. As decimated as the laurel has been by winter-kill and diseases over the past six or seven years, we didn’t expect to see the woods turned white with their blossoms ever again, but this year comes close to the way it used to be every other year, back in the 90s and before. 2008 has been a remarkable year for flowering shrubs and trees of every description, from shadbush and red maple to wild azalea and tulip poplar.
When I got back to the house, I dug out my barber’s kit, we found an old sheet, and I had Dad sit on the veranda for his haircut. He’s slowly healing from surgery to remove a tumor on his lower spine last month, which involved slicing into the dura mater and coming right up against a cluster of nerves. Enough pain and numbness remain to make a trip to the barbershop seem like a daunting prospect.
The hair was thin and didn’t take long to cut — a scattering of tufts on the concrete floor. A half hour later, when Dad came out on the veranda again for some reason, he saw them there and couldn’t figure out what they were for a second. “That can’t be my hair!” he said. It had been silver for what seemed like forever, I guess, but now it was undeniably white, as white as snow. In a morning full of surprises, the passing of time was still the most surprising thing of all. I’m sure the 17-year cicadas would agree.
Sometimes, you need a bridge
where there is no river.
The ground falls away
& you need that pique experience —
looking down on everything
without ever having climbed,
sky & water wearing the calm
blue uniform of authority.
Held up by high-strung cables,
speeding through our lives,
we could all use a pause
to adjust our perspective,
get in touch with who
we really are & what
brings us here, dry-
mouthed or sweaty,
death as close
as a sudden, wild leap.
Comma, apostrophe, back-
slash, cursive flourish —
an all-purpose divider
that only accidentally resembles
a question mark in search
of its dot-like perch.
No self-respecting crow, beak
clever at leverage, ever
the declarative mode.
Male & female
hand & handle,
heavy as Wednesday.
What iron tree might ramify
if you insinuated yourself
into some sidewalk crack?
I know that curl
from watching seeds sprout:
cotyledon at the point
of pulling apart.
Second-hand poetry has
been linked to
if it’s safely
out of mind,
like a dessicated seed
or a leaf in darkness,
can still turn
the blanks where
little Os. So
thank you for
A half-grown groundhog —
“Wait while I get the camera,” I say,
& it does.
Recognized by its glide,
the first monarch butterfly
back from the south.
In the air-conditioned mall,
the plastic flowers are safe
from the blistering heat.
Drinking from a tap
in the base of an old elm,
a Penn State squirrel.
I run into someone
I first met 17 years ago,
in cicada time.
So good, I don’t want to finish it:
fresh strawberries sliced
into stewed rhubarb.
Inside the package
stamped “Royal Mail,”
a book of small stones.
Driving the tractor into the woods,
mountain laurel blooming
above the roar.
Back from mowing,
I find a ground beetle trapped
in the kitchen sink.
A game in a dream:
no one knows the rules, or how to win.
I wake to heat lightning.
For another view of the half-grown groundhog, see here.