Archive for the ‘nature’ category

Ripples in the Stillness: Reading “Refuge”

April 8, 2012

 (“Refuge” can be found on p.  24 of heart speech this, ISBN 0982530943)

Sometimes the simplest, smallest poems have the most impact. “Refuge” is the poem the French poet and filmmaker Pierre Alferi read silently on a balcony in the Swiss Alps, then shook himself slightly, looked up, and said with some astonishment, “That’s good.” Why did this poem catch his attention?

A vase filled with lilies in water: a pretty, somewhat conventional still life for an artist, or a decorative touch adding grace and beauty but not much twisting of the mind or senses when viewed. Why make this the subject of a poem? There’s a good challenge in making experiences blur and yet seem real. The pathetic fallacy (acting as if an inanimate object has human emotions) has a place in poetry and magic realism if the writer can persuade her audience to share the illusion.

“Refuge” is the title of this poem. What seeks or has safety here, and what causes the need for protection? The “ruby-throated lilies” and the “supplication of green” suggest pain in speaking and the surrender of youth and vibrancy. Speech and silence are threaded throughout “Refuge,” and the flowers that cannot speak (think of the mute “tongue” the lily’s anther-laden stamen resembles). The vase, in its “containment” paired with the tranquil “depth of blue” suggest a stillness at odds with the “murmur…wave…spill” and finally “mutter” that crack its “porcelain” surface, which is both steady (“stone”) and fragile (easily broken pottery).

The lilies themselves reflect the image of the vase, rising upward with open mouths, colored differently internally than externally, just as the body is red and moist inside, variously hued by genes and sun on its outer surfaces. Just as the vase and the body contain water to nourish and detoxify their contents, the lilies also hold water within their stems, exchanging fluids for food even when rootless, even when wilting towards death.

Once cut, flowers lose their potency. Bees and hummingbirds will find no fertile pollen to cling to their legs or nectar to drink for its sugar. Yet in the minutes and hours before their stems split and curl and their petals brown and drop, lilies release an intense desire of color, shape, and texture. Vases have a subtler sensuality. Perhaps the refuge lies somewhere between these expressions, one seeking a longer and more protected beauty, the other borrowing the possibility of change and greater allure.

Does the poem suggest all or any of these things on first reading? Perhaps not. There is a sensuality and despair here, a recalling of the lush sorrows of Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1151) waiting for her husband to return, describing her hairpins and cosmetics with the same intensity as her tears. And a modernity in the confusion of intentions and emotions with objects rather than simple description.

For me, this is a poem of permission to feel more than one emotion at a time, to be complicated and yet simple, and to dream of restfulness in the midst of dangers. It allows me to think about the beauty and uncertainty of the small and ordinary and their placement, their movement, in a beautiful, uncertain, and violent world.


Raw Light

November 22, 2010

“Arizona” can be read on pp. 81-83 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948).

A lake as out of place as I have often felt, a river contained within cliffs and dammed until its heights depended less on snowmelt than on heat and turbines—where better to explore while standing still, while disturbing surfaces too thin to resist intruders? “Tonight I trick a stone” follows the smearing of mosquitoes across the evening air; “Arizona” follows a Philip Larkin form far from the decay of anxious London and its suburbs.

“Arizona” takes a rhyme scheme borrowed from Larkin and moves his achingly sad musings on the dreariness of belief-less, depthless lives to a place that holds its own belief and depth, a place with an “unknown shimmer” and a “trout’s fierce blush.” The lakes made from the Colorado River were part of my childhood escapes and isolations, family trips from desert to desert, irrigation to reservoirs. England’s postwar landscape only became familiar years later, too late to replace the “canyons crumbling to dust” that came from wars too little publicized, too barely protested.

My family traveled to these lakes—Mohave, Havasu, and Powell—once, twice, or even three times per year for weekend breaks or summer vacations, piling six children, their friends, and food and clothes into a van and a car, divvying up the kids by size and anticipated tempers. Some nights we drove separately, one group arriving hours before the other. I remember leaning out of the window of the front seat along the Arizona highway, no lights except the deep, deep piles of stars I wanted to sink into, wanted to breathe.

I felt that way about these lakes. Artificial as they were, fish and weeds and stone had made them real. I wanted to breathe the textures and heat, the cool water against the burning skies, wanted to dissolve myself in both and in the cliffs reddening my sight more than my sunburned skin. “This rush to release what cannot be born” tangled itself in my intense desires to take in all my senses could translate and to release all I felt I was unable to share. The only connection I trusted was this beauty and strangeness.

“Nothing seamless in this place,” and yet there was nothing I could add, nothing that could connect to me here in these difficult places that shifted volume and contour daily, visibly, audibly. The sheet lightning struck nearly every evening; thunderstorms kicked up waves dangerous for swimmers and boats. And then utter, utter calm, with water so smooth the skis skated their soft, cottony surfaces like waterbugs, fish breaking the surface with bubbling gasps like children pursing their lips to pop out restless pressures.

Every year I wanted more, wanted to leave myself in these waters, wanted to imprint myself in these cliffs. I felt more awkward, less able to dissolve, and yet more at home in these false constructions of beauty than home itself. This is where I found belief, “in the vagaries of day, the lone bird, the lost stone.”  This is when I found there was something of home “murmuring slight in the dimpling of surfaces, the grasp for connection extended, borne alight.”