Wednesday, February 15, 2012

If the Rise of the Fish (Jane Hirshfield)

If the Rise of the Fish

If for a moment
the leaves fell upward,
if it seemed a small flock
of brown-orange birds
circled over the trees,
if they circled then scattered each in
its own direction for the lost seed
they had spotted in tall, gold-checkered grass.
If the bloom of flies on the window
in morning sun, if their singing insistence
on grief and desire. If the fish.
If the rise of the fish.
If the blue morning held in the glass of the window,
if my fingers, my palms. If my thighs.
If your hands, if my thighs.
If the seeds, among all the lost gold of the grass.
If your hands on my thighs, if your tongue.
If the leaves. If the singing fell upward. If grief.
For a moment if singing and grief.
If the blue of the body fell upward, out of our hands.
If the morning held it like leaves.

Writing about Szymborska yesterday reminded me of this poem, another one I discovered during my formative poetry years. There's something compelling about the fragmentary nature of it, like it's tentatively reaching out for something but keeps drawing its hands back. Reaching out for the perfect phrase, trying one, then abandoning it and trying another. Trying phrases on like clothes.

I also like the mixture of the body images, which are sort of straightforwardly sensual, with the more metaphorical images. I feel like these could have ended up muddled together, but instead they feel... crisp? It's more that the two things are side by side, and the connection between them is drawn by proximity, rather than trying to make an explicit link between them.

And I like the imagery of reversal, the recognition that to undo a loss would be to press rewind on the world, to make leaves fall upwards. There's something about entropy in this, I think - the fundamental thing we know about how the universe functions is that we can only go forward, not back. When we grieve, we are in some ways grieving not just an individual loss, but the fact that to exist is to experience loss, that we cannot live and still escape grief.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Cat in an Empty Apartment (Wislawa Szymborska)

A Cat in an Empty Apartment
I wanted to post here when I read about her death, but couldn't figure out what I wanted to say. I still can't, really. Szymborska is one of the poets I discovered during my formative poetry-reading (and writing) years, one of the writers I admired most. Although I have only read her work in translation, it was always clear that she had an amazing grasp on the subtleties of language, a way of saying things simply and honestly and beautifully.

I love A Cat in an Empty Apartment because it gets at those ineffable somethings that make a person uniquely themselves. There is no one thing that defines us, but many things - the pattern of our footsteps, the way we turn on a lamp at a certain time of day. What it makes me think of is these scientific experiments I read about - I can't find a good reference so I'll just mangle through explaining it here - where the researchers asked people to define an object, like a chair. And then they'd present people with lots of different pictures of chairs, all shapes and sizes, some of which didn't quite meet all the criteria but which were still (debatably) chairs.

So basically, the conclusion was that there wasn't a straightforward definition of what makes a thing a chair - instead, there's this fuzzy cloud. Not everyone will agree on every point of a definition, and some people will say, "Yes, object 7 is a chair" while other people will say it isn't. And people can't necessarily put their finger on why they think something is or isn't a chair - they just know. But when you aggregate all the information from a bunch of different people, you can get a sense of what the word "chair" means.

Anyway, the point is, I feel like if you asked a bunch of people "who is John Smith?" then all of them would give different definitions. Even if you asked people to be as comprehensive as possible - to describe him physically and relationally and how his mind works and his history - even if you asked him to define himself. You'd still get this fuzzy set of descriptors, a lot of which apply to other people, and some of which are mutually exclusive, and this fuzzy set is what makes John Smith who he is. And somewhere in that set would be things like how he smells to his cat and when he turns the lamps on.

(One last reason to love this poem: "Caress against the furniture." Is there a more perfect way to describe cat movement than this? No, there is not.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Come From Cowboys (Ron Wallace)

I Come From Cowboys

and I don't like ties;
boots and blue jeans fit me best
     when I head out the door.
I'm carved wood, sculpted stone,
and tooled leather.
I'm green trees, blue sky, native earth
     a circling redtailed hawk.

My dad taught me how to read,
how to swing a hammer and cast a fishing line.
Mama taught me how   not what   to think.
     She said, "Keep it simple, son,
          always try to do the best you can.
The world gets complicated as it is
     without you chipping in."

Fifty years have marked me now with scars
of bent ten penny nails,
     fist fights and books of poetry

but in the end when the wind moves the grass
across my grave,
     I ask only that I rise
          on feathered wings one time
               and loose a last defiant cry
before I'm gone back into the stone
     below the dirt
          to sleep awhile.

--Ron Wallace

Wallace's book was given to me as a Christmas present and I'm looking forward to digging deep into it. This is the first poem in the book and it definitely sets the tone, though I'm curious to see whether the rest of the book handles the tone with or without irony.

The poem is kind of like an ode to the mythology of the cowboy. I don't think you can grow up in Texas and be immune to the power of those images, but then again, I'm someone who grew up there and then went away as an adult. I think for me, the cowboy mythology is something that's become suspect as I've grown older. There's a purity to the cowboy, an alone-ness. "Keep it simple, son" - that's the essence of it right there, I think - that the world is simple. "The world gets complicated," yes, but the world gets complicated, it doesn't start off that way. People make things complicated that could/should be simple, that's the implication there. If you're just a man alone in the country then all you need to know is how to hammer, how to fish, how to think (thinking is inside, not outside yourself).

But I'm not sure I believe it. I'm not sure I think it's possible to keep it simple. The world isn't simple, and people aren't separate from the world.

So I'll be interested to see where the book goes from here, whether what we get is a real cowboy, a real person, or whether what we get is the image of a cowboy, tooled in leather and ready to be sold.