Old Quiver, New Arrows
"I think every book of poems tells a story," says Professor of English Literature Nathalie Anderson. Here, she reads (5:10) from Quiver, her latest collection. "I think of this one as balanced between loss and consolation," she says, "between the devastations that shake us, the stabilities that ground us, and the unanticipated moments of transcendence that lift us beyond ourselves." Anderson teaches courses in Victorian, modern, and contemporary poetry and directs the College's creative writing program. The author of two previous volumes of poetry – Following Fred Astaire, which won the 1998 Washington Prize from The Word Works, and Crawlers, which received the 2005 McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. She has also collaborated on three operas with composer and Professor of Music Thomas Whitman '82 — The Black Swan; Sukey in the Dark; and an operatic version of Arthur Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia. A 1993 Pew Fellow, she currently serves as Poet in Residence at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Anderson is introduced by Professor of English Literature Elizabeth Bolton. Read more about Quiver in The Phoenix.
Patricia Riley: Good evening. Good evening all. What a great, great way to start this faculty lecture series. A huge crowd, it's just wonderful. I'm Patricia Riley and on behalf of the provost office, I'd like to welcome you all to the beginning of the Fall Faculty Lecture Series. This evening we will start with Natalie Anderson from the English department, who will be introduced by her colleague in the English department, Betsy Bolton.
Betsy Bolton: Applause already. It's a great honor and also a bit of a challenge to introduce Nat Anderson this afternoon. The challenge comes in because as far as I can see, Nat knows everyone and therefore everyone knows Nat and there's no introduction needed. When I was thinking about this, I cast my mind back about a decade to the year after Nat first was promoted to full professor and I was talking with Abby Blum and trying to persuade Abby to come up for promotion to full professor. "Nat did it," I said and Abby said, "Yes, but did you read Nat's file, her promotion file? A herd of Nats galloped through that file." A herd of Nats. I thought that was my job. You might know one Nat, but do you know the whole herd? Let me introduce you to some of those members.
If you've come from outside the college, for instance, you might be interested to know that Nat has served on all of the major powerhouse committees of the college not once, but multiple times. She bears the respect and admiration of her colleagues across the college. If you're a Swarthmore colleague, you may or may not know that Nat serves as a kind of one woman clearing house for all things literary in the greater Philadelphia area. Staying on top of that listserv is itself a full time job. If you follow her poetry, you also know her work as a librettist. Nat has seven musical collaborations to her name, three operas, we have our own Tom Whitman ranging from Thomas Mann's Black Swan through Sookie in the Dark, a retelling of the psyche story to Arthur Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia. Just think about the thematic and tonal range that this operatic pair is engaged in.
Then, there's Nat's work on the borders of the visual arts. She has pieces commissioned for Olster Museum's Collection of Visual Art and Poetry in Penn's Institute for Contemporary Arts, Retrospective Exhibition Catalog Sarah Macanemy. She also has a piece in Enid Marx's Artist Press Book, Our Spotanica. That last piece, Early Herbal, appears in its purely verbal form at the front of Nat's new book Quiver and is a beautiful piece to play with. These are all only the most explicit recognitions of visuality in Nat's work. Each and every one of her poems, I think, demands from its readers a keen visual eye.
Students in Nat's poetry workshops take great delight in the weeks when she steers them through obsessive forms, and I think that her own work repeatedly turns both public and private obsessions into rich, elegant earthy resource. Considerate the phobia poems in Following Fred Astaire, The Insects, and also The Realms of Magic in Crawlers and most recently, I'm particularly swayed by Bias; poems about Bias and Quiver. Place and baggage and physicality run riot in all three books and I love the degree of sexuality that pervades everything in each of the books. Visuality and musicality are essential parts of Nat's work, but what I love most in her poetry are the textures. Not just the thematic interweaving of past and present, of magical hopes struggling against a certain jaded skepticism, but the purely verbal textural effects that trumpet Nat's poetic gift. In her own description, it's words buzzing the lip, buzzing at their bindings, trigger happy, skittish, ready to fly.
Today, we celebrate Nat's beautiful third book Quiver, just out from Pen Stroke Press with another beautiful painting of Perky Edgerten's on the cover. It is full of poems buzzing at their bindings, trigger happy, and ready to fly. Quiver was chosen as a finalist in no less than five competitions before being picked up by Pen Stroke. Nat already has a fourth collection entitled Staying in Circulation and I think she plans to read from both books, today. Please join me in welcoming the whole herd of Nat Anderson.
