Thursday, March 6, 2008

Acorn Poems from Linda Pastan and Carol Frost


Linda Pastan has a short and punchy poem on Slate this week, “Acorns”, a streaming rhythm of associations, a fast rush like the sudden gush of water of a faucet suddenly turned off in the middle of the night. One may complain that she doesn't do a sleep over on any of the points that she tap dances across on her way to the end, but I think that is this poem's strength. As much contemporary verse remains dedicated to the capturing of sensation and perception quickly, accurately, without a rhetorical padding often enough applied in most mainstream poems to make a poem seem more important--bigger, denser, more profound--Pastan succeeds, I think, in giving us a piece suggesting the alacrity of thought. It's a full and active world, this yard, once one starts to closely observe the small things happening under the broad scope radar.

Many of us, me included, insist much of the time that poems be an argument of a rarefied sort about issues, emotional, spiritual or outright political, where a bottom line is delivered in a grand language whose elegance and power of phrase and evoking phrase defy refutation. We do this at the sacrifice of the smaller poem, like Linda Pastan's "Acorns", where the content and concerns are smaller; the volume is turned down, the language contained to a parseable idiom, but with smoothly, if subtly drawn connections to larger issues that I can only admire the economy of the effort.

The element I enjoy in this poem and which I think makes it a success is that Pastan smartly deals almost solely with sight and sound here, with the inferences about gunfire, bullet casings artillery and rookie ball players practicing their respective batting styles restricted, that is to say fused
to what the senses receive from the environment and the figurative associations the commotion triggers.

"Acorns" gives the feeling of sudden revelation, a moment of stunning perception that will make one pause in their task and cause one to ponder consequences, the meaning of opposites linked together. What is key here is the implied dualism, succinctly illustrated, that there is a world of violence, clamor, noise that is not outside this idyllic locale, but which exists inside it, in the conflations the mind will pass under our radar as we rest, reflect, lay about, unfocused in tasks in duties. Interesting indeed that the falling acorns and the sound they make on the tin roof brings up images of gunfire, bullet casings.
Economy here works splendidly in Pastan's instinct for containing the larger themes in smaller subsets; it gives the reader the tension and the anxiety that no matter what our habits of remaining calm and gathering our wits in the city (or the country, for what the poem provides us), war, death, carnage are never far from our thoughts. This is a swift and effective use of binary opposition, things and situations being defined by the things they are a contradiction of. Although this is a wholly coherent poem, one which we may read and discern the logic of how imagery from the material plain inspires recollections from the murky archive of memory, it has that quality of the daydream, the abrupt transition; this is a poem that can contradict itself, a daydream that the narrator can interrogate and wonder is missing in the picture that has unfolded in front of her:

where are the squirrels?
the gardeners
with rakes?
the farmgirls
their aprons brimming
with acorns to grind
into meal?
the dog cowers
beside the house
the cat hides
under the car
afraid of
the clattering hooves
of acorns
later big oaks
will grow, a forest
of oak trees their roots
will strangle
this house
listen, listen
all from a single
tree


Suitably, the matters of the squirrels, farm girls and hiding cats evaporate altogether, and the last lines listen, listen/ all from a single /tree leaving us where we had started from, at the tree, as if we were the ones who'd been lost in thought and are startled back into a sobering present tense. Suitable, to, that the poem ends without a period (assuming this is purposeful and not a typo). It begins in mid thought, with sound effects, a rattatatat, and ends in an image that's unadorned, undecorated. This suggests to me an imagination that had been adrift and is now obligated to accept what is actually in front of them and finishes their tasks, to get back into the day before it's gone.

Poet Carol Frost , in a past issue of Ploughshares, gives us another poem called "Acorns", finely writ and distinct from Pastan's work. I find it interesting that the fruit, as it were, is presented as an item born of nature that constitutes an interruption on human thinking; in both poems the falling acorn the fallen nut acts as an intervention in the stream of thought that seeks to assimilate the given world and reintroduces the narrators to some kind of reality principle. And certainly both disturbances offer up their chains of association, given us in different styles, Frost, a worthy lyric poet, addresses her experience in reflection after the small event;

Last night some acrons fell
and woke me as they struck
the roof. Each acorn rolled,
a die cast down the shakes,
to tell my chances in
the sun and in the snow
to come. What might have been
a grief, I didn’t go
to look for in the night.


A sweetly singing opening for the poem, and one that tells us that her stanzas are neatly framed, artfully arranged, careful as to tone and color. Something about this reminds of an Impressionist painting, where the ambiguity is sheathed in a soft , muted hue which makes what one is confronted with more mysterious and alluring than threatening. It seems like a description of the things in the yard assuming their natural subtle relations.Pastan's poem is all about the rush of sensation, I think, the dramatic influx of detail and the rapid unfolding of a associations of a mind negotiating the changes. A more collected memory will perhaps form later, but the appeal for me of Pastan's piece was her success in capturing the sheer speed with which the imagination can create contexts and associations , and the speed with which those fresh metaphors can be altered, changed, transformed.