THE END OF THE BEGINNING
the horizon’s lit fog rim where
earth keeps in touch with sky.
In such mist, frayed ghosts of selves, my
lost selves, drowse. Lately, some drift close
and watch me age. A few of them flame up
taking on known shapes in known clothes.
This one, that one, were me once, are me.
In these clothes I walked, joked, worked
hurt, had a pipsqueak part to play
(paradiddle on the high hat): I begin
to remember more, a deep breath taken.
They hum soft part-songs, hard to hear,
and now they’re singing. They’ve come to stay.
It’s turning into a party.
I put out bread, plates, glasses, grapes,
apples, napkins, pretzels, Bleu des Causses.
They whistle old signals, use our name to recall
me to my selving. I’ll propose a toast.
Why not. It’s time to let go.
Out of the cellar I take, ripe,
the rest of the case of Clos de Vougeot.
-- Marie Ponsot
This haunting poem is a ghost story with attitude. In its opening lines, “high
The whole poem is pitched at the “rim” of the two worlds, where the ghosts of former selves keep materializing out of the mist, intruding on the speaker’s psyche, and penetrating the solid material world of here and now: a world of “bread, plates, glasses, grapes, / apples, napkins, pretzels, Bleu des Causses.” Pretzels, homely cocktail fare, have particular weight in tying the moment to something earthbound.
Music controls, to a large extent, the poem’s tone, and its effect on the reader; and it is the music of the poem – inseparable from an attitude – that marks the work as distinctively Ponsot’s. There’s a light staccato surface to the poem, shot through underneath with intricate interwoven sound echoes: consonance, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, unobtrusive end rhyme. To follow just a few of these, in the first two stanzas I hear the repeated vowel sounds of “high” and “sky,” and of “lit,” “rim,” “mist,” and the ‘d’, ‘s’, ‘r’, ‘f’, and long ‘o’ sounds in “frayed,” “selves” (repeated), “drowse,” “drift,” “close,” “ghosts,” “few,” and “flame.”
In a similar way, long ‘o’ sounds repeat, strikingly, at the poem’s conclusion: “old,” “toast,” “go,” “Clos,” “Vougeot.” The alliteration of “case” and “Clos”, which for a moment distracts from the long ‘o’ sounds, emphasizes their final return in “Clos de Vougeot.”
These sound echoes are subtle, not insistent. They don’t repeat in any fixed pattern.
In fact, the musical elements of the poem resemble the “soft
part-songs, hard to hear” that the ghosts are first humming, then singing. -- Patricia Carlin
Looking at stanzas two and three, I see “walked, joked, worked // hurt.” The ‘k’ sounds repeat, but modulate into assonance in the vowel sounds of “worked” and “hurt.” The ‘k’ sound continues in “pipsqueak,” which looks back to the previous ‘k’ sounds, and also orward to the ‘p’s of “part,” “play,” and “paradiddle.” Stresses also shift idiosyncratically and subtly. From the sentence starting “This one, that one” (stanza three) to the colon after “high hat,” all the words except “pipsqueak” and “paradiddle” are one syllable, making those words even more noticeable. They are distinctive in themselves, and also characteristic of this poet’s attitude toward herself and toward the passage of time. “Pipsqueak” and “paradiddle on the high hat” are high-spirited and deliberately mannered. The words express and accord with the brio of the poet’s attitude toward the ghosts of her former selves (the vanished past) and, by extension, toward the looming end. They inject a note of insouciance in the face of certain mortality.
Acknowledgement of vanished selves, and of time itself, goes beyond acceptance to a kind of joy, which is also a Ponsot hallmark. “It’s time to let go” is followed by the anticipated pleasure of a “ripe” Clos de Vougeot. The poet is ripe, and so is the wine she plans to finish off at the final party of all her selves joined.
“The Beginning of the End” reappeared, in altered form, in
I find “Dancing Day I,” the second, altered version, to be neither stronger nor weaker than “The End of the Beginning,” only different. To read these poems together is to learn an instant lesson in what effects small alterations can create.
-- Patricia Carlin