This video may not be terribly interesting if you’re not friends or family of me or Rachel… unless you like porcupines, which were so much in evidence before, during and after our wedding, I thought I had to include one in the video as well. I also think our home-spun, self-uniting ceremony says something about the use of poetry in these kinds of major life events.
It may seem odd, me being a poet and all, that I hadn’t really given much thought to reading poetry at our wedding, but we were focused on getting our documents in order and writing our vows. So it was only on the day of our wedding that I mentioned to Rachel that I had a poem in mind to read, and it seemed that she did, too.
Interestingly, we both chose well-known poems from the canon (though the e.e. cummings one isn’t as well known in Britain, Rachel tells me). The trick as I saw it was to pick something that was simultaneously meaningful to me, relevant to the occasion, appropriate to the natural setting, and accessible to the audience. I love the Bible, and part of me wishes we still lived in a society that had such a powerful, ancient text in common to help unite us on ceremonial occasions or in times of crisis, but let’s face it: the poetic texts that unite us as a society these days are the pop, rock and rap songs we grew up with… the secular “high church” counterpart of which are certain poems such as Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” and yes, e.e. cumming’s “I carry your heart with me.”
As for the video, I used mobile phone video footage by Rachel (via tripod) and my cousin Heidi Suydam, with additional photographs by Heidi and her daughter Morgan. I couldn’t resist including some snippets from Aaron Copland’s ballet about a newly married couple in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, Appalachian Spring. Credit is also due to Joseph Brackett, composer of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” that Copland drew upon in the most famous portion of the suite. Since many people unfortunately know this tune only in its bastardized form (as the faux-Celtic “Lord of the Dance”), I want to quote the original lyrics:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
Some sycamore trees, like
the ones that used to grow
along the road between
Jerusalem and Jericho, they
make small figs – almost
exclusively. In fact, I’ve only
ever heard of once when
a small tax collector was
picked from one of these.
Others, like the ones here
in Missouri growing around
old Hodgson Mill on Bryant
Creek, are really buttonwoods.
The fruit they make is not
a fig at all, more a desiccated
pom-pom, might once have
been red or blue or green,
something bright and sporting
stitched onto a clown-suit.
But I think your Fallen
Woman is most probably
from a European species,
a sycamore that makes no
fruit at all, only a samara,
helicopter, a seed that whirls
and twirls as it’s falling,
a seed that’s often called
a Spinning Jenny. I think
the Fallen Woman is most
likely one of this variety.
After Dave Bonta’s “Fallen Woman.” For a list of all the types of trees known as sycamores, see the Wikipedia.
At the beginning of spring
gardening the snakes, indigenous
and invasive, the harmless
and the poisonous, they all emerge,
and in that half-hour before dinner
that’s reserved for washing up,
I join them, five-foot-long
python with my upper
body draped protectively
across the top of the open
washer drum. I hiss insistently
at my beloved resident hobbit
as he’s stripping off his garden-
muddy clothing: what has it got
in its pocketses?
We do this every evening, it’s
routine. And then he turns his pockets
out to check, and occasionally
I’m actually justified in asking.
This dark orange fungal mass
that he extracts looks decidedly
suspicious, but he explains
excitedly that that’s the magic
of it: some other mushroom, lactarius or russula, inedible
on its own, gets invaded by this
other hypocreaceae fungus which
somehow eats up all the poison,
transforms the mushroom that might
have made you ill or killed you
into food. This parasitic hypocreaceae
fungus sort of cooks it, like it’s
boiling a lobster, and when it’s
orange-red all over, then you
know it’s safe to eat.
Ah. Okay, I did not know this,
and am feeling hungry, but more
so for the dinner that’s waiting on
the table than for a spongy orange
parasitic mass. Here, I’ll wrap
it in a napkin and put it on
your desk. We can continue
identification of weird things
from the garden after dinner.
And (to myself in silence as
I swaddle up the thing) I think:
so glad this bit of strangeness
didn’t wind up in the washing.
Ice Mountain by Dave Bonta
132 pgs, 6″ x 9″, paperback, publication date January 25, 2016 Pre-order at $13.50 (reg. $14.95)
10% of all proceeds will benefit local and regional conservation efforts in central Pennsylvania.
Holiday Note: We don’t expect to be able to ship books until mid- to late January, but if you’d like to give this book as a gift, we’ll send you a file with a printable card of the book cover to give the recipient.
