Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Words (Which Ones?)

I've been re-reading a book of poems, or rather a book-length poem in numbered segments, by Mark Strand entitled Dark Harbor. The book of poems takes its original inspiration from the work of artist William Bailey, who with great patience and precision put together a body of work that consisted largely of paintings of domestic vessels in various configurations, as in the cover illustration above ("Dark Harbor III").

In an NEH Summer Seminar on poetry that I took many years ago now, Helen Vendler said that it was important, in order to come to a full understanding of any particular poem, to read all of the others by that poet as well, because, as she said, "Each poem proves the other, and the whole."
That's certainly true with Bailey's paintings: seeing them all increases your appreciation of each: they inform and enrich one another. The similarity in format and style of the paintings — their common subject matter; their full-on, frontal, dead-level viewpoint; and their technical precision —serve to highlight the subtle differences, the way a particular vessel might dominate in one painting and take a subservient role in another, how its height or breadth or color or shape, and its placement in context, gives it a personality, a voice, a presence.

Mirroring Bailey, Mark Strand borrows and redeploys in a verbal context this idea of repetition. The book consists of 45 Roman-numbered segments, each consisting of one page of 6-8 three-line stanzas. (There are a few outliers - shorter or longer poems, one- or two-line stanzas —which gain emphasis by the breaking of the pattern.) There is also a core imagistic vocabulary drawn from nature, certain words  recurring over and over again in various configurations: dark, moon, night, clouds, summer, wind, rain, sun, stars, mist, sky.

Here, for example, is segment XI:

A long time has passed, and yet it seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment, of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow,

And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the southern desert, rise in a prodigal

Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center
Of town while the pollen-filled breath

Of the wind drew the shadow of the clouds
Around us so that we could feel the force
Of our freedom while still the captives of dark.

And later when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain

Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end?

This segment, like most of the others in the book, could be read and understood on its own, out of context, and it would work well enough. But it gains resonance by its placement in the series, as do the various individual images as they recur and recombine.

I can't read this book without thinking of another poem by another poet, David Wagoner, which addresses this notion of repetition and core imagery:

The Words

Wind, bird, and tree,
Water, grass, and light:
In half of what I write
Roughly or smoothly
Year by impatient year
The same six words recur.

I have as many floors
As meadows or rivers,
As much still air as wind
And as many cats in mind
As nests in the branches
To put an end to these.

Instead, I take what is:
The light beats on the stones,
And wind over water shines
Like long grass through the trees,
As I set loose, like birds
In a landscape, the old words.

Just out of curiosity, I took the text of the book of poems I spent many years working on and pasted it into Wordle. My six words? Night. Water. Sky. Wind. Sun. Back.

If you were to choose six words that you think you keep coming back to, or that you would choose to keep at the core, what would they be?

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