Week 9: Veil and Burn

It was my sister who recommended Veil and Burn by Laurie Clements Lambeth.  The volume’s title hints at three metaphors running through the text.  Overtly, veil and burn is the process by which one manipulates light exposure in an old-school darkroom– adding light to burn and covering to veil–in order to change the exposure and contrast.  The photographs laced through the text are memories of loved ones, but also a way to interrogate her own vision which is affected by her Multiple Sclerosis.  Lambeth’s illness is at the heart of the volume and she explores her relationship to vision, mobility, and memory in light of the disease. Finally, the veil also suggests her marriage and her changing relationship with her husband given the disease’s way of distancing her from her own body and sense of touch.

In the second poem of the volume, “Symptoms,” Lambeth attempts to convey life with MS:

I’ll try to tell you how it feels: girdle
my grandmother wore, tight-laced corset
worn by her mother in Wales, but seldom slips
from my ribcage. No hooks or laces, only

spaces of remission, then relapse,
a trip to the ancient clothes again:
crinolines, skirts grazing ankles, long
satin embroidered sleeves that rub and pull

naked skin, saying, now and then you must
try to feel through this, and this.  All that fabric
wound around torso, legs, the dresses
and sheets binding to keep me in

bed. The cure is rest, they tell me.  Dizzy, 
drunk when I haven’t drunk, I’m drawn
to the wall to prop me.  I’ve been known to sport
a cane, per the fashion, to smooth the gait.

Fix my mouth in a loose pout when speech
eludes its muscles, tired stiff as the garments
that hold me. On occasion, they’ll fall
to reveal this body, a window of cellophane

wrapping my limbs, a ring or each finger.

Diagnosed in 2008, at 35, my sister also has MS and also lives with this girdle, the remit and relapse that has come to dictate her life.  I see the poems as an act of translation; Lambeth translates the language of pain and illness, as well as resolution and resolve, into something legible for those not living everyday was MS.

University of Illinois Press, 2008

In the poem above, the connection between old, traditional ways of dressing women and the unyielding manner of the disease is illuminating– the claustrophobia of MS and the analogy to the outdated expectations of women comes back in the volume as she thinks through her complicated relationship to autonomy and dependence, freedom and constraint.  It also underscored to me the desperate need for better treatment and a cure for MS– life with MS should be a vestige of the past.

My favorite poem of the collection, “Reluctant Pegasus,” is a long poem divided into 10 sections dealing with death, horses, myth, and rebirth.  Lambeth’s line changes drastically from section to section, moving between tabbed lines reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” to shorter lines in quatrains or couplets, and prose verse. The breadth of the kinds of line suggest the breadth of the horse mythology and, by extension, the human/ horse connection.  In section 6, the speaker imagines the uncovering of the Ice Maiden in 1993:

Tattoos of creatures with flowering horns climb thumb and shoulder of the Pazyryk Ice Maiden of Siberia. Wild silk blouse, headdress of felt. Archaeologists deduce: shaman, visionary, prophet. Her olive skin, first thawed, nearly glowed alive, pliable, sutures with horse hair thread, body stuffed with peat and bark. Eyes removed in the mummification process, sockets packed with fur. […]

Preserved with her under ice, her six horses were sacrificed and laid just outside the burial chamber to accompany the Ice Maiden to the pasture of the afterlife…

The tenderness with which this ancient people dressed and preserved the body of a woman so central to their community is mimicked in the line which easily moves, but  this easy form is difficult to maintain.  In section 5, subtitled Reluctant Pegasus, she links poetic movement and bodily movement:

My poor cane is wounded, but I’m all right;
another chip in the handle. No longer
a three-legged woman, I’m a gimp,
a limper with a numb leg, no sense
of enjambment, no stride except
at the wrong moments, maybe a near
fall to scare me, or the sense of a skirt
against the skin where there is no
skirt, so it comes as no surprise
when that numb leg sprouts a tiny wing
at the ankle, another at the knee,
a fluttering one gracing the calf– (l. 1-12)

In section 10 MS returns with a vengeance and the line jumps across the page with fervor:

The numbness migrates,

charts the slowest route from left foot to my ribcage

along the thigh grown accustomed

  to griping a horses’s abdomen, squeezing cues of forward,

reverse, passage, side-pass right. This numbness presses in, might be

  a cue to me (cue so close to cure) to move

or lie down, lord knows which […] (l.1-7)

I am so grateful for Lambeth’s poems and that she unabashedly takes on MS.  For my sister and others, living with MS isolates and distances them from the experience of their own bodies as well as separates them from the life they knew before symptoms and pain.   Lambeth creates a new mythology, connecting her struggle to human experience across hundreds and thousands of years.  While individual poems in Veil and Burn are elegiac, mourning a past existence that is no longer possible for her, the volume is insistently forward moving– persistent even in the face of such great opposition.