Natalie Anderson: Thank you all so very much. It's wonderful to see so many familiar faces here from so many spheres of my life. From the classroom to the city to the musical hall. All kinds of people here. I'm very, very, very pleased to see you. I do want to thank the provost office and Patricia Riley in particular for hosting this event and for letting me go out of the schedule. All of the other lectures this fall are going to be on Thursdays when I teach my seminar, so I'm especially happy to have this special dispensation on Labor Day. Laboring on Labor Day in our usual way.
I'm so grateful to Betsy for that amazing introduction and not only for that introduction, for introducing me so graciously, but also along with my friend and fellow colleague Abby Blum for being so astute and incisive a first reader for many of these poems. To Perky Edgerten for the paintings that have intensified the covers of all three of my books. To our friend Joan Landice in absentia in Vermont, who introduced me to Pen Stroke Press and to Joy Charlton who travels with me in Ireland, provided the impotence for this new book's, shall we say, quivering heart.
Every book of poems tells a story. I think of this one as balance between loss and consolation between the devastations that shake us, the stabilities that ground us and the unanticipated moments of transcendence that lift us beyond ourselves. That possibility of transcendence is figured variously through the book, but particularly in this sequence about Ireland called Elemental Tourist. Each section of this poem, they're four poems in it, each section in the poem, of the poem, evokes one of the four elements of ancient world: air, water, earth, fire, and each also recalls a particular place in Ireland. I'll be telling you about those a little bit as I go through.
The first part is called The Aching. This recalls Inis Mor, the largest of the stony Aran Islands off Ireland's west coast. The Aching:
You came there solid, your feet steady with it. Your gaze level, the heft so habitual even that step from dock to deck never rocked the boat. You came there solid, your sweater buttoned and your jacket zipped, the layers of knit and woven wrapping tight the chill. The massif groaning with it's own weight. Solid, lodged, but load to load, when your foot bit down, you felt it. The pang so pure it sang in your bones, it shattered their quartz stability. Landslide, granite shifting, fishers rifting to abyss, and you still gasping it out. Stone hurling and grating, choking your chest full, clogging your throat. Pieces of you levitating in surprise, thunking into the sea. Not simple, as joy or sorrow, when an ear or a tooth aches, a back or a belly. The nerves plait endless reels. You can't tell one strand of the tune from another.
You came there solid, and you left austere as air. You're not the first. A nine by three mile island, three thousand miles of dry stone wall. They'll build their houses with the scree you've dropped there.
Part two: The Vortex recalls Mizen Head, where a fog station marks Ireland's most southwesterly point, that's the point closest to us. And one can glimpse the fastnet island lighthouse off the coast. Now, this lighthouse is the site of terrible disaster in the past. They were having a sailboat race and a squall came up very suddenly and all of the boats were overturned and most of the sailors were killed in one flash, and this poem alludes to it. It's called The Vortex.
Out of the blue, the gale cyclonic, breakers high as the light. The light squalling into darkness, and all of them lost. The gay boats keeling, spinnakers bloating and spewing, dragging the sweet boys down. And you, the eye of it. Decades later, and still too stark to see. Rock edged with rock, molars and canines chewing the thick water. Low caves gulping and spitting every kind of hunger. The chasm sucking, the gust snuffling, the swell gasping and laughing, I'm sorry, lapping.
Every side of you plucked and buffeted and none of it intended. Waves stumbling at the same reef, drawing back to smack it, kicking and cringing. The spume flung high, thick bodied, glistening into dazzle into bright air. Light settling, unsettling. Not simple, as threat or haven, flight or plunge. 99 steps down, all the winds keening on them, decades gone. And out of the blue, the gale cyclonic, surge spiraling, spray cascading, and you, the eye. The stinging eye. Your hair streams out, your jacket opens, skin peels flake by flake away. Lost, you're lost, all of you, lost to that whirl of blue. That sob, that reeling sea.
The third of these is called The Grounding, and this recalls a stone circle, the Drombeg Stone Circle which is in County Cork, and like Stonehenge, at midwinter, the sun sets on an alignment in the circle from portal stones to recumbent axial stone, in that way that we know about. Archeologists have found in the center of this stone circle a cyst burial, that is a burial in an urn, of the cremated remains of an adolescent boy, but those remains date to the Common Era rather than the Prehistoric Era, much later than the likely erection of the circle itself. This is called The Grounding.
