Things not seen: reading Pattiann Rogers

They may have eyes the color
of mirrors that stare with the steadiness
of glass. They may have porous bodies
like ponds in rain, like the diaphanous
wings of dragonflies in sun. They may have
tails indistinguishable from the skeletal
blades of dead grasses, move on feet
as quiet and precise as cobwebs.

That’s the fourth of seven stanzas in a poem by Pattiann Rogers entitled “A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same,” from her recent book, Generations, which I am re-reading for the first time. Isn’t it marvellous? What impresses me here as a writer is the way she uses imagery from nature to describe things that are themselves natural (though the narrator imagines it otherwise). The usual rhetorical strategy in contemporary, image-driven poetry is to try and highlight the strangeness of a thing in one realm, natural or human, by comparing it to something in the other — see, for example, the opening lines of yesterday’s poem at Poetry Daily. But in this stanza, as so often in Rogers’ work, the similes are all intramural.

This is something I’ve been wanting to do more of myself for some time, so I’m happy to have found a model. Last week, I was enthusing about Pattiann Rogers to some friends via email, and said I felt as if had graduated from Mary Oliver and John Haines and entered advanced studies. I hasten to add that that’s not meant as any kind of objective evaluation; all three are brilliant poets, very different each from the other, and it would be absurd to try and rank them. I am simply saying that for me, right now, this poet, this book is what I need to read. I’m sure I have plenty more to learn from Oliver and Haines, too — but not now, when the mental excrescences formed by my too-frequent readings of their works largely prevent me from seeing them in a new light. Writing teachers are fond of advising beginning poets to let their work ferment in a bottom drawer for a few months before revisiting it; why should a reader’s approach to poems be any different?

“When the student is ready, the master appears” — so goes the saying. I’ve apprenticed myself to many masters over the years; Rogers is simply the latest. I’m not too good at the art of literary criticism, which is why I so seldom engage in it here, but one other thing that really impresses me is the way Generations advances an argument, or series of related arguments, in a very subtle way that doesn’t dominate the collection, but simply provides a connective string for those who choose to read the poems in order. I like thematically unified collections in general, but I also like the freedom to read poems at random and not feel completely lost. With Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, for example — surely one of the greatest books of poetry in English written in the last three decades — if you don’t start from the beginning, you’re not going to understand who is speaking when and where all the anguish is coming from.

“A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same”: I’ll admit the title made me raise an eyebrow at first. In my own poetry, with the exception of the recent Public Poems and Odes to Tools series, the title is almost always the last thing I write, and I like titles that are reasonably brief and as allusive as possible: “Generations,” for example. That’s obviously not an uncommon preference among contemporary poets (I’m such a conformist). But quite often, as here, Pattiann Rogers turns her titles into a kind of stage direction. If I’d written this poem, my focus would have been on the slow discovery of who the narrator is and the way her perceptions don’t quite jibe with reality. It would have been all about that revelation. And I dare say that would’ve been how an Oliver or a Haines would have approached the subject, as well. One can also imagine a more urbane poet — a May Swenson or Charles Wright, say — dwelling on the mystic’s mistake, and one can be reasonably sure that all of these poets would have used the third person narrator to establish ironic distance.

After the title, though, this poem is able to dispense with irony and delve more deeply into the nature of perception and revelation. We are led to wonder how it is that clearly erroneous beliefs can lead sometimes to profound understanding. After speculating on the sort of ghostly, “eternally vanishing” god that the ghosts must worship, the poem concludes:

The ghosts of this garden are like
the emptiness of pods and husks
under midnight snow when the moon
has passed, like the pause following
the clank and lock of the gate
at dusk, like the inevitable in motion
beyond the cosmic horizon. Strange,
what void these ghosts would leave
should the garden ever be without them.

And the environmentalist in me nods emphatic assent.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. This post makes it difficult to accept its own assertion that you are “not too good at the art of literary criticism.” The first requirement of good criticism, and maybe the last, is to be a generous reader, and you’ve got that in spades.

    Thanks for introducing me to Rogers (and many other poets, over the years!)

