Andrew Wyeth’s Pentecost and a Pushcart-Nominated Poem

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Wyeth titled this painting Pentecost in part because it was composed on Pentecost Island. I called my poem Nets for obvious reasons. I’ve always loved the painting but it was when I came across an interview with Wyeth explaining how he saw these nets and what they signified that I felt compelled to write. Pemaquid Point, which Wyeth referenced in his interview, is one of my favorite places on the coast of Maine and is special because I had a small memorial service for my grandmother there years ago. It’s really a spiritual place where the rocks jut out into the Atlantic and that concurrence of peace and fury when the waves smash and swamp the rocks, reminds us that it’s also a place of nature’s violence. I would have included the poem here, but WordPress was having none of my carefully constructed format. The poem won the Briar Cliff Review Award (scroll to bottom of page, the link to ‘Nets’ is on the far right) in 2011 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize that year.

Persona Poetry as Poetry of Witness

Poetryarchive.org defines the persona poem “from the Latin for mask, a character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem”. The Academy of American Poets’ website poets.org defines the persona poem as a dramatic monologue, akin to the theatrical monologue: “an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice—a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. Because a dramatic monologue is by definition one person’s speech, it is offered without overt analysis or commentary, placing emphasis on subjective qualities that are left to the audience to interpret.”

For a poet, the persona poem offers a greater level of freedom than a poem written from the traditional first-person point of view. It also poses a greater challenge, that of embodying the other, seeing through that person’s eyes, feeling her emotions, suffering her pain, injustices, confusions. In the past five years I’ve come to embrace the persona poem to such a degree that I wonder if I should just write fiction (or plays).

Through the persona poem I have taken on the voices of a 19th century abused woman, her abusive husband and father-in-law, a 19th century giantess, a freed slave, the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams, a host of Native Americans, both an 18th century midwife and a mother who commits infanticide . One could ask why I didn’t simply write about these people and their situations instead of creating a kind of poetic multiple personality disorder in book form. I can only say that writing about these people from the outside leaves me cold, while inhabiting them and speaking through their voices has resulted in some of my most fulfilling experiences as a writer. And I would bet that other poets who tend toward the persona poem feel similar. At a certain point poets get tired of writing about themselves, but not about the human condition. This isn’t to say that I never write first person poetry where the is actually me. I just don’t find it as compelling and more often than not my first person poems become a hybrid; maybe I start with some fact true to myself, but I quickly move out of myself, fabricate, universalize. It’s just so interesting to imagine how a 19th century giantess might feel if she feared she’d never stop growing. This is where the persona poem can become a poem of witness. Instead of literally witnessing the lives of others from the outside; their suffering and oppression, we become them. Rather than conjuring sympathy, we embody empathy. I’m not saying this practice is without flaws. In speaking in the voice of an oppressed Native American or escaped slave, I’m not assuming I know what it felt like to have my family, my ancestral land, my life taken away. But I can try. I’m human and I think it’s part of my responsibility as an artist to know the vagaries of the human condition, to experience through imagination the lives of others, to try.

I have noticed that I’m compelled to write from the perspective of people who have no voice, who have been silenced. It’s likely my own horror at the thought of not having a voice, not being heard. After all, a person, or a group of people can be seen but have their voices dismissed or silenced. And I enjoy the process of finding those voices and listening to what they have to say.

Below is one of my own persona poems which doesn’t appear in either of my forthcoming collections. It was a finalist a couple years ago for the Blue Mesa prize, but sadly wasn’t published. The story and italicized passages were taken from a New Yorker article of May 2011 titled: “God Knows Where I am” by Rachel Aviv. The article chronicled problems of the mental health care system, in particular, the tragedy of Linda Bishop, a schizophrenic woman who fell through the cracks and was found dead in an empty farmhouse. She had kept a journal during the last months of her life.

 

More Than the Weight of its Laden Branches

 

The cottage has an apple tree and textbooks

in the attic, a couch slashed by bars of sun

where I lie tragic as a wine spill.

Because I fear discovery by the man

who mows the lawn, I keep my routine

simple: wake early with the birds,

wash in the stream, harvest water and apples.

Keep out of sight, conserve energy.

Three apples a day times twenty years equals…

When I stand too quickly the room goes

dim. In autumn I pick the tree

clean, store the apples in a pillowcase 

for winter. I move like a ghost

behind faded curtains, ration my reading,

ration the apples, and make lists

in a black address book: embolism, sharp

cheddar, rhizome, cell division, linguini and clams. 

I write: I know I will die of starvation

and should leave here. I stay.