Who needs antiquity, when all that's old gets prettified? That's what you thought, before you entered. Oh, it's been prettied. Grass cropped, paths graveled, every stone surveyed and measured. Time setting your steps, grass of Parnassus starring the hillside. All worth a find, since elk belled in a forest choked with oak. Still, still, snarled or unsnarled, you're caught. You're circled. A hand held up, fingers angled inwards, cupping a palm of earth. You, straddling the lifeline. Finding through thumb and index a sightline to the sea, or a mouth held open to the rain, teeth gapped but healthy, strong, and you riding the tongue that after all these years might speak.
Wound table, scrum of comrades, whose trout? Who's shut out? Whose ring is this? Not simple as pub or margin, how the cupped hand crushes to fist, the jaw clamps down. Not simple as grace or loss, the sisted boy palmed and cherished, meat on the tongue. What's inside must out, what's out streams in. Light breaks the hill's heart each year where you're standing. Sparks grounds itself, leaps out. The muscular grasses bounding uphill ahead of the wind. Bloody crane's beak tapping.
And the fourth of these poems is set in Baltimore, but not our Baltimore. It's Baltimore Harbor in County Cork on Ireland's southern coast, where Joy and I spent a very lovely longest day of the year. It helps to know something that some of you will know, the definition of a geis. G - E - I - S. A geis is a magical obligation with the force of taboo or even a fate. The geis that I have half invented in this poem alludes to the advice that Angus, the god of love, gives to the fleeing lovers Dermot and Grania. In Marie Heaney's version, from Over Nine Waves, here it is:
Never enter a cave that has only one exit or climb a tree that has only one trunk, and never sail to an island with only one inlet. Don't eat where you cook, and don't sleep where you eat, and in the morning, don't rise from the same bed you settled in the night before. The Firing:
Never a day without cloud, never a sunset. Though the sky stays pearly nearly til midnight, brightens again by three. Light pooling and seeping, silver streaks on the sea, halos over the offshore islands, light stroking the flanked hills, each leaf saturated, each straw in the thatch clarified. Veils floating and parting, wind whistling through dry stone walls. Longest day of the year. Footballers flaring in the pub below, a window bowed out over the harbor, boys with their dogs leaping to board the ferry, and you with the tourist's geis. Never to sleep in the same bed, never to eat from the same plate, never to gaze in the same eyes twice. Nothing so simple as twilight, the blush starting without your knowing, the skin warming, tinting you rose, merry rose, guara, rua, bloody mary rochin duv.
A flipped coin, red gold in the air, heads you win. Heads it is. Each rift in the water rich with it, as if a man slips your hand into his jacket pocket and you, as red as if you held the sun.
So, in the last few years I've come to enjoy art songs, what in German are called lieder. So a single song is a lied, L - I - E - D. Some of the most famous lieder were written by the composers Schubert and Schuman, young men of great promise whose lives ended tragically. One dying young after contracting syphilis, one going mad after contracting syphilis.
Both liked to work in song sequences. Schubert's Die schone Mullerin, that's the beautiful miller's daughter, for example, which often depict romantic young men whose idealistic love turns to obsession and then to suicidal despair. Okay. But first, something completely different. This is a poem in two parts, it's called Singing Along, here's the first.
All the rock stars of my girlhood are touring again. The leer and sneer and scowl lines scoured so deep in their cheeks I can read them from the back row in the dark, even without my granny glasses. Their roiling chest hair, where every teenaged woman of discernment longed to scrape her petal lips and fingertips. That chest hair silvering and tarnishing over the stretched scoop of a tank top. The loins still girded, leathers cinched tight at the bulked up bulging crotch, jeans slung low to ease a paunch. Everything gusseted that can be.
The teeth fixed, smile fixed, the hairs crawling over the head. Not that I'm disparaging. All the guys my own age look old enough these days to be my daddy. All grizzle and gristle, the muscles gone pudgy, jowls starting to hang, notches in the belt where the buckle's lost its grip, cock a little sheepish and apologetic. So when the band takes the stage, slinging the mics, whipping the guitars, left legs pumping nearly in unison, smirking "ooh," snarking "Ooh ooh, baby, baby," they can play the sugar daddy, sure, it's just fine by me.
And the crowd, sitting so sedate and graying, nevertheless goes wild. Strapping down hard on the back beat clamp, whistling out long screaming streamers, clouding about with their shouted vowels, oh, bending into ay, yo to yay, whoa to way, ho, hey, go, stay, everything open and animal. Nothing wincing or picky, no skittish immaculate syllables. And when he hits the stage, you know who I mean, there's that collective "ah." The pleased breath of the crowd thickening the eased breath of the band, blending imperceptibly into the backup vocals. The concatenation and echo or drone, live under the amps deepening bassline.
