My Dog Barks and All is Lost

2014 has oozed in. For me, the new year has not been a festive pop, a fresh face, or a blank slate to begin anew. The new year transition has been more like a hangover (that I didn’t have; it’s hard to party when the mood is oozy), more like a stalled rather than idling engine, more like the undercoating below the sheen of a final coat of paint. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and without it there would be no good times; it would just be one continuous boring state of evenness.

Here is a poem.

POEM:
My Dog Barks and All is Lost

Suppose it is the pencil
I pick up today
(an old one with the yellow-orange
paint chipping on each ridge
of hexagonal comfort,
a cap eraser worn
into a clay-like lump
of pink softness streaked
with the grey of gritty work,
a dull instead of sharpened
point to rub instead of scratch
words into shape)…suppose it is
a pencil that sways thoughts
to concretize into specific words
that then appear upon the page.
And just like that suppose
my dog barks and all is lost,
the pencil’s power undone
by a deer or rabbit or merely
the shadow of an owl
ready to retire, the sun
not yet quite up, the heaters
clicking and pounding now
as water fills the pipes,
darkness and silence
just two more illusions
with which I must contend.

ELEMENT:
Details

“A poem depends on its detail…”

This is a line from Ellen Bryant Voigt‘s poem, “The Last Class,” which she wrote after teaching her last undergraduate class at MIT. See below for links to the poem (both text and audio).

How does one go about deciding which details to include or omit from a poem? Restraint and extravagance have always been a quintessential issue in writing poetry. The first draft of my poem above did not have all those details of the pencil, and I’m still not sure all of those details should be in there. Shouldn’t I get right to the point of the dog barking the poet from concentration? With the pencil details, there’s a long “entrance ramp” into the poem. After all, everyone knows what a pencil looks like! (The “entrance ramp” analogy was introduced to me in 2010 by fellow Stonecoaster, Karrie Waarala, and it has helped me countless times).

Stephen Dunn, in an interview at Frostburg State University in 2002, spoke about restraint and extravagance (see below for link to the interview). “The kind of judgment that we exercise comes down to the difficult simplicity of knowing what to put in and what to leave out. It’s always a compromise between original intent and the language we find ourselves using. The balance you refer to is dependent on so many things…”

I considered using more restraint and shortening my entrance ramp into the poem above, but without the long drawn-out pencil description, the poem is too quick to get to the dog. The details of the pencil serve multiple functions. The first is insight into the narrator of the poem whose pencils are well-used and comfortable. This is someone who writes a lot and to whom writing brings comfort, yet it also shows that the poet may doubt his/her abilities – what if it isn’t the poet but the pencil that holds the creative powers! Secondly, the details of the pencil are a micro-study in descriptive writing. How do you describe a seemingly normal pencil? Sight (colors), feel (chipped paint, hexagonal), sound (rub instead of scratch) convey the importance of the pencil in the narrator’s life. The third function of the pencil description is the contrast it provides with the vague words at the end of the poem: darkness and silence. Just as with the illusion of the pencil creating the poem on its own, darkness and silence are an illusion. Perhaps this is a depressing ending. Perhaps it isn’t if we know there is always light and sound somewhere or at some time in our lives.

Now, what does the dog have to do with any of it? Do we need to know what type of dog, what it looks like, or where it is outside? No. To put in those details would create a different poem. In this poem, the dog is a transition snapping the poet out of the reverie about the pencil and is a catalyst for the consideration of deeper things than a pencil such as darkness and silence.

But to only talk of the illusion of darkness and silence would not give us much since we best communicate ideas and concepts through images.  “Details…anchor feelings that are more implied than stated,” Baron Wormser explains in the chapter, Details, in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry, The Moves. “Detail,” Wormser explains, “is credibility.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
The history of the pencil from Studio 602: Exploring Creativity in Music and The Arts
“The Last Class” – poem by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Click the title link to hear Voigt read her poem. Click here to see the poem.
Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn
Tiger Face – a poem by Stephen Dunn, mentioned in the interview above. Also found in Dunn’s book, What Goes On 


And Even Now…

It has been over a month since I have posted, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on what became this post. As always, several circumstances converged for the creation of today’s poem, “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December.”  One contributing factor was a discussion on Christmas Day about the Vermont Poet Laureates: Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voight, Grace Paley, Ruth Stone, and Sydney Lea. The second factor was the discovery of the cento, a poem that is created through the use of other poets’ lines. The third piece was the horrible incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This shook me to my core.

How do you process something like this? I did not have words for it. So I took the words of others, specifically the seven Vermont Poet Laureates. I decided to read a book (or two short ones) by each poet, noting which lines resonated in some vague way to what I wanted to express. I then went back through the books, typed up each line that I had chosen, and organized them by author, assigning a different color to each one. This resulted in twelve pages of single lines. From there, I began to group lines together and thus began the poem. After four weeks, I have just finished the first draft that I post here today. The title is a line from Ruth Stone’s poem, “And So Forth,” found in her book In the Dark.

