Tag Archives: poetry

Two Poems

I sleep well. So, when I woke up in the middle of the night a week or so ago, it was somewhat odd, but it happens. Normally it presages one of two things. Either something large, at least to my small world, is about to happen, or it is a call to prayer I can’t refuse. Sometimes it is both. But that evening, I woke thinking about pair of poems. Actually I awoke thinking how simply unpoetic my name is – Mark Brown. Poetically it’s a spondee, a one footed projection of stress. And while I might be tempted to repent of pride and narcissism for thinking about the poetic nature of my own name, that really wasn’t it. One of the poets that I find constantly readable is Dana Gioia who early in his work was a leader in something called The New Formalism. All that really meant was that while the rest of the world was lost in formlessness, he went back and said something like “hey, these things called meter and verse and rhyme and formal images; they are actually very important things; we should stop forgetting them”. So, when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your name as a spondee, it’s not actually about me. I’m just scanning a verse poorly.

Enough about me, I’d like to actually give a deep read to the two poems running through my head that night. First is this one by Dana Gioia called Accomplice.

Accomplice

In dusty fields I harvested the vine
And sweated at the lever as the grapes were pressed.
My aching hands still clutched their vagrant wages,
Sleeping in the cold barracks of the dispossessed.

But now at dawn, beyond the reach of reason.
I wake in the chateau between your tangled sheets.
My sunburnt arm across your naked shoulder,
The mute accomplice of our mutual defeat.

Dana Gioia

My scansion or scanning of the meter is rough, and I think the poet is taking a few liberties, but the meter is iambic pentameter with several substituted feet and some compressions taking place. By compressions I mean things like reason in the first line of the second stanza normally has 2 syllables, but in the poem I think you read it like reas’n. Or like lever in the second line of the first stanza is probably lev’r. To me that sounds like my Midwestern tongue constantly running over second soft vowels and final sounds. The first line is the easiest setting the da-DUM pattern of iambic feet. And here is where my spondee enters. How my ear reads, wages is the only spondee (doubled stressed) part of the first stanza and defeat is the only spondee of the second stanza. While the poem might be called accomplice, the stressed words are wages and defeat. Any interpretation would need to wrestle with those words in the midst of the poem.

Why this poem captivated me is that I think it breaks all kinds of polite society rules. It is an incredibly subversive poem both within itself at a level 1 and level 2 (words and paragraphs) and I think at level 3 (bringing in other known facts from outside the formal work).

In stanza one the woman is working, harvesting the vine. She is the definition of fruitful. She has a vocation. Yes, that vocation brings aching hands and cold sleeping quarters and a place with the dispossessed. But, that vocation also brought wages. This woman has nothing of what our society would say is the good life. She sleeps cold in the barracks. Her bedroom is not the boudoir; her bed is not the heat of passion. She does not have privacy as she is in a barracks. Her work is not about self-fulfillment. It is about work, sweat and levers and pressing and aches. She doesn’t even have a home or a place. Her aching hands clutch vagrant wages. This woman has nothing of value in our society, but she is the one with wages. She is fruitful with just a hint of hidden power as her hands hold the level that presses the grapes.

But now, like the evangelist Matthew’s Look! Behold! This same woman is given everything. But unlike Matthew, it is a much different dawn she awakes to. She wakes in the chateau. The caesura or mid-point of the line is just after that, giving a little pause. No longer in barracks, that rough word replaced with the rich French loan. The privacy affords tangled sheets, and how they get tangled. But now that hint of hidden power is gone. Her sunburnt arm lies across the naked shoulder. Her dark against the naked light. The effects of living in the sun and working placed against the skin of one who follows self-fulfillment. And instead of clutching wages, she has nakedness. Instead of pressing the grapes, the arm lies still.

No longer ensconced in a solidarity, even if it is one of dispossession, the world is silent. Everything that once testified to worth, now mutely speaks defeat. Interestingly it is described as mutual defeat and accomplice. The last line leaves me with the question why is this a mutual defeat? Would not the world normally view such a scene as a conquest? It should be said here that I’ve assumed a gender that is nowhere supplied. It might be just as likely that the sunburnt arm is male and the naked shoulder female (or male?). How is this scene, where everything our world values is given, called a defeat? How have hard wages become a conspiracy of loss even in the midst of a chateau? It is beyond the reach of reason.

I think you can see how the poem is deeply subversive of the controlling cultural values just looking at the poem itself. Level 3 type readings are usually highly suspicious. We have enough trouble reading ourselves let alone inferring about others off scant evidence. So, I only mention this because I think it is supplementary to the work itself. Everything in the high sanctums of literature is about gender and inequality. This poem playfully plays with both. The main character, who I have taken as a female, isn’t actually specified. My reading would probably be deemed misogynist in the academy. That gives the final scene an unresolved question: is it a pale rich male taking advantage of a poor brown female or is it a strapping brown male used as stud by a bored pale female? Who is taking advantage of whom? Or when we do such things are me mutual accomplices? Likewise the modern academy would think the dawn of sex is an unadultered good thing as long as it is consensual. Yet this poem finds it barren, a defeat, the loss of the lever. On top of this I would add the insult that a GOP era NEA chair appropriates to himself the voice of a brown person. A former executive at a fortune 500 company, as the poet is, presents himself as the voice and experience of the dispossessed. You can hear heads exploding over the gall of the oppressor doing such things. Yet, the poet is also the son of a Mexican-American, which would normally grant one racial privileges. Yet if you look at his photo that doesn’t seem just. We are straying into the weeds of level 3 now, but I think it helps us see the point.