Zow, zow, zow. Between his startles and his stops, his dips and his lunges, nobody thinks to wonder, "Is he tenor or a baritone?" Even before he brings on his grown up sons, the youngest girls are flinging themselves, flowers, at his feet. Yes, he could still have any body. Any body at all beneath those clothes and we'd be happy. Birthday ribbon and crackly paper, the dangling pinata. I'm not the only lady feeling girlish. Tweedling my hair, tugging my shirttail over belly and butt. There's a sea of us here. We're undulating, levitating, rising to the bait. Me too. Can't help myself. I'm breathless, witless, my mouth moving with his. The closest now I'll get to his kiss.
Here's part two.
It's been a long time since the days I coupled leader with lederhosen. Picturing Hansel and Gretel sobbing, singing themselves to sleep in the darkening black forest, or rambling muller and rattle mullerin, just ... I torture my German, sorry. Mullerin, just missing each other in Tirolean meadows. Stiff shorts and thick durndle, pieced and pierced and appliqued, more crusted with gingerbread than a Victorian witch's house. Feathers in their rakish kidskin caps. Yes, a long time since that dicterliebe or Winterreise, Schone Mullerin or Frauenliebe und leben. I'd leap to my feet, applauding wildly after the first three minute lied. The only red faced fool in the house. Or since slinking out afterwards I'd stumble over brava and bravo, diva and divo, conflating sometimes singer and composer, renown and repute.
Still, they say time changes everyone. Schubert, Schuman, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and surprisingly these days, I pass for a sophisticate. But the woman, or lady rather, who sits next to me at concerts, she sings along. Or rather hums, or more like oh, intones. The couple in front of us twitch when they hear her, like shaking off a fly. They twist in their seats, crane their necks, glare daggers, hiss and hush her. But as the melody dips and lunges, her voice dances along, pitch perfect whether the singer's a man or a woman, airy countertenor or earthy contralto, watery soprano or volcanic bass. Whining Hansel or growling Gretel. Sometimes she swings her fist to the tune, beating at it, conducting. Sometimes she holds out just one finger, tasting, excuse me, testing, tasting.
When her husband reaches to touch her arm, sometimes she laughs out loud. You'd say she's lost herself in music, but a single glance will show she's further lost than that. He pours over the program, carefully following the lyrics. In her hands, she holds their two tickets, closely examining first hers, then his, tirelessly exchanging them. Words on the page grow like moonlit stones, but she's too far lost to follow. Only music brings her home, as if song requires company. When she raises her voice, her husband lifts his hand, a subtlety. Not like he lifts his hand to her, not like she cringes.
Who's in the cage? Who eats the very house? Sitting with them, watching, I can't tell whose pleasure, whose indignity is whose. Some nights she even seems to know me, glares and gazes. Looks at me with attitude, as if she's saying all that lust and envy, that mortification, you can let it go. Away with sorrow, away with joy. Let the stream run through you, the snow fall over you. Follow my lead.
So, in the early 1800s, the romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote a series of limpid, deceptively simply lyrics called The Lucy Poems, which celebrate a young woman or girl who lives and dies out of the public eye. Fair as a star, when only one is shining in the sky. That's from the poem She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, which ends "she lived alone, and few could know when Lucy ceased to be, but she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me."
I wanted to recall that to you as I begin this next sequence of four sonnets. Some years ago, I heard a Nobel Prize-winning scientist say that given any three facts, any three things, the human mind will connect them, make a system out of them. Some time later, listening to NPR, as I do every moment of my life, I heard the sportswriter Roger Angel say something similarly provocative about baseball games. That whenever he goes to a game, whether it's Little League or farm teams or the majors, he finds that within an inning, he is rooting for one team and disparaging the other. And at that point, this poem started to complicate itself. It's called In Theory. Part one.
Given any three facts, the human mind connects them. A kid with a crayon traces lines between the stars, finds lions there, finds tigers. Under summer's tawny dreadlocked mane was born I, roaring, and any stargazer could connect those dots. Sunrise, then moonrise, the one light stalking the other, faded, fated. Add planets, wandering stars, how many skies can we keep in the air? It's a big bang when the juggling collapses. The Dipper drains the dark, the plow scours its fields, the bear bites his chain, the veil rips itself in the temple. Something shutters the sun, a cosmic wake.
Stab her, says the preacher, and the light will come back.
