Last week’s post and Fridays at 4 conversation were about Poems You’ve Changed Your Mind About over time, for various reasons. This week I’d like to do more of that, and I’ve invited poet Kevin Prufer to talk about it with me and with you.
I’ve added seven poems below for you to read and comment on here. On this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion, May 6th, Kevin and I will look at as many of these as we have time for, talking about what we can see as we look–not past their surfaces, but through them–to what else they reveal.
Kevin Prufer has had a lot of practice both reading and writing poetry. His three most recent books of poems are The Art of Fiction (nope, that’s not a typo), How He Loved Them, and Churches, all from Four Way Books. He’s also co-edits the wonderful Unsung Masters series with Wayne Miller, and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and in the Lesley University low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program.
As always, I’ll send the link for Fridays at 4 on Friday morning. If you know someone you want to invite, please have them subscribe on the website or send me their name and email address directly so that I can add them to the mailing list and make sure they get the zoom link.
In the meantime, enjoy the poems and post your thoughts in Comments.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
after the L.A. riot, April 1992
In my country the weather
it’s not too good At every bus stop anger
holds her umbrella folded her
face buckled tight as a boot Along the avenues
beneath parked cars spent
cartridges glimmer A man’s head crushed
by nightsticks smoke still
slides from his mouth Let out wearing
uniforms hyenas rove in packs
unmuzzled and brothers strain inside
their brown skins like something wounded
thrown into a lake Slowly
like blood filling
cracks in the street slowly the
President arrived his mouth
slit into his face Like candles seen
through thick curtains sometimes
at night the dark citizens
occur to him
like fishing lamps along
the black shore of a lake like moths
soaked in kerosene and lit
FIRST DEATH IN NOVA SCOTIA
In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.
Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.
“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.
Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.
The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?
about the rooms
the moon coroner
VISITORS FROM ABROAD
Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.
I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?
My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.
But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.
The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.
I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.
I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.
Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
Its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.
I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.
I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.
Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.
The scene within the paperweight is calm,
A small white house, a laughing man and wife,
Deep snow. I turn it over in my palm
And watch it snowing in another life,
Another world, and from this scene learn what
It is to stand apart: she serves him tea
Once and forever, dressed from head to foot
As she is always dressed. In this toy, history
Sifts down through the glass like snow, and we
Wonder if her single deed tells much
Or little of the way she loves, and whether he
Sees shadows in the sky. Beyond our touch,
Beyond our lives, they laugh, and drink their tea.
We look at them just as the winter night
With its vast empty spaces bends to see
Our isolated little world of light,
Covered with snow, and snow in clouds above it,
And drifts and swirls too deep to understand.
Still, I must try to think a little of it,
With so much winter in my head and hand.
A way to approach the poems – If we search beyond the surfaces of the poems, one or more might resemble the solid each reader experiences most often. Apart from associations with the way the poem might be known, the solid setting may seem to speak for the space the reader inhabits. Or the solid setting may speak for the familiar outdoors. I base this thought on the idea of drawing from immediate surroundings, which the David Wagoner poem I share assigns to his wife, who was an artist – and by extension, to the reader. David Wagoner passed away late in 2021.
Emily Dickinson – can resemble immediate space
Walt Whitman – not like immediate space or outdoors (with some variation)
Tim Seibles – can resemble immediate outdoors
Elizabeth Bishop – not like immediate space or outdoors
Russell Atkins – can resemble immediate outdoors
Louise Glück – not like immediate space or outdoors
Gjertrud Schnackenberg – not like immediate space
David Wagoner – May,1964 Poetry Magazine
By the last of the light, I pull
Over firm stretcher-bars
The ends of the last canvas
You wanted, mitre the corners
Like sheets on a guest-bed,
And staple them on tight.
Stark white, three in a row
Are leaning on our house
To catch at the sunset.
From their surfaces the stream
Of the undivided spectrum –
The whole palette of light –
Has put out both my eyes.
Good luck, my darling,
I can’t see a thing.
My hammer flustered crows
All afternoon, kept jays
Out of the hazel trees.
I’m an aimless carpenter
And now it’s going to be winter
By the rule of this blue thumb
We need storm windows,
Glassy and colorless
In frames exactly like these.
Good luck to the canvas
Under the boxers back
And the sail over the circus
And good luck, facing you,
To the three against the wall
Which may be windows yet.
Keeping the storms in mind
And brushing the sky light,
Like the stubble of the wind,
Look through, darling, look through.
Thanks, Laura. This is really interesting.
On the (familiar) Dickinson I found myself noticing the capital letters. On nouns, all nouns except “portion” and “light”. I noticed that the capitalizations were making me experience those nouns as, I dunno, Authority Figures of some kind. Why not portion and light? especially light? (portion perhaps not an entire Thing). Having seen reproductions of some of the fascicles, they sometimes look to me like notebook jottings with possible revisions-or-not. I wonder what to make of them. The Whitman, also familiar, is lovely, but these days it runs afoul of my bias against what the Whitman lineage has led to, the Beats & a larger tradition of Male Bloviation on Everything, Whitman has kinda BECOME The Learned Astronomer for many people. I can still feel the beauty here, but I don’t trust it. The Seibles wins me with the sheer physicality of objects that I seem to encounter on my own, however blunderingly, without being interpreted-at. Bishop makes me nervous because her work is/was said to be such a BIG DEAL at Warren Wilson, but never once suggested by anybody for me to read. ??? I think this speaker-child feels most engaged by the loon, yes. Atkins: I always resist topicality, but that 3rd stanza wins me entirely. Gluck maybe most of all makes me want to read deeply. It’s as if the poem throbbing about on its own has ambushed the speaker, that awful umbilical telephone cord. I resist autobiography, but this got me. Schnakenberg (new-to-me) startles me as the speaker gets-it about being in a larger snow-globe while holding the small one– but our larger observer is said to be only “the winter night” which to me doesn’t live up to the implied image & ignores (doesn’t transcend) the history spooks associated with the small one. I’m aware of being superficial in these comments: ready for more!
I don’t think these are superficial at all. It took me a long time to warm up to Whitman, but I don’t think we can blame Whitman for what his followers did. I’m really interested in what you say about him having become the “learn’d astronomer.” Bishop is a central poet to me, happy to talk about her more anytime. I read Schnackenberg early, but not recently. Glück almost always knocks me out. I find Seibles both wonderfully imagistic and moving. Kevin introduced me to Atkins work, and there’s a great story behind it.