Some text from the book’s page at Phoenicia Publishing, where you can order if you have a mind to. Want to read a selection before you make up your mind? Here you go. And if a printed card doesn’t seem quite enough to constitute a Christmas present, you could combine it with one of the already-published books from Phoenicia Publishing as long as you’re quick about it.
But you all know how much I favor web publication. Why pursue publication of a print book at all in this digital age? Well, as you probably gathered from Wednesday’s crowd-sourced list of poetry books, many of us poetry lovers still fetishize dead-tree media. In my case, that’s not an affection that extends to magazines, which are essentially disposable and should all be electronic in my opinion. But a good book is something designed to be kept forever — and barring fire, flood, insects, and high-acid paper, books can survive almost indefinitely if properly cared for. Not only that, a printed book is highly portable and hard to beat technologically for random access to content and general ease of user interface.
And let’s face it, digital-only publication fuels a certain reductionist mindset. A book is much more than just its textual content. When Beth Adams asked me last spring if I might have a manuscript she could look at, it came at a very opportune time: I had just finished a complete re-write of a collection of poems originally published here as a poetic diary from January to May 2014. After a further month of editing, I sent it off and was thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it, because Beth is a true artist and a gifted designer of print publications, and I knew she’d be able to add real value to the collection — to make it something that even people who don’t normally buy new books of poetry might want to own. (And frankly, because of the local content, including the use of a local toponym for the title, Ice Mountainwill likely sell some copies outside the usual poetry circles.)
So the book isn’t just mine anymore; it’s Beth’s, too. I am always willing to meet an audience part-way, and I didn’t think it really compromised the purity of my vision too much to break up the text with original linocut illustrations when Beth offered that as a possibility. “Sure! Why not use linocuts as dividers between months?” I said. And a couple of weeks later, she produced this lovely linocut of a wood frog to show me the sort of thing she had in mind.
Then one of the two people I asked to read the manuscript and consider writing some promotional copy for it, the environmental activist Laura Jackson, wondered why I couldn’t turn the afterword into a foreword, and Beth agreed that this would make the book more user-friendly, so again I thought, why the heck not? My own preference to read the poems in a book on their own first is certainly not everyone’s, and besides, it has never bothered me to have to skip a foreword, preface or introduction in order to do so.
The compromise went both ways. Beth has agreed to let me keep my standard Creative Commons license for all my text, though her illustrations and the book as a product will remain under standard copyright protection. This will allow anyone to translate or remix poems into music, film, dance, etc., which I see as a net gain for the poems even if the interpretations aren’t to my personal liking. It is, among other things, free distribution. But more than that, poetry, like code, wants to be free — free as in speech, not as in beer.
Which brings up economic considerations. There will be a digital version of the book, but don’t assume that’s going to provide a super low-cost option for those too cheap to buy the print version. Beth has poured many, many hours into this project, and it’s not fair to expect her to just donate her time to the cause. I bring this up because I think it encapsulates the peculiar situation of poetry under capitalism: on the one hand, sales of poetry books continue to decline, and virtually no one is able to make a living from it. On the other hand, giant corporations like Levi’s, Volvo, and HSBC love to incorporate poetry into advertising, precisely because (as I wrote in an essay at Moving Poems Magazine) they crave the authenticity of something that is seen as so completely outside the marketplace. Meanwhile, among da yoot, I’m told that poetry has more caché than ever. Go figure.
If poetry in Anglo-American culture every becomes as popular as it is in, say, Arabic countries, the whole dynamic will change. But I think we’re safe from such a scenario for at least another generation. We’re also not seeing the wholesale replacement of print books by digital, something that’s been predicted many times but has yet to happen. What’s more likely, I fear, is that as attention spans continue to shrink and fracture, fewer and fewer people will read books in any form, and only poets who are able to make the transition to audio or video will have a chance at being heard. But even then, I’m sure there will be a small market for beautifully made books, just as the small number of vinyl records that are still produced these days are more lust-worthy than ever.