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Week 8: The Needle

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Even though summer is just beginning, Jennifer Grotz’s poem “Late Summer” is on my mind this Memorial Day weekend.  Here in Nashville, the days draw out longer, and longer, and the smell of charcoal and honeysuckle hangs in the air:

Before the moths have even appeared
to orbit around them, the streetlamps come on,
a long row of them glowing uselessly

along the ring of garden that circles the city center,
where your steps count down the dulling of daylight.
At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding. (l.1-6)

Grotz combines the ethereal and the ordinary, and the poems in her newest volume The Needle (2011) have an uncanny ability to juxtapose nostalgic dreaminess with a sometimes-ugly urbanity.  “Late Summer” continues:

Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.
And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear
the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle

mutter in disbelief: Everything in the world is being thrown away!
Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things
redden and ripen and burst and come down. It’s when

city workers cut down trees, demolishing
one limb at a time, spilling the crumbs
of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street. (l.7-15)

Her poems remind me of recent visual artists interested in transforming ordinary objects into portraits or landscapes through collage and light. (I’ve written about Nina Boesch and her assembled images from discarded Metro Cards before, and I have been admiring the work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster since I was last in London and came across an article about them. )

Approaching E-Train, 2013 by Nina Boesch

Grotz’s poems have this same surprising quality where beauty often comes with a little repulsion and throughout the volume are a series of landscapes that she describes with searing particularity.   For instance her poem entitled “Landscape with Parking Lot” delights in trash:

In some corner of this desert plateau,
native habitat to the partly run-over soda bottle,
freckled with spilled antifreeze
and pied patches of putrid something or other,

a plastic bag snagged like a tumbleweed
in a perfect cube of hedge.
At night, heat radiates off concrete like an exhale of relief
in this legendary place of the soul’s temptation– (l. 1-8)

Wild Mood Swings, 2009-2010 by Tim Nobel and Sue Webster

Grotz was another of the visiting writers at Vanderbilt this academic year.  In between reading selections  she explained how her writing and her writing habits have changed in the last few years, especially since her move to Rochester. She gave some biographical background and talked about her time spent in France and coordinating poetry festivals in Poland.  Her poems takes us with her to many of these cities– across Texas, France, Poland, and even somewhere on a northern coast– moving between nature poems and travel poems.  Across the majority of the volume, however, the poetic voice contemplates the place of spirituality and returns to images of cathedrals, icons, nunneries, Sunday school, and even southern pastors.

Of all the poems in The Needle, I am drawn back to the images in “Boy Playing Violin.”  Appearing in section I (of three), “Boy Playing Violin”‘s images are bizarrely magnetic and the final image of shifting ice in a glass, feels like the ultimate bookend to heat of “Last Summer” (which also appears in section I):

There’s a boy playing violin in the corner of the square.
The sounds coming from his violin are awful–is that supposed to be
Mozart?–and he looks ready to burst into tears.
The bowl on the ground in front of him is empty–unbelievable

when you see his competition, a middle-aged man with a boom box
and a marionette of Elvis whose hips he thrusts dramatically
to “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.”
The puppeteer has the advantage of real estate,

having staked out a spot right in the center of the square,
but the boy knows what to do–
he sets up in front of the cathedral and steals some flowers
from the vendors nearby to strew on the ground.

So the puppeteer responds by pulling out a Tina Turner puppet
with little silver high heels and a bona fide snarl,
jacking up the volume to “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
to drown out the squeaks of the boy’s violin.

The next day the boy has traded in his violin for an accordion
that he opens and shuts like a giant slinky, his music a palpable
but unintelligible sighing about the misery of childhood, reinforced by
a thirsty puppy propped on a pillow in front of him.

If this were Virgil, now is when
an older, wiser song-maker would intervene,
coming to judge and anoint the victor with his own reed.
But this is a city square populated by potbellied men

with cameras strapped around their neck,
their well-appointed wives accessorized with globules of amber,
and by lovers holding hands, oblivious,
and by waddling pigeons chased endlessly

by children, and, gentle reader, by
poetry waiting like a beautiful woman
no one at the party will talk to,
like the carillon of ice shifting in her glass.

Week 7: Maurice Manning’s Bucolics

Harcourt, 2007

For my birthday, a few years back, sweet friends gave me books they loved. In some ways this is the best present of all—I think—to be given something that someone you love loves dearly. With the present comes a little piece of their soul to be shared with you. Maurice Manning’s collection Bucolics was one of those kind presents. Its giver, Donika Ross, an incredible poet and wonderful person, wrote a note (which is still stuck to the cover) that reads, “I came across this book ion N.O.—it’s one of my favorites, really—and I thought someone I love should have it. So here it is. And here we are.” So here I am writing about this volume. The book is 78 numbered poems. They are unpunctuated and untitled and each is a kind of song from the poet to the ever-present “Boss.”

