Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Stephen McNally/Added to "Your Childish Painting"

I might have mentioned the poet remembered in "Your Childish Painting." He was Stephen McNally, author of the book of poems Child in Amber. He was teaching at Southern Methodist University when he passed away, and working on a new collection then, but I don't know if his friends managed to finish it.

In my draft of "Your Childish Painting" I found a quatrain written beneath it. Evidently I thought the poem ended too abruptly and needed more. But since it is so triumphalist, switches from Homer to Dante and spoils something that should be left alone, it stays by itself. But it is kind of nice by itself, an echo of my favorite lines, the last ones, of Paradiso.

where souls released from the torture
of their making sing plainsong to
the unfolding celestial rose, bright
origin of the sun and other stars. 

Your Childish Painting

Detail from vase at the British Museum
Will I think of you always on that cold night,
Iowa City, chilled Sangre del Toro
poured out in glasses at your table,
and by the wine your toy animal zoo?
Will I forget the blue stick-figure man,
the watercolor of him amidships
on a bowl-shaped boat on a squiggled sea?
It decorated your refrigerator.
You said, "I painted that. It's Odysseus
when he passed the Sirens. All the crewmen
stopped their ears with wax, but he lashed himself
to the mast and listened to their singing.
I wonder what he heard?"
                                                  Now, poet, you
have gone. Forgive me for dreaming
your crossing of Styx, your finger pressed
once to set your glasses, then looking
at fields of asphodel and a party
of Hell's more blessed dead come to greet you,
the thin smiles, the soft pats on your shoulder.
I don't even know what they drink down there,
unless the animal blood Odysseus
offered the shades who grasped at him. No.

All I can imagine is what I can't forget:
your blue strokes on the butcher paper.
And if there are songs on the other side,
and they are the lyrics of your world now,
let me be one of the crudely-made men
who must look up to the mast in wonder,
be a deaf sailor in your painting,
you who hears as we keep rowing.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Streetside Café

Somehow this post is a gesture toward Valentine's Day. It had gone through a couple of drafts that are worse than this version, which is practically a first draft. This poem has images I obsess about, if for no other reason than the setting where I have spent so much time, which old town Noblesvillians will know as well. So, here's a gawky one.


Streetside Café

You get the feeling it wasn't meant to be.

The bright vehicles trail by toward the bridge
where the sun seems headed, red and promising
to leave with each tail light one to the other side.
"Was that me?" your memory asks, "one June
in the night laughing with a guitar into the dawn,
fresh strings, the rounds of flamenco and spiced coffee?"
Here the foam cup sits between your fingers.
Though they have forgotten how to play. Colored with dusk
they tap irregularly at the coffee, hot on a hot evening.

The sound, like building breeze, of the coming traffic
lets itself fall and rise again. The cars pass
in thier shiny bodies, street-lit,
                                                      this car and that,
the unpredictable colors, the arms of passengers resting
in a slipstream, other windows dark and chilled
by the conditioned interiors.
                                                    You want to know
how to take each sip toward the bottom of the cup
as if there were a deal to make, another cup to buy,
but the woman at the counter empties the urns
and counts the till. You can almost hear the rattle
of the dropped coins in there. Then the red
over the river vanishes. That's how you live:
restlessly, each single, excellent night.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Shadows

Mongolian horse from Wikipedia.
November and gray before noon
their shadows came, halting
at first. By the clean brown garbage
containers behind the new brown shops
they gathered, they mussed electric meters
and brushed against steel back doors.
Then one shade broke free and shivered
a little by the four-lane thoroughfare.
It savored its own timidity
before a land ready for the taking.

How they leapt! Restaurant to farm
to subdivision, from woods to fields
flagged for wooden frames and buried pipe,
the shadows of the horse archers
swarmed unopposed. And now
and then we'd see one from our cars,
how the rider would tighten his legs
upon his mount, draw back the bow
and let a tiny shadow fly by our faces.

Later, a troupe of them materialized.
They wore bright streamers and flags
and carried short, plumed pikes:
hardly barbarians at all, it seemed,
until they menaced a parking lot
with muted screams and hoofbeats.
The last one spotted led his pony
down a roadside ditch, both
those creatures sweaty and blown,
probably hungry, but we didn't care.
The guy didn't belong here anyway.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Journal Entry: January 19, 1996

I do not write poems in order to have all the marvelous theories about them intrude on their making. Nor do I write poems in order that I might, in Marvin Bell's words, "stamp out my mind." But it is the constant intrusion of theory that spoils the act of writing most for me. Each word is criticized as I write it.

In prose, with its headlong push to communicate ideas, this problem does not arise. The words fall as they will with half as much thought in them as the ones that fall in lines. This must mean that prose is more natural to me.

And yet it is poetry I fix upon, perhaps because it is the greater challenge, because it engages language more directly, because it moves, because it demands more of me to reach something... that will not be found otherwise.

For George Meade, Surveyor and General

George Meade portrait by Matthew Brady
Low tide, 1848, you planted a tripod
in soggy Sand Key.
You stood out of uniform,
shirtsleeves and a floppy hat.
You dropped a plumb bob
and checked a spirit level,
shot an azimuth back to Key West:
calm work in a smooth breeze,
water slowly cresting
a reef that wrecked a hundred ships
and fed the families of salvage men.
A screwpile lighthouse remains,
your shabby monument here,
past usefulness, black, skeletal.

Or 1863 in a small white house,
you heard the crash of arms
on the other side of Cemetery Ridge.
How odd: commanding an army
a few days only to set camp
in a perfect nest of hills.
Maybe for a moment you feared
Pickett's men were like the surf
at Sand Key. You would need
to pull up stakes right then.
But you must have known
the charge was only another ship
blind and smashing itself apart.
Near your sweltering headquarters
another steel tower stands*,
hauling spectators to its top
to survey miles of monuments.

You must have kept good maps
of Gettysburg and Key West.
You were only marginal a soldier.
Maybe you were cranky
and they called you "Old Snapping Turtle"
because the job didn't suit you.
You didn't push Lee's whipped troops
and crush them against a flooded
Patomac River. Lincoln fired you.
And for fifty years the wealthy
salvage men of Key West went broke.
Ships moved smoothly among
its underwater graveyards.
Today tourists give money to
Gettysburg and Key West.
Where you went things changed,
but who would say you changed them?

Mapmakers don't win wars
except by accident. It's up
to captains to sweat the charts.
The humans who make history
never seem at rest, building towers
that need restoration, or opening
shops that trap a little money.
Who can tell where those people
end up? So maybe it's better
to chart with compass and rule,
even if the wind bothered
your papers, even if no one
cared about your trip to Sand Key
or the color of the sea that day.

*A tall and ugly observation tower once stood over the Gettysburg park. It has been demolished.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Prosaic Aside

One reaction people have had to my poems over the years has been "write more prose." It's a sentiment with which I have a lot of sympathy, and it has come from sources of great authority.

There's a catch, though. My verse and my prose have something fundamental in common: a lot of it is unreadable, especially when it seems most meaningful to me. The writing of prose affords no magic protection against bad writing. At most, writing prose can usually afford the comfort of conventional meaning, or what has been called (sigh) "prose sense." In my own prose this comfort can become cold in a few sentences.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether it works or not. When we read someone who writes a lot and seems to write well, we read the best tip of a huge iceberg. A huge, ugly iceberg.