Given any two facts, the human mind takes sides. Worse or better, lose or win. By cold blood or warm, the winged lizard flies. By warm blood or cold, the witch sinks or swims. Wherever the ballpark, within two innings the scout knows one team's plucky, the other's sly. Every tyrant knows himself the victim. Every axis of evil has god on its side. Down the center of the room, an iron curtain where Cain snipes at Abel and Abel taunts Cain. Too smart to be pretty, too pretty to be smart. Both or neither, she's asking for it. No, the left can't know what the right hand's done. My queer and catty country, right or wrong.
Given any one fact, the human mind obsesses. Picks at it like a pimple, gnaws it like a bone. Eye on the horizon, Caesar rates, reaps, reaches, while Tim stacks toothpicks sliver to sliver, his own Roman temple. In the alembic, the alchemist, surprised, finds a stone that glows, a mist that flickers, an air that flames. None of it what he's pried and putrefied for.
The first born child's a happy child while she's still only, til they pick at her, gnaw at her, swallow her whole. My theory, my deity, warming the brain. I was the ring in her navel, apple in her cheek. Now she is in her grave and oh.
Given no facts at all, the human mind invents them. Finds pixies in the fritillaries, commies in the high school. Thus ancient scribes raked gargoyles from a blot of ink, or stitched three facts together Frankenstein-style, hippogriff or manticore. Here's a map for where you're striding, an atlas, really. No two charts similar. Bridge of fangs, hall of spears, road to hell, vaulting spires. When at last I come into my superpowers, will my present quirks and crochets swell and whet? Power of sleep, power of slang, power of the fork. Or a power so far beyond, no quilted facts will cover it. A power I'll never see I've got. Smothered, blinded, chained within what's ours.
Okay. Now. For those of you who have followed my work for a while, the poems I've been reading have probably been familiar, which is simply a fact of publication. By the time the book comes out, and I've been waiting a really long time for this one, let me say, by the time the book comes out the writer has been living with the poems for a long time. I'm therefore pleased now to share with you some of the poems I've written over the past year. So not the book that Betsy mentioned, but some even more recent than that. Which don't form any coherent thing yet, they're a bunch of poems.
So at first, here's a sequence of three poems, three fables really, that's called Don't Look Back. That's familiar advice in our society. Don't dwell on past mistakes, don't wallow in past sorrows, press ever forward to new achievements. Try to strive to be as good as or better than the person who just won the Pulitzer Prize, wah. Leave that old relationship or job or hometown behind. But is this good advice? Is it even possible for someone, say, in mourning?
As I worked through the sequence, I had in mind the story of Cinderella and the myth of Orpheus.
Don't Look Back.
Don't look back, she told herself, leaving hell for heaven. Stumbling over her own feet, those first steps out of the cage. Fearing less to feel again the scathing scoriations, than to see for sure the paltry bounds they'd held her. The latch that any other child might easily have lifted, the meager shelf of meager books. The grit they fed her, filth they set her sorting. Yet those first weeks at college found her yearning. Though for the life of her, she couldn't see what for. Some shape of things impossible? Some shadowy savior? The reassuring weight of the accustomed chain?
Don't tell. Don't dwell in it. Don't fester. The world restores itself, wants reconciliation, not recrimination. Don't look. She never. Still, dreams twist her nightly back into that little bed of cinders, and every morning she steps up, ready to spill the beans.
Don't look back. He lived like that, striding ever forward, stepping through trouble like he'd shed a pair of pants. The kind of guy a girl can't help but follow. That's one to keep your eyes on, gossips said, but did they mean so to track him, like a meteor, that glitter, or so to mark him for a snake? Even in the backwater backwoods back of beyond, she heard tell how he taught the birds from the trees, the tabby off the cat, wheat from chaff, curds from whey, the dead up out of the grave. Though how he managed, she couldn't for the life of her see. No back slaps, no back scratch, no backhanded pushbacks, just him. Bestselling, critically acclaimed.
Did he know how close she shadowed him? Always backdrop to his bright stage. Of course, there was backlash, back biters, backtalk, backseat, backpedaling, but don't look back. He never. If he'd once turn his head, she'd be there, his backup, his backbone. But as it was, I've got your back, she'd whisper to his blind obliviousness, matching his stride, mapping his territory, gripping the knife.
Don't look back. Such good advice, and so, never. Never the what if, never the why, whine. Yet then heard first, the double step, the faintest paso doble. Like your steps might stutter through a tunnel, like your shadow might slip on heels to heal you. The little hairs at the nape of his neck rose up as though of their own accord, rose up as though breathed through. His quick pulse quickening the cannon of his own breathing, the echoing breath almost a noise, almost a voice, like someone talking soft long after dark in the farthest room of the neighboring apartment. Every word now said seemed overheard, seemed tested, tasted, scrutinized.