And what about the trees? Paper really doesn’t need to be make from tree pulp at all, of course. But I want to say a few words about the tree that inspired Beth’s linocut for the cover of Ice Mountain, which she titled “Porcupine Tree.” It’s an ancient, ridge-top chestnut oak that stands just over the property line with one of our neighbors. A series of porcupines have denned in it over the years, and their regular snacking on its twigs during winter months gave it a semi-pollarded appearance. Beth knew of my fondness for porcupines — I kind of identify with them as largely solitary, prickly, toothy tree-huggers — and I assume that influenced her choice of cover art, together with the tree’s mournful appearance, so fitting for a book-length elegy to winter.
The porcupine tree now looks even more mournful. It was close to death when the neighbor did some logging around it three years ago, exposing it to the full force of the winds. In October, it had its rendezvous with death when a storm brought powerful gusts through the area in the wake of torrential rains. Our neighbor Paula was driving down the hollow at the time, and her truck’s windshield was smashed by a falling limb, while my brother Mark’s car was nearly blown off the highway. And up on the ridgetop, the entire crown of the porcupine tree snapped off.
Or so I am guessing. I hadn’t been over there for a while, so I just discovered the damage the other day. Regardless of how or when it happened, though, this tree has gone the way of most of its species: succumbing to bole-snap rather than a full uprooting, which means that it will probably have several more decades of service to wildlife, as a den tree as well as a food source. (My beetle-collecting brother Steve once told me that rotting oaks are the best, most nutritious food for larvae and thus support more biodiversity than any other group of trees on the mountain, especially when you factor in all the mast crops they produce while still alive.)
But it may or may not continue to be a den for porcupines. Since I wrote the poems that became Ice Mountain in 2014, the number of porcupines on the mountain has continued to decline, and we’re assuming that’s related to the fact that one of their few natural predators, the large weasel relatives known as fishers, are becoming ever more common. Two of our hunter friends saw fishers from their tree stands earlier this month, in fact, and my mother saw fisher tracks and scat at the Far Field — 100 yards away from the porcupine tree.
This is probably good news for the trees, though at a low population level I don’t think porcupines cause any more damage than any other natural disturbance, including high winds. I’m not saying I won’t still write elegies about porcupines — indeed, a dead one appears in Ice Mountain — but my sorrow won’t rise to the level of my despair at the anthropogenic extinction crisis, or global warming. Or the political direction of this country, which I think would be better served by a porcupine as president than the soon-to-be huckster-in-chief. But that probably goes without saying.
I have a hand-me-down iPhone 4S and an Instagram account linked to Flickr, and so I’ve been amusing myself with poetic one-liners. It started with a particularly antisocial woodchuck, who (unusually for his species) has a den in the middle of the forest.
This cold ache, this longing
to belong — orangutans have
already begun to step into
our filthy shoes, have bred
until their habitat is stressed;
recently, two of them turned
against another, ganged up
and beat and killed her, our
first occasion of witnessing
their females commit murder,
so now we aren’t unique in
this respect, the earth does
not need us to manifest this
option, does not need us as
a repository for the bloody-
minded string of X-genes. Our
services may no longer be
required. This cold ache, this
longing to belong — and now,
your brother and another well-
versed in Australian aboriginal
territory and ceremony have
unraveled the old Prometheus
myth — we’d thought that fire
was ours uniquely, a secret
cleverly hidden in a stalk of
fennel, stolen from the gods.
But fifteen observations of
brown falcons and black kites
lifting and relocating burning
twigs of brush to other places
to smoke out their prey —
and this behavior may well
predate our own successes
with such flames, our own
discovery of the handiness
of lightning strikes, the trial
and errors with which we
learned to wrap the embers
from a smoldering tree up in
shag-bark and green leaves,
carry them to where they’d
be useful in preparing food.
So we are not unique in this
thing either, and may not have
even been the first; the gods
from which we stole that fire
may well have been birds;
clearly, the earth does not
need us to manifest this option,
does not need our bodies to
preserve the DNA of pyro-
mania. Our services may no
longer be required. This cold
ache, this longing to belong —
and now —
On Saturday, I was invited to join a sort of huntless hunt in the wilds of darkest England. The local beagle club assembled next to the barn on a big estate belonging to a member of the titled aristocracy who had given permission for us to ramble over hill and dale, following a well-trained pack of beagles who were in turn following a scent trail laid down the day before. This is known as beagling. Since the actual hunting of hares with beagles was banned in 2004, this is the best that the beagle clubs can do. I’ve always been wary of sports with too many rules and I like to walk, so it suited me just fine. (more…)