Manning invokes “Boss” as part ranchman of the old west, part god figure, part earth-soul, and part adviser. The poems are love songs not only to the land—a re-imagining of pastoral poems—but also to this Boss who inspires and teaches.

you toss the stars like clover seed
you sling them through the sky you must
be glad to be a sower Boss
you sow so many things besides
the sky you sow the seed of dew
the seed of night you let it grow
until the morning overgrows
the night when morning blooms you sow
the song that springs from the mouths of birds
a chatter song a single note
you plant them both I know
you set the whistle in the wind you weave
the waves into the grass you bind
the honey to the suckle Boss
you sow the sticky stuff that sticks
the honey to the yellow belly
of the bee but then O green-thumbed Boss
you save a seed for me you sow
it in the furrow of my eye
as if seedtime Boss is a little bit
like sleep I think inside my eye
you keep a little patch of green (XXVI)

I can’t help but hear echoes of George Marvell’s meditations on the puzzle of nature. Manning’s delight: “you sow the sticky stuff that sticks/ the honey to the yellow belly/ of the bee” brought to mind “Upon Appleton House.” Marvel opens his poem—written in 1681—with awe, like Manning, at the design of nature and how no space is ill contrived to its inhabitant and use:

Within this sober frame expect
Work of no foreign architect;
That unto caves the quarries drew,
And forests did to pastures hew;

Why should of all things man unrul’d
Such unproportion’d dwellings build?
The beasts are by their dens exprest,
And birds contrive an equal nest;
The low roof’d tortoises do dwell
In cases fit of tortoise-shell;
No creature loves an empty space;
Their bodies measure out their place.

I love this modernization of such an old theme. It feels so familiar and yet celebrates nature in a way that’s influenced by language of environmentalism, of small farm-revitalization, and of conservation. The poems aren’t political in the sense that they have no particular moral imperative and I wouldn’t call them didactic. They are a celebration of nature, and of human/nature interaction, and because of their reverie it’s hard not to want to be more mindful, more green, and more present in nature. What fun!

I can’t help but read the poems as cowboy poems, maybe because I know of Donika’s deep and undying love of all things cowboy, but also because I easily hear my own father and uncle using “Boss” as a form of address to venerate older ranchmen. The masculinity present in the poems is communal; it venerates Boss, the land, and the interdependence of all present.

I guess you’ve got a lot of hands
though I’m just one
of many Boss I’ll turn
the dirt I’ll shock the corn
O Boss whatever else
you need I’ll pitch it in
I’m just another hand
with a face that’s funny Boss
as if my hand had eyes
or something sometimes I
get tickled Boss the way
things are I never know
if you get tickled too
I guess you do from time
to time you’ve got some kind
of spread some kind of place
for sure whenever I
pick pawpaws Boss I think
of you I think you’re like
the blackbird laughing in
the tree you watch me reach (XXV)

It’s worth saying, I suppose, that the poems are also written after Brokeback Mountain, and they are love songs directed at Boss. In other words, you can’t deny the intimacy present in the relationship between the poet and his inspiration.

Formally, the poems often bleed into one another. There’s no punctuation, but the internal rhymes create more constructed sections of poems—like little clusters of clover in an among the wide greenness of a pasture. Donika pointed out a particular poem she loved and I can’t help but be drawn to it too and its subtle understanding of the simple word “beside” (as well as its moss/boss rhymes):

do you get happy Boss do you
get tickled by a funny bird
or doubled over by a tress
a lonesome tress less lonely Boss
because it has a horse beside it
it doesn’t matter if the horse
is rubbing anything or not
as long as it’s beside
a tree it makes me happy just to
think about two things beside
each other the stick beside the fire
the rock beside the water O
the snow beside my mouth
when I bend down to say it’s me
you mossy bank you happy piece
of green it’s me beside you like
a bird I thought I’d let you know
in case you don’t have eyes I thought
I’d tell you Boss what always leaves
me happy if you didn’t know
already Boss in case you spend
a lot of time beside yourself

Thanks Donika for passing this volume along! It’s not one I would have picked out myself, but it’s one that brought such joy. Like this:

boss of the blue sky boss
of green water boss of rain
with thunder out in front of it
boss of the flatland bottoming
the hill O Boss you’ve got
a hundred marvels underneath
your belt so tight you’ll have to poke
another hole if you keep bossing
you boss so much you couldn’t take
on something else or could you Boss (XXIX; l. 1-10)