Monday, July 22, 2013

A Dialogue of Poets

A Dialogue of Poets
(reprinted from the NC Writers Network Newsletter, 2010)

I am not a fan of the insular, one might even say incestuous, style of poetry that characterizes a great deal of what is published today, poetry that seems to have been written such that it could only be understood by other poets, or more specifically by other academic poets, poetry that seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for the poet to show how clever he or she is to the poet’s poetry friends who understand the language games, the obscure allusions, and the “code words” used in the poem. Neither am I a fan of the facile. I believe, as Frost says, that “there are roughly zones,” that it is possible to be sophisticated without being impenetrable, to create poems that utilize a wide range of poetic devices and that participate in the ongoing dialogue of poets about poetry while also remaining comprehensible to an interested and educated audience.

Nevertheless, part of the joy of reading a great deal of poetry is the discovery that in many poems, even while the individual poem achieves a clear effect on its own merit, the full range of the poem’s meaning becomes clearer and often more profound when considered in the context of other poems the poet might have been responding to. In other words, the experience of the poem may be heightened by an understanding of the intertextuality of one poem with another. Such intertextuality is one of the many forms of collaboration that take place in the writing of poetry.

Over the past year or so I’ve had the great pleasure, initially unintentionally and later a bit more consciously, of creating a series of poems that have formed a sort of dialogue between myself and renowned NC poet Tony Abbott. This dialogue really began years ago when Abbott wrote and I read his book, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat. The poems in that book were among the first I had read that managed to move me to tears, but I had no idea then how they would influence me later.

Abbott’s book revolves around the loss of his 4-year-old daughter. Not surprisingly, the book’s expression of the awareness of the mortality, even at such unbelievable ages as 4, of those we love stayed with me over the years and influenced my writing as I explored my relationship with my own 4-year-old daughter in my book, Paternity. That same theme is treated in several poems, perhaps none more plainly than “Memorial,” where the speaker of the poem refers to his daughter’s “already decaying path” and “the unimaginable loss that lies ahead.”

The clearest connection between the two books, however, involves the seemingly miraculous perceptions of 4-year-olds. In Abbott’s “The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat,” the reminiscing speaker comments, “She stands very still // her eyes focused upward on some / object I cannot see.” Similarly, in my own “The Word for What Only 4-Year Olds Can See,” I write about how “My daughter made up a word, / effluctress, to explain why I couldn’t see / the rainbow bird outside the window.”

Up to this point, the dialogue between our poems had been unintentional, but this connection was so apparent, that when Abbott set about to write a blurb for the jacket of Paternity, he also wrote a poem titled “Effluctress,” and in that poem when he writes about seeing Mary, “in her blue dress with gold embroidered // hem and sleeves” who smiles at him “as if to say, / ‘It’ll be alright, don’t worry’,” I, remembering the poems from The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, saw the image of his lost loved one, and in her, the figure of my greatest daily fear.

Shortly thereafter, in preparing to write a review of Abbott’s New & Selected Poems, I read his “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter On Her 40th Birthday,” and the next morning, as I drove into the sunrise on the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach behind a jogging string of 4 pony-tailed, athletic young women obviously safeguarding their health, the relevant imagery made any question of intent or lack thereof irrelevant, and instead, writing the next segment in our ongoing dialogue became an irresistible compulsion. First, of course, I pulled to the side of the road and simply cried.

Here is the poem I wrote, the latest in our ongoing dialogue, but probably not the last:

Crossing the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach

The cormorants line up above the causeway,
their morning posture of feeding as ancient as trees,
older than even the first iambic lines.
We drive beneath them and rarely take notice,
not even of the stickle-backed sky full of clouds
that has lingered beyond them longer than reckoning.
I pull off the road to write down
the line I pull off the road as if
it mattered even more than destinations,
than the timelessness of cormorants perched
above the road that I get these lines down
because – what? They have something vital to say?
They’re all I have in the face of eternity? They,
like young girls running, help fend off the darkness.
I’ve read my friend’s poems in which
he still mourns the loss of his daughter
some forty years in the past, the grief
as fresh in his mind as what he had
for breakfast mere moments ago.
The sun is bright before me, the road
blurred with runners, each one
carefully preparing for what they’ll face.
I think of my own daughter and how
she’ll grow up one day if she survives
the shattered windshield, aggression of microbes,
cruel hand of fate, and I’ll
no longer have to write on roadsides,
plenty of time and peace at home,
and nothing but absence left to write about.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful friendship, beautiful fathers, beautiful poem. Thank you.

    Maren O. Mitchell