Saturday, January 28, 2012


Such a weighty topic. How do poets avoid sounding ponderous when they deal with it?

One way is to follow the adage "show, don't tell." Since poems are instances of shared consciousness (as poet David St. John is fond of saying ), let the poem evoke that bit of consciousness, rather than explicitly telling us what feelings we should be feeling.

Catherine Barnett's poem is slight. She simply describes an event where she was present. The beads themselves weigh practically nothing, yet the central character collects "the round weights" (emphasis mine) and has yet to restring them.

Maud Kelly's poem, on the other hand, seems to do a lot of telling: those amazing cows with windows, plus a curious dare and its follow-through. Yet does the poem relate to its title What I Think of Death, If Anyone's Asking ? Perhaps the answer is indirect: consider the opening of the third stanza:
. . . reached the point I always know
would come, when I was at once too old and far
too young, how I knew, really for the first time 
Knew what? That "there's a wildness in us" ? Or maybe that this wildness stems from the sudden yet eventual realization that we're mortal?

Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Catherine Barnett)

We unstrung necklaces into two glass bowls
and passed them around to the mourners.
The beads were onyx, agate, quartz, all manner

of stone. Everyone was to take two
and at the end of the service
put one back into my sister’s hands.

What could she do but collect
the round weights all night?
She has not restrung them,

not wanting to be finished yet with death.

        (from Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced, page 23:  Alice James Books, Farmington, ME © 2004)

What I Think of Death, If Anyone’s Asking (Maud Kelly)

Let me tell you about the cows, how scientists driven
by some dark need to see them digest, really see it,
cut holes in the sides of twenty and inserted glass
tinged with plastic there, riveted it to their skin,
creating in each a porthole, so that when they stood
together, sleepily chewing, at the icy edge of a Missouri
sunrise they looked not unlike a fleet of cow ships, moored
illogically to a barn, bobbing on a sea of frozen sod.

Let me tell you how I stumbled, nineteen and drunk,
across a field to touch one on a dare—the window,
the boy had hissed, shoving the bottle at me
for one last drink, it has to be the window
how I moved, stubbing my feet, shivering woozy,
eyes half-mooned from groping, and was almost there,
hoping the boy was watching, impressed,
and aroused, his eyes blazing with the joke of it all,
how, then, from nowhere and all at once the long arm
of time’s elliptical arc swooped in, wrapped me
in its cello-thin line, how I stopped, looked at the cows,
wondered what they must see coming toward them,
what monster upon them now, mad with curiosity
and no doubt a map of what to peel back next,
having already torn open and plexiglassed
their stomachs, would it be their hearts, or would I take
their souls, undo the papery layers of their thoughts,
pull the thread of their breath to unravel the tones of their lowing.

I am telling you how I reached the point I always know
would come, when I was at once too old and far
too young, how I knew, really knew for the first time
that there’s a wildness in us, how that made me sick
but I couldn’t go back, so I went toward the only cow
who watched not me but the sun, pink as a newborn,
heaving itself through the trees. I went to her, leaned
my head on her back, the sun growing, the boy
turning, her belly reflecting the last of the stars.

        (from The Best American Poetry 2009, editor David Wagoner, page 66:  Scribner Poetry,
New York, NY © 2009)

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