Saturday, January 7, 2012

Introduction and "Trees"

In the preface to his 1998 book Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, poet Stephen Dunn writes:

I became intrigued with working in tangentially related pairs, each a discrete paragraph and as packed and pithy as I could fashion…I became fascinated with how I might make different ideas, claims, and stories rub up against and inform each other.
Here is a sample prose-pair of Dunn's:


   When you insure your life it’s a bet for your heirs, which you win by dying. And a hedged bet for the big companies, who’ve already invested your premiums in commodities and futures. Kafka couldn’t have invented it any better. When I was 19, my father arranged a summer job for me with New York Life. All I had to do was take the psychological test, and I was in. “Do you ever have black, tarry bowel movements?” one of the questions asked, and I wavered, sure my answer would mean everything to New York Life. “Yes,” I decided, which couldn’t have been the only reason I flunked. My father was disappointed and I ashamed. And now I think my failure was a kind of insurance—the best I ever fell into—against doing such work. Ever since, I’ve tried to live my life so that living would be its own annuity, in its own time. A bet in the dark, the beneficiaries always in doubt.


   Years ago at Aqueduct, my friend Joe, a Marxist, bet on a horse named Marxism in the third race. Its odds were 8 to 1, which seemed about right. And it won. Eighteen bucks for a two dollar bet; he didn’t share it with the masses, you can be sure. This is a true story about luck in the small. In the large, he had bet on a horse that immediately thereafter seemed to get old. Never won again. History’s always a bad bet, unless you play it to show. Even Tiresias and Cassandra’s inside dope didn’t alleviate any anguish or doom. No insurance possible for an ancient Greek. Yet I need to believe that luck can confound fate, change its course. I need to believe you can make a little of it out of research and nerve. The rest is a one-time gift, a nag that for a while gave some of us hope, like Marxism in the third.

        (from Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, pages 108-109: W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY © 1998)
But what would happen if one paired poems against each other? Would rubbing two poems together create a fire that might further illuminate each one in terms of craft, imagery, musicality?

This blogspot is just such an experiment. Each posting will present a poem-pair. The poems in a given pair are related in varying degrees—sometimes obvious, sometimes fleeting and mysterious. Some poems are realistic, others are more philosophical. The poems appearing here may vary in length and structure. Some poems use formal devices like stanzas or lines of a particular rhythmic structure, while other poems go their own way, defining their strategy as they proceed.

Other than providing a brief label for the poem-pair, I do not discuss any relationship between the poems. Instead, I leave it to the reader to discover and enjoy whatever linkages might exist.

In this inaugural posting, I feature a poem by Marvin Bell and a poem by Gerald Stern. (A full citation follows each poem.)

So, let the experiment begin!


The Self and the Mulberry (Marvin Bell)

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
It had no trouble accepting its limits,
yet defining and redefining a small area
so that any shape was possible, any movement.
It stayed put, but was part of all the air.
I wanted to learn to be there and not there
like the continually changing, slightly moving
mulberry, wild cherry and particularly the willow.
Like the willow, I tried to weep without tears.
Like the cherry tree, I tried to be sturdy and productive.
Like the mulberry, I tried to keep moving.
I couldn’t cry right, couldn’t stay or go.
I kept losing parts of myself like the soft maple.
I fell ill like the elm. That was the end
of looking in nature to find a natural self.
Let nature think itself not manly enough!
Let nature wonder at the mystery of laughter.
Let nature hypothesize man’s indifference to it.
Let nature take a turn at saying what love is!

        (from Poems 1962-2000, page 89:  Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA © 2000)


                         The Power of Maples (Gerald Stern)

If you want to live in the country you have to understand the power of maples.
You have to see them sink their teeth into the roots of old locusts.
You have to see them force the sycamores to gasp for air.
You have to see them move their thick hairs into the cellar.
       And when you cut your great green shad pole
you have to be ready for it to start sprouting in your hands;
you have to stick it in the ground like a piece of willow;
you have to plant your table under its leaves and begin eating.

        (from Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems, page 22:  Harper Perennial, New York, NY © 1990)

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