    Reply

  2. I haven’t read “Generations” yet, but this poem is from “The Dream of the Marsh Wren” published almost ten years ago –

    I am particularly enamored with her supernatural/natural imagery.

    Achieving Perspective
    Straight up away from this road,
    Away from the fitted particles of frost
    Coating the hull of each chick pea,
    And the stiff archer bug making its way
    In the morning dark, toe hair by toe hair,
    Up the stem of the trillium,
    Straight up through the sky above this road right now,
    The galaxies of the Cygnus A cluster
    Are colliding with each other in a massive swarm
    Of interpenetrating and exploding catastrophes.
    I try to remember that.

    And even in the gold and purple pretense
    Of evening, I make myself remember
    That it would take 40,000 years full of gathering
    Into leaf and dropping, full of pulp splitting
    And the hard wrinkling of seed, of the rising up
    Of wood fibers and the disintegration of forests,
    Of this lake disappearing completely in the bodies
    Of toad slush and duckweed rock,
    40,000 years and the fastest thing we own,
    To reach the one star nearest to us.

    And when you speak to me like this,
    I try to remember that the wood and cement walls
    Of this room are being swept away now,
    Molecule by molecule, in a slow and steady wind,
    And nothing at all separates our bodies
    From the vast emptiness expanding, and I know
    We are sitting in our chairs
    Discoursing in the middle of the blackness of space.
    And when you look at me
    I try to recall that at this moment
    Somewhere millions of miles beyond the dimness
    Of the sun, the comet Biela, speeding
    In its rocks and ices, is just beginning to enter
    The widest arc of its elliptical turn.
    – Pattiann Rogers

    Reply

  3. dale – Thanks, and I’m glad you find these kinds of essays useful. I guess what i meant was, considering that I actually got a degree in comparative literature, my lack of familiarity with critical theory apart from Bahktin and Steiner is unconscionable. But I know you are a Cleanth Brooks disciple yourself, so I’m not surprised you don’t hold that against me!

    whiskey – Thanks for taking the time to transcribe all of that. Great poem, and it’s something I think about often, actually.

    Maybe that’s one of the main reasons to read poetry, I’m thinking: for the reminder that there are other weirdos who think about stuff like this. And come to think of it, that’s pretty similar to the reason why I read blogs.

    Reply

  4. Is it still literary criticism – I mean, to Steiner – when your impressions of the poem stem from your desire to emulate it? I feel your excitement over where Rogers might lead your poetry. Those painters painting in museum galleries what they see in paintings – it’s the same to me.

    I really like the way you reflect on what you see as differences between your poetry and this poem — her “intramural” figurative language, her pass on the Browning-like situational irony.

    To answer your question: it is marvelous. I just bought a copy of the book on Biblio for $3.50 delivered. Thanks.

    Reply

  5. Thanks for bringing PR to my attention, Dave. I’m always conscious of the vast territory of contemporary American poetry lying before me and tips as to where to start the exploration are welcomed. Off to Amazon…

    Reply

  6. Hey, glad to be an ambassador, Dick. I think we’re actually in a bit of a golden age. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with PR.

    So it sounds as if all four commenters on this post so far have serious intentions of reading the book. Damn. I should do literary appreciations more often!

    Reply

  7. Make it five! I hadn’t wanted to admit to affecting your manner, be it by stealing a sock from your wash line or the title of a book from your library. If I had stolen your sock at least I could wear it. Seeing how this article is a book, I’m not sure what I’ll do. It’s a pretty cover on it, though.

    Reply

  8. heyy heyy heyy peoples i am gurtrude and i am a fanatic of books! they are my world. i finish one every single day and i never do anything else. from me telling you i read one every day i of course have no social life. alsobecause of books now that i have no social life this also leads to me having no friends :[ at my school where i go to you having only a few friend , no social life,and many …. more you are considered a loser. I gurtrude have none of that though i never get out except to the library, i have not one singe friend, my cusins dont even hang out with me when we havefamily get togethers. I love books but i wish i wasnt such a freak for them that i actually had at least ine friend but i am okay with that cause i like to consider books my friends now and my pet larva. sooo…… i am a freak for books i love them thay are my world and yes! DID I MENTION I LOVE THEM !

    Reply

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