Thursday, July 30, 2009

notes on poems by Mark Strand and May Swenson


The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives. Strip-mining the mediums alone won't satisfy what I can at best call a sweet tooth, a need to have pleasure. Sometimes it's instructive to appreciate things that are well made, whole, nicely put together, and to keep the sword in the sheath.There are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finess. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.

My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

1
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

2
Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

3
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over -similed commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveller, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptych that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier,but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both impressionistic and yet exact.


And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.


This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.

Somewhere in the work , toil , the bothersome details we get to rest and earn an extra couple of hours to keep our eyes close. The change happens slowly, unperceived,but it does happen, and the planet is a constant state of becoming, of change, and what changes too are the metaphors one would use to determine their next indicated jobs.

Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.
It is much too late.



While Strand writes of his mother's preparing the day for the days that will follow,May Swenson finds comedy and tragedy lurking in the same set of skewed images with this poem. It has a fine elegance that nearly obscures the ominous tone that clouds the final lines, an effect that's artfully deferred.



Water Pictures

By May Swenson


In the pond in the park
all things are doubled;
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.
The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.
Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut munching children
is suspended by their sneakers, waveringly.
A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure three,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.



As with the Mark Strand poem , this is a wonderful piece of writing, a string of inversions and reversals of stance that make the grace and balance of the world seem comical and awkward. Where there is equipoise in the world above the water, the surface of the pond has a universe that appears to constantly teeter for balance and negate the general cheerfulness of the forward-moving world; birds fly upside down, a swan seems to woo it's perfect visage, the sky is a hard ground and cherry blossoms bloom over a bottomless, blue-tinted void. This eases neatly from the comic to the threatening,the foreboding occurs, a warning sounds that one ought not look into a reflective surface too long:

Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

What was comic rapidly becomes distorted, and the infatuation of one's image, revealed, I think, by the saga of the swan's seeming narcissism; you are sucked into a world of reversals and turn into yourself rather the world outside yourself. "The bridge folds like a fan" , and one's ability to hold their own in a world of appearances is compromised. All may be mere appearence, as Plato maintained, but there are proper dualisms with which we can navigate reality and common to mutual terms on how to cross the street,what restaurant to meet at, or if the parking spot is large enough for what he drive. "Water Picture" is a reminder that we need to turn our gaze from the reflective surface and and set toward the other side of the hill, where we can join the legacy of the bear who went over the mountain, to see what he could see.