Thursday, March 15, 2007

What Light There Is

Today after school we had an English department meeting at which we spent some time doing a preliminary freewrite and then talking in small groups about the subject of homework. After the meeting, I was walking across the campus with a colleague, chatting with him about some of the ideas that had come up in our separate small groups, when I was struck, not for the first time, by the transcendent beauty of the campus, the clipped grass glowing green under the nearly horizontal rays of sunlight streaming across from the southwest, the dark shadows beneath the monkeypods and palms, birds chittering in the branches. The last few weeks at school have been very busy, and it's easy enough to get closed in by exigencies, to get tunnelled into the piles of papers and correspondence and email and phone messages, to close down and screen out and not even see what's out there. But now we're only two days from spring break, I'm finding time here and there to breathe, and the late afternoon light today felt like a kind of gift.

After dinner I found myself turning that moment over in my mind, and thinking, for the first time in a couple of weeks, that I wanted to read some poetry, just by way of providing a space for that moment of appreciation to expand. And I found myself taking a book off the shelf that I have not read in several years. It's one of my favorites, a collection of poems by Eamon Grennan called What Light There Is. As I was reading the poems after dinner, I thought the one that most closely captured the frame of mind I was trying to preserve was a poem called "Four Deer." For those of you who may not be familiar with Grennan's poetry, I think it gives a fair indication of both the precision of his observation and the artfulness and musicality of his syntax. He's a writer whose syllables are a richness in the mind and on the tongue.

Four Deer

Four deer lift up their lovely heads to me
in the dusk of the golf course I plod across
towards home. They're browsing the wet grass
the snow has left and, statued, stare at me
in deep silence and I see whatever light there is
gather to glossy pools in their eight mild,
barely curious but wary eyes. When one at a time
they bend again to feed, I can hear the crisp
moist crunch of the surviving grass between
their teeth, imagine the slow lick of a tongue
over whickering lips. They've come from the unlit
winter corners of their fright to find
a fresh season, this early gift, and stand
almost easy at the edge of white snow islands
and lap the grey-green sweet depleted grass. About them
hangs an air of such domestic sense, the comfortable
hush of folk at home with one another, a familiar
something I sense in spite of the great gulf of strangeness
we must look over at each other. Tails flicker
white in the thickening dusk and I feel their relief at
the touch of cold snow underfoot while their faces
nuzzle grass, as if, like birds, they had crossed
unspeakable vacant wastes with nothing but hunger
shaping their brains and driving them from leaf to
dry leaf, sour strips of bark, under a thunder of guns
and into the cold comfort of early dark. I've seen
their straight despairing lines cloven in snowfields
under storm, and Indian file of famished natives, poor
unprayed-for wanderers through blinding chill, seasoned
castaways in search of home ports, which they've found
at last, here on winter's verge between our houses and
their trees. All of a sudden, I've come too close. Moving
as one mind they spring in silent waves
over the grass, then crack snow with sharp hard
snaps, lightfooting it into the sanctuary of a pine grove
where they stand looking back at me, a deer-shaped family
of shadows against the darker arch of trees and this
rusting dusk. When silence settles over us again and
they bow down to browse, the sound of grass being lipped,
enough for comfort, they see we keep, instinctively, our
distance, sharing this air where a few last shards of day-
light glitter in little meltpools or spread a skin of
brightness on the ice, the ice stiffening towards midnight
under the clean magnesium burn of a first star.

I like typing the poem out. It slows down my encounter with the words, allows me to fully register and appreciate the many moments in the poem when the emerging logic of a sequence of words is turned with a surprising word ("they've come from the unlit winter corners of their fright") or an entirely new line of thought, like the comparision of the deer first to birds driven across "unspeakable vacant wastes" and then, startlingly, to Indians, "unprayed-for wanderers through blinding chill, seasoned castaways in search of home ports." The poem begins in straightforward description, makes its move toward metaphor and implied social commentary, and ends, again somewhat startlingly, in cosmology. It's a poem is fully alert to, and deeply appreciative of, the here and now; and yet simultaneously attuned to something other, something bigger, something Out There that has not yet manifested itself but is nonetheless present. The poem begins by directing our attention to four deer on a golf course, but by the the end we are looking upward and outward, across the ice stiffening in the gathering darkness to that burning star. It is, typically for Grennan, a poem of great precision and thoughtfulness and delicacy.


Liz Foster said...

Bruce -- this is perfect. I was thinking and reading and writing too but not well and beautifully. I hope lots of us had significant following through: you make it easy. Fun. Not homework. Thanks.

Miss Profe said...

I meant to say, "The Valve". My bad.:) It's 5 am where I am.