Surprise!

Field Guide: observing poems in their natural habitat —

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry.

– Emily Dickinson

Fourth row, second seat – close enough to see the teacher without my glasses (which I hate). Positioned in the “T- zone,” (across the front and down the middle) where the “good students” sit, it’s hard to keep the book I’m actually reading (wedged between the covers of the Algebra 2 textbook) shielded from what I believe to be the unsuspecting view of the teacher. On the “down low,” passed from the kid behind me, I receive a folded piece of paper, creased to perfection. In a classic repetition of the all-too-familiar scene, the teacher confiscates the page that rivets my (lapsed) attention, and begins to read from it aloud:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Whitman)

Murakami at Versailles

Murakami's sculpture: Flower Matango. Palace of Versailles. 15 Nov. 2010. Photo by Leilani Hall.

Most kids pass notes about lunch plans or crushes. My friends and I subvert a mathematics lesson with the “poetry underground.”

One of the things I like best about poetry is that it has a way of sneaking up and clobbering us. It perpetrates a surprise in language in which both writer and reader are complicit. It baits us. It pushes past the understanding of our own language in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways, giving us and our language fresh “building materials,” luring us in with metaphor to alert us to the possibility that things might not be what they initially seem, and inviting us to consider new ideas.

Simultaneously, poetry promotes “opensure” rather than “closure” – it asks us to rise to its level and contemplate what is presented to us in its carefully scripted environment. In the word-scape Archibald Macleish paints for us in his poem, “Ars Poetica”:

A poem should be equal to
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be.     (17-24)

In the lines “For all the history of grief/ An empty doorway and a maple leaf” Macleish presents us with one of the most enduring reasons to write and purposes for public readings of poetry: the elegy – a funeral song or lament – a way to express and share our grief. Robert Frost’s contemplative, highly crafted “Nothing Gold Can Stay” surprises us with an elegy that observes what is constantly fleeting in our world:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The surprise is in finding such beautiful language used to describe what passes away. In a similar vein, one of the most surprising elegiac poems I’ve read lately is called “Elegy with Fall’s Last Filaments” by Chris Dombrowski, in which the speaker contemplates, grapples with, and finally comes to terms with the death of a loved one. Here is just the opening stanza for you to savor:

In the one world
you called twin
tired of being
misidentified how
swiftly you became
the spider mending
each day its
wind-rent web and not
the box-elder beetle you
had been grasshopper
still tearing
at the ties intricate void
bright bardo room
she I call her hangs
like a home light
beneath the eaves and you
would have left her on            (Davis and Murphy 31)

In this beautifully wrought piece, the speaker “reads” us into the departed loved one’s “last will and testament” by showing us something about the loved one’s spirit, comparing her living presence to a spider, then a box-elder beetle, then “grasshopper/ still tearing at the ties intricate void”. I read this poem as a proper New Orleans send-off, a “home-going” celebration (much akin to an Irish “wake”) of the loved one’s life and his/her influence on the speaker.

Much like Emily Dickinson’s way of identifying poems in their natural habitat, my very unscientific method for recognizing a poem is that it will literally give me goose-bumps. Like lightning, about to strike, poetry makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My scalp starts tingling: although the poem’s subject is the grief experienced in the wake of a beloved friend’s parting, separation, and absence, the work of the poem itself is done in processing that emotion, staring it squarely in the eye, contemplating it, rolling it over, picking it up, and examining it with a magnifying glass. (We have ignition.) As the poet works through all of the emotions he feels, he opens them up, rather than burying them; exposes them to the air, rather than swallowing them. (I get shivers.) Instead of just recycling the same old wound, the poem elegantly honors the mentor’s spirit, keeping it alive by releasing the speaker’s attachment to any prescribed physical form. My “home light” has been turned on – the poem doesn’t deny the reality that the loved one is dead – it lives gracefully within the territory in which it finds itself, breathing new life into an age-old mystery: what’s the best way of honoring who/what has passed?

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