Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Something to Learn in Ruin
Musings for May 28
Something to Learn in Ruin
We all know the world is not perfect. The question is what do we do with that knowledge. In the case of poet Al Maginnes, the answer is we make art; we make life; we make poetry. Maginnes tells us in the final line of his new collection of poetry, Ghost Alphabet, that “there is something to learn in ruin.”
Maginnes has been learning from ruin and sharing his learnings by making poetry for the better part of two decades, culminating in six collections of poetry. In the title poem of his new collection, Maginnes uses the image of a theater marquee missing letters as a metaphor for ruin and the creative acts engendered by ruin: “The white space shining between / the remaining letters is pages unwritten, / titles and plots of films never made.” Maginnes reminds us that in all creating, there is negative space, what the artist uses by exclusion to make the created stand out or to invite the viewer’s or reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks with personally relevant material, with memory or reflection.
Maginnes’ poetry is quite simply a joy to read but a joy that carries with it seemingly surprising revelations. His lines combine close observation and intricate knowledge with an uncommonly comfortable and complete syntax to create seamless moments of reflection that always conclude with illumination. The logic and tone of his lines and the clarity of his details are so straightforward that the reader first expects nothing new to happen. Then when the poem ends with an ironic insight, the reader feels they have experienced an epiphany. Finally, upon further reflection, one begins to believe they knew this all along but Maginnes has reminded them of what they have not attended to and brought greater clarity along with it.
You’d think explaining how Maginnes achieves such clarity would be easy. Clarity, one would imagine, by definition would be clear. And if Maginnes’ poetry merely made a clear statement, it would be easy to explain. But good poetry doesn’t believe people are changed by being told what to think, how to feel, what is really going on. Instead, good poetry attempts to recreate the thought/emotion/event complex such that the reader experiences as if it were their own. That’s not easy to explain. The best way to get an understanding of it is to read Maginnes’ work oneself, or better yet to attend his reading at Poetry Hickory on June 9.
As a primer, I’m including one of his new poems below.
Because we have made them the intermediaries
of the stars and, by extension, the planets,
we endow them with an existence larger
than the glimmer of one night
or one season, their summer bloom and flicker
one constant of our time-fogged span.
We know or believe we know how brief
a firefly’s span, since they die
so easily once captured, but the fire hovering
green-gold and planetary
in the emptiness between trees might be
the same glow that cast its lamps
over a back yard in Alabama forty years ago,
glow I ran through the dark to capture.
Each morning the bodies were shriveled and smelled
of dead copper, but the hot, burning dimes
of stars always surfaced and were echoed by
the weaving ballet of fireflies, more light
than anyone could capture. Now I have learned
those lights, like human voices, are signals,
go-betweens for bodies tired of being told
they will die, a beckoning
to the oldest orbit bodies know, but I see them
exactly as I have always wished to see them,
small, stark missionaries descended
to deliver night’s gospel of fire.