The pain in the neck, the tap on the shoulder, say, when the rains first fell, came now so intimate. A stroke of luck, a fate, a shadowing. While he slept, did he dream something circling his wrist, his waist, his ankle? Almost a scent, almost a sensing. And thus he came to understand death's bargain, the trade he'd made for the life of her. Don't look back. Don't look back once, and she'd be still his. His back of your mind, his under your skin, his evermore.
Okay. Over this past year, I've written a lot of seasonal poems, I was conscious of the seasons in a way that you can't be while you're teaching, until you're shoveling your ... never mind. I am a shoveler. This isn't a sequence, but it's beginning to feel like one, because I've written now so many of these seasonal poems, so I thought I would read three of them. There are most, but I thought I'd read three.
So this first one I guess I associate with December, because this past December when I was down visiting my family in the South, I was trapped in airport hell, and I know that many of you have just recently been trapped in airport hell, and so I thought you might appreciate this. It's called Concourse.
He ran, she says, ran the whole way, and me in the wheelchair. Who's she telling? Her voice carries, so it's hard to say which of us might talk back if she paused a sec. We've all been running, but the wheelchair trumps us. Ran, she says, right up to the gate and can't see no plane. Thought they'd left, she says, without us. The van's silent. We've all been left like that, left flightless. Five airports today, she says, five carriers, pop prop out of Denver, and still can't get to Philly. No one can.
The van shakes, packed tense with the ten of us, shimmies as it corners. We've hopscotched too, airport to airport, jumped through loop-de-loops to get here. We've pitched, dragged, and whip stalled, but not in a wheelchair. Used to be, she says, I'd ride behind him on the Harley. He has the jacket, has the grizzle. We all marked him back at baggage. He rides silent, up there by the driver, his bristles and his shavings picked out in the headlights, shotgun pistol. Now, she says, he pushes me ahead. Wherever we go, she says, I get there first.
In the snowy dark, he smooths his mustache. Might or I might not be smiling.
This next one's, I associate with April. It's called The Veiling. It kinda goes through several seasons. The Veiling.
The last of winter's hazing, a high gale wracking through the branches, the brittle twigs scritching each other, the chaff sent flying. It's gray up there, stick against stick, each limb striking out blindly, fingers lost in thumbs, knuckles scuffed, elbows skinned, arms abraded. It's no wonder there's a fever starting. A little flush, a swelling at the joints, the tip of each twigs cock now to bursting, and stick against stick rubs itself rosy.
Look up. Like a cloud left hanging overnight, the grays blushing, dawning soft, a mauve air. And then the flocking, leaf on leaf stitched in and overstitched, so hastily the threads left dangling, stem stitch over laid stitch over couching, wheat stitch on feather stitch on thorn, cruise foot over fly stitch on spiderweb. French knot. Chinese knot. Whipped satin. Thus, the sheerest tulle layers into veiling. The palest fern mantia muffles into mossy chenille.
What was winter up to that seemed so raw, so cruel? It's all grown hazy, leaves cowling out, clouding over the hard hardwood, shrouding the skeleton.
And here's the third of these, this is called May. Something I aspire to and haven't yet achieved, but, May.
To move again inside ones clothes and every garment a caress. Arm sleeved in air and the collar open. To move again, butterfly effects, lavender rising in crisp waves where air's a promise. Wings in the wind, cloud against cloud, the faintest scrape. The cloth falls seamless now as water. Silk shirt, linen cloud, lithe sheets of rain. Around the bed, it's hunt and gather. The hunger comes, the hunger goes, the mulberry half-hidden, the sheets loose whisper.
To move again and all a billow, swing and lift, trade thick for thin. And the splash at the ankle, up and out. Feathers preened sleek to a ruffled neck, cyclones glimpsed at the eye's far reach. The shirttail flap, air slapping back. Winter's gone. Slow wing of hair, soft sparks struck where the inseam chafed. Maybe a nostalgia, but move again.
Okay. Here's a sequence of four poems, exploring I guess, different aspects of celebrity. At any rate, that is the title of the sequence, and it, well, we'll see. So this first part is called Mystery. I am a big mystery writer ... oh, how I wish. Then I'd be wealthy. No. And that was exciting too, that is a mystery. But not the mystery in here. I do read mysteries often, I do read mysteries often and hope you do as well. Okay. Mystery.
