Tag Archives: poetry

Ark of Reprieve

This morning, I am filing my Emily report from the beach in Florida. We are on the Gulf, and my meditation on the porch is accompanied by the sound of the waves rolling onto the sand. Lance had his first encounter with the sea last evening. He’s not sure what to do with it. City dog. He prefers the porch. Right now we are taking the soft breeze over the dunes. It is quiet, a couple of fishers out early. We saw pelicans coasting on an the wind. If anyone can, a pelican can . . .

# 1473, ca. 1879

We talked with each other about each other
Though neither of us spoke —
We were listening to the seconds’ Races
And the Hoofs of the Clock —
Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
Time compassion took —
Ark of Reprieve he offered to us —
Ararats — we took —

She suggests there is a difference between talking and speaking. That two people may outwardly appear to be communicating or at least talking, without actually speaking. There is something more dense about speaking that is absent from talking. The poem speaks to me without uttering anything out loud. I can hear the sea, receive its presence as though we are conversing, without a shared language. And Lance, you say? There is not another dog more vocal than he, yet he doesn’t say a word. He makes himself understood perfectly. Emily might say that Lance and the sea are better “speakers” specifically because they are not hampered by language.

Only humans with their sophisticated complex of symbols — the pinnacle of creation!— get lost in their own virtuosity. One word really isn’t as good as another. It matters. “June” is better than “day”. But the arrogance that arises from our own superb talent for speech does more to cripple us in the end.

I would like to write sentences that roll onto the beach like the waves. Paragraphs that break at their peak, curl forward with a decisive froth, and then descend into a smooth, flat resolution on the wet sand. That would be an interesting goal, to make speech that does not remain to admire itself, or wait for a response. Words that pull back and then roll forward, perfectly formed, yet not fixed, only perfect again.

I’ll leave you with Emily’s last remark:

#1472, c. 1879

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —

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What the Pearl Said

We progress into the most dense part of summer, mid-August. They call it the “dog days”. I always thought it was a little unfair to lay that on dogs who didn’t ask for it and suffer more than most during this time. Most people assume the expression arises from the actual suffering dogs on our porches. More likely the title has to do with the passage of Sirius the Dog Star through our skies during these weeks. (Also the feast day of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs and one of my personal heroes, is August 16th.) So the bit about this time of year not being fit for dogs is a retrofit notion we applied later.

Each year, I try to hurry through this part of the calendar, even as everything associated with it conspires to slow me down. Now is the purgatorial slog. I dread it more each year. One day after the next is like a pile of oily, wet earth to push-off the porch. These go by in a progression toward the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. August 29th is tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. The movement toward that date is a peculiar mix of sludge in the forehead, black buzz over the vision and always, always that hot needle of anxiety boring into the cartilage over the ear. An echo of five years ago. We brace ourselves constantly, like a clenched fist . . . for what?

No one is at ease. We’re pretending but not very well. Emily coughed up a poem this morning, and I am not sure what to do with it. Here goes:

#693, c. 1863

Shells from the Coast mistaking —
I cherished them for All —
Happening in After Ages
To entertain a Pearl —

Wherefore so late — I murmured —
My need of Thee — be done —
Therefore — the Pearl responded —
My Period begin

The first thing that strikes my ear is that in her last line she writes “begin”, present tense. Not “begun” past tense, which would have completed the rhyme with “done” more nicely than “begin”. So what does she accomplish here. She irritates our ear with a slant rhyme. Then she ends her poem by launching it outward, into the eternal present tense where it remains in a perpetual state of beginning. All the previous verbs are in the past tense, telling us what happened in the past, fixed under her microscope. Only at the end does the energy change into an ongoing action, wide-open, changeable, uncontrolled.

So irritating this slant rhyme. It rubs the wrong way. It bothers the reader so much that the oyster mind ladles some soothing meaning around the sharp edges. That will make it work better, give it a smoother more acceptable shape. If we can attribute some meaning to it, then we can live with the irritation. To pearlize the problematic slant rhyme is to make a place for it in our minds. If we do that well enough, we may even come to cherish what had irritated us. Since we can’t spit this out, the mind may make it beautiful. But really we come to cherish the clever coating we have placed around it. That is the artful part, right? Not the irritation but our own genius for smoothing over the irritation.