I write: God is sending a husband

and wishes me to wait for Christmas.

Three apples a day times three months

equals…I wait. Christmas comes,

New Year’s, clumps of hair in the bed.

I believe the remedy to be profuse

sunshine and love. I believe I will

die of starvation. Thirty days ago

I ate the last apple. It’s cold

but the chickadees will sing me

(nobody-nobody-nobody) through winter.

I stop reading. I follow, on hands and knees,

the sun as it moves through the rooms,

lie down in its patches. The heater’s breath

grows shallower every day.

I know I should leave but don’t.

For one, I can no longer stand,

two; it’s so peaceful here. I have everything

I ever wanted—an apple tree equals

more than the weight of its laden branches.

When my husband arrives we’ll add

a garden and a smokehouse. My heart-

beat slows to an icicle’s thin drip. I write:

whomever finds my body should know

this was a case of domestic violence.

 

 

Second Book Announcement

Free Verse Editions has announced its 2014 publication lineup! My second collection Split the Crow is among six titles due out in late 2014. I’m in stellar company by the looks of the list. Thanks to Parlor Press and New Measure Prize judge Carolyn Forche.

Nocturne (Poem from Church of Needles)

Nocturne

The red snow

shovel leans

beside the post

office door

where the ice

is inches thick. Inside,

a photo exhibit

beside the mail slots:

nocturnal shots,

blurred wings uplifting, a face

caught in the dark,

bare limbs against the silver

screen of sky,

and a moonlit wall

cleaving the field

like a spine.

The handy man

has inward-looking

eyes. He swabs

the floor with a gushing mop,

dashing the handle

in the bucket

so the water slops over

the rim; one arm

in a fresh white cast

like a package

from the butcher.

He shouts a jarring

litany with every

song that comes

on the radio, especially

the ballads.

This isn’t singing. He knows

it’s the safest

way to scream.

 

 

Maxine Kumin’s New England Aesthetic

The New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin died on February 6 at age 88.  Born in Philadelphia, Kumin was, early on, a promising swimmer and trained toward the olympics before she entered Radcliffe College, whose paltry swimming facilities put an end to her intensive training and olympic aspirations. She was close friends with famous confessional poet and eventual suicide Anne Sexton in the 1960s. Though both were housewives, mothers and poets, Kumin described herself as ‘frumpy’ to Sexton’s high heeled glamor. In the 1970s, Kumin moved with her family from Newton, Massachusetts to a horse farm in Warner, New Hampshire where they bred Arabian horses and where she lived until her death.  Kumin’s 1973 Pulitzer prize-winning collection Up Country launched her reputation as a New England poet in the Frost tradition. Like Frost, also not a New England native, Kumin captured something essential about the region, its landscape and people in her poetry.

from her poem January 25

Now daylight the color of buttermilk

tunnels through the coated glass.

Lie still; lie close.

Watch the sun pick

splinters from the window flowers.

 

from The Presence:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

 

from Woodchucks:

Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.

The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange

was featured as merciful, quick at the bone

and the case we had against them was airtight,

both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,

but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

 

For New England poets like Frost and Kumin, and we could add the late Jane Kenyon to the list, nature poetry wasn’t synonymous with natural beauty or nature celebration. To live on the rocky New Hampshire soil season after season for decades, to live in such close proximity to your land, perhaps, like Frost, attempting to farm it a little, is to know a landscape intimately, to know it’s virtues and vices, to be undeceived by its beauty and also see its ugliness. The poet Donald Hall, also a New Hampshire resident and celebrated New England poet, has written of the looming presence of Mount Kearsage outside his kitchen window, Mount Kearsage in dawn- and dusk-light, ablaze with colors in fall, denuded in winter. This was Kumin’s New Hampshire as well, the landscape as imbued with personality, as present as her horses.

The poem Morning Swim also from Up Country is a poem sensuous in both its imagery and sound. Kumin uses couplets with long vowel end-rhymes that give the reader a sense of limbs moving through water, the languorous feel of water on skin, the simultaneous weight and buoyancy of the element. And like other New England poets before her, she imbues the poem with biblical significance, which acts as a homage to the Puritan and Protestant traditions of the region, but also captures the sensuality of hymns in the mouth and in the limbs; in Donald Hall’s parlance: “goatfoot, milktongue”, that animal delight in both physicality of the body and the tongue. Here is the poem Morning Swim in its entirety. I only wish it were summer and I could celebrate Kumin properly through mist, in chilly solitude.

 

Morning Swim

Into my empty head there come 
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me”.