I got to page 185, 86 of the latest nail-biter crime novel, when she made me gasp. My spunky, smart-mouthed scape-grace heroine sleuth. Shadowing her mark, she'd stalk down those mean streets, straight through the sleazy bar lounge of the fleabag hotel, out its dim back hall, past the ladies, to the men's room. Yes, right in, and up to the urinal, where the bad guy pissed, was pissed at, pissing. That's ballsy, I thought, seriously impressed, while she sneered something strong-armed and snarky, something screwball and scampish, scathing, scofflaw, then really proved she had him. Unzipped, pissed on his shoes, rezipped. How'd she manage that? I actually asked, before I solved what any other reader knew from page one. Leslie, call me Les, was male.
I had to rethink it all. How she'd stepped up for her pal in that bar fight, how she'd faced down scheisters and cops, how at the pickup game she'd razzed the young toughs. How she'd toss back a few, how she's sat the edge of the secretary's desk, leaning in, almost leering. How her forehead rested a beat against her own front door, how she ducked her mom's calls. Everything audacious drained of its color. Male, merely male, merely conventional, a dick like any other. This happens to me all the time.
Doctor J, architect Nance, chef Z. I anticipate women. Surgeon, game warden, airline pilot, sanitation worker, boxer, professor, you name the job, I see a woman there. So, for you, does it happen the other way? When J pulls the pizza from the oven, when Nance sets the last dish in the rack, when Z sighs deep, shifting her weight in the empty bed, when Chris though coughing turns the page, when Donnie beckons, soothes, when Tam tears up, smiles anyhow. When Johnny punches her shoulders, when Audi sings, when Billie whistles, when Les puts her hard hand to her mouth, thinking twice. Do you see that man?
Here's part two. I think that maybe three people knew this, but when you were walking in here, on my little iPod I had playing Bob Dylan's Boots of Spanish Leather. I had it playing in two versions, one by Mr. Bobbie Zimmerman and the other by, who was it? A woman, Nancy Griffith. Griffith. Whose version I like even more, and that you need to have in the back of this poem. Or, you don't need to, but it is at the back of this poem. It's called Abandoned.
Sleeping Beauty dreaming of a kiss, her tongue alive behind lips gone dusty. Prince as prize, princess as prize, but what does the prize say once the waking's done? Sunk in her dream, she never has to say a word. And that's the girl I was, in 1964. The only girl I knew to be, clingy, tongue-tied, dazed. Left to drift a hundred years with no dry kiss to save me. So when in 1964 I first heard Dylan's Boots of Spanish Leather I heard it like that. The girl clings, the guy leaps. All she wants is his sweet kiss, but such true love's out of date by hundreds of years.
He's a prince. Needs a quest. Wants to be roaming. So, it's a man singing, so he says it's her ship that's sailing. I heard the opposite, and her waking up to it. By now it's old news how these artist girlfriend went for months in Perugia, how when she got home all the troubadours reviled her, strumming her quarrels, taking his side. The muse can't, musn't, fly off on its own accord. Baby faced boy from nowhere, bucked high by the bull of fame, it's no wonder he grips her hard. Free wheeling, she clutches his arm, but she's not clinging.
When the song's a woman's, she's steadfast, then resigned. The man's solicitous, duplicitous. He leaves so as to leave her. When the song's a man's, I think he whines, and then he threatens. Take heed, he says, calling the storm down on her. Both ways, he wins. Gets out clean, gets his own back dirty. Preemptive accuser. And then, there's Dylan with Bayer, harmonizing intimacies right there on stage. Their electricity so practiced, so professional, choreographed, staged. When intimacy's that formative, what vulnerabilities bed down?
Young Turk or young pup, queen or crone? Which one's scared, which one's impatient? Prince and princess kiss for the crowd, mouths almost meeting over the microphone. If I'd known then what I know now. Wakey wakey.
The third part of this requires that you know, as I know you all do, that the main character in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth Bennet, and her mother is Mrs. Bennet, and a Janeite is a Jane Austen enthusiast.
Prejudice. The actress who once played Elizabeth Bennet with sleek, conscious cheek and eloquent eye, has lately been cast as that screech Mrs. Bennet, whose crass machinations all Janeites decry. The role is a plum one, onscreen half the time, a challenge strong actresses eagerly dare. The tongue must be sharpened from subtle to shrew, the glint in the eye must be reset to glare. It's done all the time, with new teeth and fresh abs, the buffoon in film A, by film Z's a real man. Thus Collins evolves or Darcy declines, dealt by the same wit, played by the same hand.