And that point is that the wages of the world, sex, money, finding yourself, are actually spiritual loss. It is the dispossessed, the person who loses themselves in their vocation, who find fruitfulness and wages. It is a mutual defeat because oppressed and oppressor need each other. They do it to each other trapped by the surroundings of the chateau which itself will fall into the wine presses. The poem begs us, lost in the status of the world, to look with fresh eyes on what is of true value.

Leaving Accomplice behind I wanted to turn to a second poem that struck me as asking some similar questions. Face Down by Mary Karr is not the subversive poem that Accomplice is, but it desperately begs us to look with fresh eyes upon the world for true value. Instead of slyly making comparisons of our false pieties, it flames at how we abuse each other. It replaces the mute accomplice with a haunting presence and a silent picture. What is that need that we all so desperately need like smack? That need we try and fill with everything the world will give us?

Face Down by Mary Karr
What are you doing on this side of the dark?
You chose that side, and those you left
feel your image across their sleeping lids
as a blinding atomic blast.
Last we knew,
you were suspended midair
like an angel for a pageant off the room
where your wife slept. She had
to cut you down who’d been (I heard)
so long holding you up. We all tried to,
faced with your need, which we somehow
understood and felt for and took
into our veins like smack. And you
must be lured by that old pain smoldering
like woodsmoke across the death boundary.
Prowl here, I guess, if you have to bother somebody.
Or, better yet, go bother God, who shaped
that form you despised from common clay.
That light you swam so hard away from
still burns, like a star over a desert or atop
a tree in a living room where a son’s photos
have been laid face down for the holiday.

Here are some important references pages:
Accomplice by Dana Gioia
Face Down by Mary Karr, HT: Mockingbird
Short Gioia Biography
Short Karr Biography
For Further Reading: Gioia, Karr

A Poem for a Beautiful New York Day

The poet is Dana Gioia (page, poem source). Now I know that my continuing interest in poetry places me in about 0.1% of the American population, please forgive my oddness. Take a second on this gorgeous New England October day, to read this…


California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

Now most of that poem could be just about seeing landscape with different eyes. My Midwestern raised eyes used to staring at the unending distances, had to get used to the hills of the East. In the Midwest you stared at sky just by staring at the horizon. It was impossibly far away, but always present. In the east, the ground right in front of you often lifts your eyes. You don’t see that far away meeting, but instead jump from the top of the hill right into the blue.

It would be a nice poem if just about that, but read that last line of the third stanza. Our eyes often miss the reality. Whether that is because they are dim and clouded, or because we don’t want to see what is before us, our foreign eyes “are unable to conceive that these…were alive.” We have been placed where we are; to live, we should see. But that seeing requires work.

And the poet takes it a step deeper in the last stanza. You can be born or be placed somewhere and never see anything else. And this is just what life is. If you’ve never known the monsoon, or even the gentle rain, the sparse landscape just is. You might never now, just how dry it is. Or how deep the dirt “wishes for water”.

Think he is talking just about the landscape?

W. H. Auden’s Birthday

Thanks to Dr. Jacobs for calling this out. He has all the links. I ran across Auden in a Senior elective in High School called W.B.Yeats and the Irish Tradition. That was a great course, but one of the best poems was Auden and I remember frustrating the teacher as we deviated from the syllabus to explore him a little more. This was the initial linking poem, In Memory of W.B.Yeats, which is one of the best poem ever written. And can you imagine taking this course by Auden? for 2 credits?

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day….

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

The alabaster jar

I wanted to share this poem primarily because I found it strikingly beautiful.

The woman with the alabaster jar

She knew the lines of a man’s back
as well as she knew the taste
of decanted fig-wine, or the way the spine
girdered the back under her hand;
an uneven scaffolding of flesh under fingers.
It was a gentle gift, this. Acquired slowly
in the stones arranged on her mother’s grave,
in the deep vault of her hip against his.
Dipping like water, she learnt to press libations
into her hair — lavender, dill, coriander;
to twist strands against the frame.
There was salvation in this. And Art too;
that fingers still wet from mulberry
could etch a form of truth on the skin,
like the rim of flung-coin, or the
consolation of Spring oranges and their spurting.

But the truth of them has been forgotten.
His dirty feet and tired eyes, her hennaed-thighs
in sandalwood and linen, how she swung her hips,
how his loneliness was an atrium arching from his chest
to the lip of the buttress; aching for her to unfurl her hair.

—Davina Allison

The allusions swim around these texts (Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:37-39 – although note that the Luke story is a different setting; also look at Song of Solomon 5:15-16). Does it step over a line for the pious, or does it push to the right line reminding us ‘…and he was made man…’?

A few links I need to clear out

In prepping for sermons and bible studies and teaching moments you become a hoarder of stray thoughts. The internet has only made that much easier because people actually write it down for all the world, and really good ones stay like tabs on my browser taking up space like all the junk in a house before a good cleaning. These are a few recent good things that I’ve run across, but I don’t think have incorporated (i.e. stolen for use) anywhere.

Simcha Fisher on weight-loss and conversion or sanctification.
For poetry lovers, Dave Wheeler on Advent Ghosts. (HT: the High Calling, a great site for laymen and women pretty much by laymen and women.)
Christianity Today on The Leavers. When I asked that question in the Sermon about living from the Mount of Olives, this is in the background.
Into deep water here. The Monday Sermon for preachers. What does Ambrose and Celibacy have to say to a sex drenched culture.