Due to the poem being so long (ten sections and eight pages in it’s totality), below I only have the beginning lines of sections 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10. Sections 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are included in their entirety. To read the complete poem, you can click here. To see which lines belong to which poet, click here. And to see additional lines I had chosen but that did not make it into this version, click here. They could make up another poem (or several).

POEM:
And Even Now, Lightning Flashes In Mid-December
A Cento Poem in Ten Parts
I
What can I tell you that you don’t know
of this slipping shadow – this eclipse
won’t let go    I am alone,
remote body, trembling with the rush
into the raven-black cave of self…

II
Perhaps he’s only become quite shy.

It was the smell of that time, that neighborhood.
I’d never paid a lot of mind: the merest nod, a vague hello
in that vanished abode now far apart,
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls,
a certain disheveled neighbor…

III
Your personality like moth wings, shredding itself
that at once kept you burning low and hid you,
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you
would be afraid if we should comprehend

but no one ever heard you make the claim.

There’s a lot yet that isn’t understood –

but the last choice is still the same.

IV
But the last choice is still the same.

This morning    a man –
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned –
killed my gift, exposed
us with the sting of memory
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken –
suddenly there suddenly gone.
But weren’t the early gifts a promise
I held in my hands? …

V
One doesn’t notice wings when they’re at rest.
Snow    birds    the sun         caught –
lifting through the sky, their voices
shuddering across the black sky and vanishing,
never again would birds’ song be the same.

A flock of birds leaving the side of the mountain:
again, again, again, frail wings beat as they hover.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter?
They leave here, that’s the point.

Not a bird in sight, not a sound.

The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.

VI
And she who is born
of so much warmth and light,
her tenderness gathers them up
by countless silken ties of love and thought
and run[s] in little skips.

A child’s kisses, rise –

and kissed her from head to toe     The other one my son

were days so very few

and did I say enough to you?

Even this haunted room,
watery shapes in the shadows of the room,
almost the whisper of your voice.

I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood.

VII
Bring out the stars, bring out the flowers.
In your dreams the hours begin to sing,
impatient for sunrise,
and if our getting up to start the day
had stood still for us in the middle of heaven
that blows apart the mightiest of stars,
you can imagine my breath stopped    then.

Who cares but for the future of the bud
and the blossoms glittering in the sky?

As above: the last scattered stars
expend their bloom in vain.

VIII
The night isn’t dark, the world is dark,
and there is always more than should be said
as if clinging could save us. I think
this absence has a smell,
and what I pity in you is something human
like the shoes left behind.
Casket of the snow:
I’ve seen it breaking open.
I walk out from myself –
I think, do you hear me now?
I cannot touch your life, much less can save,
so the past is not a scar but a wound:
and Time which is nature as well will be a poor healer no matter.

I had only wanted to love.

IX
Politicians rattling swords
or worse: deliberate, someone’s “agenda”
is just a male version of dressing up.

Of our ancestors, it says nothing.

“Now all together, fellows
let’s give them a chorus they won’t forget!”

as the women and children who
will surely be in the way
clung to the male’s plumage, which turned
history, with its moral,
often convenient…

that goodwill and hope may count for nothing
for the future.

What do they care?

X
Once we gave the matter little thought
with faint headshakings, no more wise
till it ended here:
it has come to this.
There’s nothing but injustice to be had.

The quiet authority of culture,
the witness tree…

What dream would be mine? That life go on,
the loving’s made to hold each other like
all bodies, one body, one light.

No more than dream, of course, I know.

ELEMENT:

Cento

There’s not a whole lot to say about a cento. First appearing somewhere between the 3rd or 4th centuries, a “cento” is a poem that is made of lines from other poems. The name is derived from Latin meaning “patchwork” and it is considered a type of collage poem. The poetry of both Homer and Virgil contain centos. A true cento, such as “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December” has no original lines. In using others’ lines, I did, however, take liberty with punctuation and capitalization to make the poem read a bit smoother. Still, it is a collage poem and meant to feel as such, echoing the complexities of all of the issues surrounding our societal woes with guns, not just at Sandy Hook, but across the nation where people are murdered or hurt every day by them.

Poems from the following books were used to compose the lines of the cento, And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December”:

Robert Frost: A Boy’s Will and A Witness Tree
Galway Kinnell: The Book of Nightmares
Ellen Bryant Voight: Kyrie and Messenger, New Poems
Louise Gluck: Meadowlands
Grace Paley: Fidelity
Ruth Stone: In the Dark
Sydney Lea: Young of the Year

My next cento challenge is to take only 14 – or 7 – lines from all of those pages I chose to write a poem on the same topic.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Vermont State Poet Laureate
Poetry As Survival by Gregory Orr – a must-read book for coping with trauma through poetry