Somehow, Sunday seems an appropriate day to present this poem by Claire Bateman, a fine and under-recognized poet from Greenville, South Carolina, with six books to her name: Coronology (2009); Leap (2005); Clumsy (2003); Friction (1998); At the Funeral of the Ether (1998); and The Bicycle Slow Race (1991). We often hear the word quirky applied to contemporary poets (just glance at five random blurbs, you’re sure to find quirky), but perhaps no one writing today inhabits the word quite as fully as Bateman. The premises of her poems are apparently beamed into the atmosphere at a slant from another, logically slippery dimension -- yet once you step inside, life there seems more cogent, more comprehensible, more carefully thought out than the one you’re turning her pages in. “Unearthing the Sky” first appeared in New Ohio Review’s third issue, Spring 2008. I love the way Bateman will seize on an idea and pursue it all the way in the most natural, credible terms. The excavation draws all kinds from the woodwork – not just the genetically engineered ants that chew up the undissolved stitches, but the vandals (“long-distance pissers”), artists, evangelists, the full spectrum of fanatics and romantics, and yes, even corporate representatives. She has so thoroughly (I want to say accurately) imagined the literal dilapidation of the sky, the media attention, the complicated restorative procedures and precautions and pitfalls, the responses of onlookers and the aftermath, that we readers almost forget that the broken body of the sky is figuring forth a whole cornucopia of ideals that our civilization has chosen by turns to pillage, smudge, neglect, batter. Almost, I say. What follows is a deft and intelligent poem that may well be our century’s companion poem to Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.”
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Unearthing the Sky
It was filthy, of course,
with red clay streaks & embedded chips of loam,
as well as boulder-scored, chipped,
and even fractured in places,
a great big glorious suffering thing
by the very means of its rescue,
the violence of pulleys & clamps.
Areas that had been dredged from under water
were warped & bowed
where detonation had been necessary
to dislodge them.
But there it was for everyone to behold.
Toddlers wearing tiny government-issued hard hats
were told, Look, honey, it’s the sky!
Older children were bussed on field trips to the dig site
where yellow tape kept them from the rim
so that the sign could continue to announce,
DROWNINGS AT THIS SITE: 0.
Round-the-clock floodlights discouraged those
who might have attempted to make their mark
on the sky’s broken body --
graffiti artists & would-be inscribers of the Ten Commandments,
corporate representatives & long-distance pissers,
as well as those who longed to plunge into it --
scuba divers, suicides, mystics, & lovers.
Everything was so lit-up, in fact,
that the sky would have been glad
of some darkness,
but it was not yet well enough
to generate nighttime & other weathers.
There had to be years of repair work
with everything from lasers to sandpaper,
tiny camel’s-hair brushes to welding torches.
Millions of stitches, hand-sewn
with microsuturing needles,
zigzagged across the surface
to eventually either dissolve
or be severed by army ants
genetically engineered to find them tasty.
The surgeons injected implants
of liquid mercury, black diamond plasma,
& other substances whose identities
they were not at liberty to disclose.
But at last, the sky was ready.
After all it had been through,
was it still the sky it had once been?
Not exactly, but were not the people
historically damaged as well --
and wasn’t there the matter
So the various bolts, pegs, & screws
releasing the sky at last
into its own silence.
Everyone watched as it rose,
a little shaky at first, but soon,
nearly as translucent, dizzying,
dimensionless, disturbing, etc.
as they’d anticipated.
When asked why she wept,
one woman could say only,
For something so heavy, it seemed
almost painfully light.
Abandoned, the work site still yawns
like the morning after Christmas.
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Claire Bateman – remember the name! See you next week. (JAR)