The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt

The Kingfisher cover
Hi Mom! I got you a poetry book again this year: The Kingfisher by Amy Clampitt, a major contemporary American poet’s first book. I wasn’t really familiar with her work, except by reputation and a few poems in anthologies, until I happened to pick this up at Webster’s the other month, but when I saw it had an epigraph by Gerard Manley Hopkins (“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”), I had a strong feeling it might be your kind of book — and mine too. I stood in the bookstore opening it at random, and each time I found myself saying, “Yup, Mom would like this!”

It’s not just the fact that Clampitt’s subjects are often taken from the natural world, but the way she writes about them — a poem about an orchid, for instance, ends with her crouching down to sniff it, just as you would do — and the philosophical ends they serve. I couldn’t help thinking of some of your own favorite themes, in your writing and in dinner-table conversations, when I read a poem about Good Friday that makes room for Serengeti lions and Charles Darwin, another poem that references the myth of Prometheus to critique our addiction to petroleum (and before that, whale oil), and a poem called “The Quarry,” which contains lines like these:

Think back
a little, to what would have been
without this festering of lights at night,
this grid of homesteads, this hardening
lymph of haste foreshortened into highways…

— which made me think of our own local quarry, so often drowning out the bird calls with its grinding and roaring to feed our supposed need for ever new highways.

I was impressed by the notes Clampitt included at the back of her book, so much more helpful than what poets usually include, afraid perhaps that going into too much detail will make readers think their poems can’t stand on their own. It’s a legitimate fear, though: how much commentary is the average reader willing to endure to understand a poem? I do worry quite a bit about the fate of poetry, mine and others’, that assumes a basic familiarity with natural history, astronomy, the Bible, Greek mythology, and other elements of what used to be considered a complete education. Perhaps I need to update my informal guideline for whether or not to include a note to a poem, which has always been: “Would Mom get this without having to look it up?”

Though still in mint condition, the book is aging, I’m afraid. It was printed in 1983, the year I graduated from high school — which believe it or not was 27 freakin’ years ago! — and the spine made an ominous complaining noise at one point when I opened the pages too far, so do be careful. I think you’ll find it a fitting companion for your books by Mary Oliver, Louise Bogan, May Swenson, and all the others I’ve given you for Mother’s Day over the years. It’s not an unbroken tradition — some years I have given you other things, haven’t I? — but you always seem to appreciate getting poetry books, as witnessed by the fact that you almost always read them right away, and of course I enjoy giving them. And if I can say this without getting too maudlin here, it makes me think how goddamn lucky I am to have a mother who not only reads my own stuff, but also reads and enjoys poetry in general. In my years of blogging and getting to know other online writers, I’ve come to realize just how rare that is. Many if not most of my blogging friends say their parents don’t really get what they’re doing, and some even have to use pseudonyms or avoid using their last names just to make sure their parents never find out that they’re blogging.

You and Dad, by contrast, have been my most regular and supportive readers since Day 1, and I can’t thank you enough for that. We’re not a very demonstrative family, so this is as awkward for me to write as it I suppose it is embarrassing for you to read, but I wanted to say it in public because who knows if and when I’ll ever publish that full-length collection of poems that I can dedicate to you guys. Thanks not only for the support but for the conversation, the friendship, and the inspiration of your example. Anyone who’s ever read your work has probably sensed how conscientious you are about getting the facts straight, and I think — I hope — that’s influenced me, especially given how prone we Bonta males are to B.S. and bontification, as you call it. In my new series of bestiary poems, for instance, I’m trying to make sure that no assertion, however imaginative, departs too far from what scientists think they know about the species in question.

What scientists think they know. It occurs to me that even my basic apophatic stance, as reflected in the title of this blog, is partly due to your influence: decades of hearing you marvel at, or sometimes rant about, just how little we know about even our most common fellow denizens of the planet, how much basic taxonomy still needs to be done, to say nothing of studies on behavior, life history, ecological relationships and ecosystem functioning… you’ve made me realize how sadly inappropriate our species name sapiens truly is. But

the sun
underfoot is so dazzling
down there among the sundews,
there is so much light
in the cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.

There’s a lot we have still to unlearn, Clampitt seems to be saying, and the resulting vertigo can be delightful. I hope you’ll find her language and perspectives, her blending of the erudite and the down-to-earth, as rewarding as I do. Happy Mother’s Day.

9 Replies to “The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt”

  1. I will break my own rule never to comment on your site by saying, “Thank you for your lovely and loving tribute. I can’t imagine not supporting my sons in whatever they choose to do, and I know that your Dad agrees.” Love, Mom

    1. Lucky for you that none of us are axe murderers or CIA operatives, at least as far as you know. That might be a little hard to support. :)

  2. Whew! It’s hard to follow that last comment . . .

    My parents have always been my biggest readers. They’re in their eighties, and they’ve never done computers, so I bought them a machine that plugs into a phone line and prints out emails. The dial-up is just $10 a month, and they’re not even aware that I pay it or that there’s a charge at all. They get something from me every day, often from the news their small-town paper misses, and often from my blog. My Mom just loves it. She’s still my most faithful reader.

  3. You almost redeem Hallmark and reflexive carnations with this lovely (and envy-inducing) tribute, Dave! Sounds like the most apt gift, as well: fabulous work by a monster poet. To my mind, Clampitt is one of few who can share a shelf with Bogan, and perhaps the last real poet published by the New Yorker.

    Thanks for the impetus to re-read yet again: The Quarry, Beach Glass, Fog:

    A vagueness comes over everything,
    as though proving color and contour
    alike dispensable: the lighthouse
    extinct, the islands’ spruce-tips
    drunk up like milk in the
    universal emulsion; houses
    reverting into the lost
    and forgotten; granite
    subsumed, a rumor
    in a mumble of ocean.

    I’ll keep any eye out for a subsequent M. Bonta review.

  4. Yes to the above. Well said Bluegrass Poet.

    My mother has long gone, but I still find myself browsing bookshops for gifts for her that can never be given. The habit of many years purchasing for an inveterate reader.

    Your tribute to your mother is beautiful. Beautiful.

  5. Very sweet! Being deeply impecunious (and she’s the one pressuring me to save more), my on gift to my mother was improvised and mostly homemade.

    A loaf of home-baked bread (a recently reacquired hobby — my sister got the second-best loaf), some of the “gunpowder” green tea I found at the local Asian market, and a homemade card — one of my cloud photos from a gorgeous evening earlier in the week, printed on card stock and finished with my little drawings.

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