I’d like to do the same for the entire month of August. It chokes me in the back of my throat, and I can’t dislodge this irritant. Nothing for it but to endure, leave town, or make something of it. The writing is not so much more complicated than the clever oyster who accommodates its tender insides to the unkindness of intruding sand. We’ll make a smoother coat for the thing that pains us. Nature compels us to write the story that soothes the mind. Some pearls are lumpier than others. Some are precious. Some only semi-precious. Several are flawed and would be better returned to the sea. Others are simple and lovely, both a remedy and pleasing for its own sake. Those I’ll keep.

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Subtle Cargo

Another tropical depression, this one called Bonnie, is heading toward us. Jeez, they’re coming in like jetliners at an airport. This Bonnie is losing steam, it sounds like. Maybe she’ll ramp up to a tropical storm. Maybe she’ll settle down and not give us too much trouble. We’ll see.

Emily remains unmoved by storms. She is still dithering on about love.

#580, c. 1862

I gave myself to Him —
And took Himself, for pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —

The Wealth might disappoint —
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love

Depreciate the Vision —
But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isle of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —

At least — ’tis Mutual — Risk —
Some — found it — Mutual Gain —
Sweet Debt of Love — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —

All this mercenary language in a love poem can really put a girl off at first. Gives me a chill. It’s embarrassing to see a love relationship as a transaction, even though it’s true, when I give myself time to think about it. Even under the best of circumstances with people who have the best of intentions, a love relationship inevitably requires some contractual exchange. A quid pro quo so that all parties are satisfied—each got what each wanted. We seek something in another person. Otherwise why go looking, right? In order to get what we seek, we understand without explicit direction that we’ll have to give in order to get.

It’s vulgar but true. No one gives anything away for free.

I’d like to say that the relationship between mother and child is characterized by unconditional giving, but that’s not true. Even the best mother requires some quid pro quo for the life she gave. Children may not realize they’re paying for all that breast milk, but they are at some level. Mother always exacts her price. She may do so in ways that are perhaps more subtle than the robust exchange between adults, but there is a price all the same.

Emily says: No one can go into or out of any meaningful and intimate relationship with another person without some commerce. If your goal is to remain pure of these conditional exchanges—where you do this for me, and I do that for you—then you have to remain utterly solitary. Once you open the door to other people (or dogs for that matter) you stoop to commerce. There may or may not be literal money changing hands, but there is some form of legal tender making this relationship happen.

The line that keeps playing on my thoughts is “Subtle Cargoes” buried in the center of the poem. It seems to me that she points to an important shift here. That subtle cargo has no real inherent value. Its value is determined by who wants it and how badly they want it. The price of a house is set by the competitive vicissitudes of the marketplace. (Girls, girls, girls: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as one boy asks you to dance, all of a sudden, all the other boys who had previously been ignoring you, all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, these boys practically break their own legs in the rush to dance with you? Writers: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as you get one story published in a pretty good journal, all of a sudden, all the other editors who had been studiously treating you like a nonentity, all of a sudden these editors are practically breaking their pencils to get you to write for them?) Emily suggests the same here. The value of the cargo she holds is subtle, not fixed or obvious. It is elusive, ephemeral. Without an interested buyer, she loses value. As a woman, as a poet, as an object. It’s a cold view, I’ll warrant.

Yet, the subtlety of her cargo stays with me. As something so fluid and unfixed it may rise as easily as it falls. This cargo may find another port if there are no interested buyers at the first stop. She’s thinking about the ups and downs of the marketplace. Wealthy at midnight. Broke at noon. We have to believe that wealth may return again. One is just as meaningless or meaningful as the other. So where does she locate her real value? In that subtlety, which may be another way of saying “agility”. The value of her cargo lies in its very mutability, it’s ability to shift, to rise to the next bidder as the market demands.

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