I'm glad she has work, the former prim Lizzy. But as for the role, I wish she'd picked others. It's each heroines fear, how so spritely and smart. Must inexorable years turn us into our mothers?
So in this last one, I'm the celebrity. It's called Taxed.
Every day the interviews, the flash pop pop of the paparazzi, waves of waves, shoutouts from strangers, and each time as disconcerting as the first. Through placid pedestrians, 12 twelve-year-olds in blue school uniforms squealing and rushing, rushing at her, rushing her. She thought first they just grabbed some random bystander to snap them, and she, the most random. Happy of course to oblige, but no, what they wanted was 12 photographs, each one with her in it, and in it with them. Proof she existed, proof they existed together. It must have been field trip season, kids lining up for buses everywhere or scavenging for souvenirs, and she, the latest thing, the latest prize.
Don't let it go to your head, she'd razz herself, but it was heady. In twos and threes they'd stalk her or they'd crowd in, whole classes of them, hefting their questions, raising their fingers in little rabbit-eared Vs, not meaning victory, not meaning peace, and not what cockney louts intend with their rude two fingers, but evidently only cheez-its, take me now, a semaphore to the photographers.
She thought of shaking the hand once, of the secretary of state. Of course, no true connection, and yet the zing, the anxious exhilaration, the ozone of power. Or, glimpsing at the stage door once, the actor with whom later in the theater she'd shared the same stale air. How ordinary in his ordinary clothes, and yet the thrill of his proximity.
What celebrity but the commonplace made stranger, the stranger commodified. She knew her true face value, but saw too how her swelled head signified, how through fair trade she inflated. So when kids pressed at Hiroshima for her opinions, she set aside her guilt and sorrow, answered each shy hi, smiled for each camera, gave back what she owed for being someone in the world.
I'll close with two love poems, the first from Quiver and the second more recent. This poem is called Squeeze, as in he's my main squeeze, and he is. Squeeze.
I go to sleep, sleep comes to me. Same difference. No other love I've had turns up so comfortable and easy. Other men won't stay the night, won't let my new toothbrush stay over. Sleep wants me anytime. We've got each other's keys, and he turns that key so soft, I won't know he's come until he's left me. I'll be sitting upright in my chair, reading serious and fast, or sunning lazy on the back porch, swinging, thinking on anyone but him. And then I'll come sudden to myself, drooling from his kiss.
He knocks me out. Leaves me slack jawed, my eyes quivering, rattling my eyelids from within. Falling, they call it. I fall for him, day after day, night after night. Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I've had to fend him off, some days I've waited days on end for him to show. He's put his hand over my hand on the steering wheel, veering it. He touches me in public, my eyes glaze, filling with him. Or he's taken me, brutal, in the greasy kitchen, or rough and dirty on the fireplace rug. He's cricked my neck, he's marked my face. Sirens scream. He's all over me.
It's true, I'd stick with him through anything. He moves his finger like a sigh, pillows me, eases me, slows me. Want to double date sometime? I hear he's got a brother. Older, darker, yeah, also deep. Yeah, also trouble.
So this last one I'm going to read. The last time I was on leave I had the great good fortune, the great pleasure of being able to travel in Japan. It was something I'd longed to do all my life. The college assisted me in getting there, it was wonderful, I spent most of my time in Kyoto, and I really wanted to go back, and I had loose plans to go this fall, and then I was tired and so I waited before I made my reservations and by the time I went to make them it was too late, there just really wasn't any way to get a place that wasn't one of those places where you sleep in a coffin, you know.
So all during this November, I was thinking about being in Kyoto, wishing I were in Kyoto, thinking of Kyoto without me, and that's the title of this poem, it's a love poem to a city, and more. Kyoto Without Me.
Kyoto without me chills and goes dark. At this very instant, even the Gion district, it's suits, it's draggled, dragon, kimono drag. Blows out, blows shut, and a hostess hesitates mid gateway, not sure what she's missing. Thinking to lift from its chest again the quilted antique jacket.
Here, autumn falls hard. Tree bare their bones and the winds rake through them. Leaves shiver the streets, shrinking from umber down into dun. There, bronze over ocher, ocher over gold, each garden's lanterned by the flickering, full mooned maple, dancing peacock maple. Or, would be, were I there to see it. Where, at highest noon, in the furthest reaches of Maruyama Park, one man only passed me, striding, and one man only passed me sighing.
Where the ghost fern curls to the finger pool, and the moss deepens. At this very instant, does anyone linger? Bereft of even the sickle moon, unaware that it's me that he's missing.