On a visit to Shelter Island last summer, I discovered Black Cat Books, a treasure-trove of used books and a great place to get out of the midday sun. I’m looking forward to having to get out of the midday sun again! Browsing the shop, I found a Georgia O’Keefe catalogue from a show called Circling Around Abstraction. So satisfying: all those circles. But the real prize for me was the humbly bound 20 Poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Robert Bly translated the poems for The Seventies Press. The cover is rough brown paper, and I particularly love the only image, a man holding a lantern as he stands on a reindeer’s back. The blackness of the reindeer, the light of the lantern, and the human figure divided between light and dark seem perfect. It is Tranströmer’s first book published in English.
At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark.
A feeling of masses of people pushing blindly
through the streets, excitedly, towards some miracle,
while I remain here and no one sees me.
It is like the child who falls asleep in terror
listening to the heavy thumps of his heart.
For a long, long time till morning puts its light
in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.
I am also taken with Bly’s commentary on the flyleaf. Bly writes, “It’s clear that in the head at any moment all sorts of consciousness are struggling to get to the head of the line, and so to the lips…Tranströmer in his poems always arranges things so that the spiritual consciousness slips through the gate the moment it is opened, and so gets in the poem first.” In “Kyrie” the description of a child’s night-fright is simple and vivid and circles back to the adult's existential fright in the first stanza.
In her book For Opening the Mouth of the Dead to be published by Lone Goose Press this year, Catherine Woodard often writes in the voice of a child studying Egypt in school and resorting to her fascination with the Book of the Dead to cope with her mummy-like father. The speaker finds a spirit guide in Ba, a winged creature with a child’s head that stays with an individual from birth on into the afterlife. She refers to Ba as Soul-Bird. Soul-Bird is sometimes a vehicle for reaching the speaker’s father.
SOUL WITH FACE AND FEATHERS
I stay in at recess
To take notes from
The Dead Book
With the same hairdos
And in dresses, men
And women look alike.
Stiff – hands out
As if to catch a ball
Or bat it away.
But not the little bird
With big wings
And a child’s head called
The mummy, Soul-Bird
Spreads a kite of feathers.
If Soul-Bird stands still,
In a royal cape.
In my second favorite
Picture, Soul-Bird hovers
Over the mummy
On a bed with lion feet,
A lion head and a lion tail.
Soul-Bird’s feet clutch
An eternity ring. A wing
Fans the mummy
To get its attention.
In my favorite, Soul-Bird
Slopes its wings to hug
The sleeping mummy.
Gently stands between
The mummy’s tummy
And the mummy’s heart.
Soul-Bird’s head wants
To slide down the slope, rest
Under the mummy’s chin.
In an excerpt of another Soul-Bird poem, we see the child speaker become a writer with Soul-Bird as muse, turning fears into written wishes:
SOUL-BIRD FLOATS SECRETS IN WATER AND AIR
Walking home, I stop on the metal bridge
Over the canal to look down at the weeds,
Pretend they are reeds and I am a scribe.
While she grades papers after school, Mrs. Long
Lets me play with the hieroglyph stamp set.
Soul-Bird helps me decide what to say.
The poem ends with the wishes released.
One-by-one, I uncrumple secrets
From the pocket of my navy sweater.
I rest the hieroglyphs on my open palm
For Soul-Bird to glide and guide them,
As my wishes lift into the pine trees or
Float downstream in the muddy water.
I sometimes have my students write about poems that pull us into nature’s web and/or reflect on our outsider status, using the section on nature in Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology, A Book of Luminous Things. Milosz suggests that this sense of the push-pull of consciousness is particularly American, although I’m not sure the poems he includes bear this out. Turning from the mythological world to the natural, Anna Catone’s poems often reflect the balancing act between belonging and not. Below is a poem about being in nature by Anna Catone, Poetry Editor of The Cortland Review that includes a blip of alienation and a release:
THE GREEN DRAKE HATCH
Slap of water, the ghost of a tail in the air.
Swish and pull. Our boat on the pond like a silent owl.
Night lays down the rounded mountains, the complete pines;
wraps the path back in its blackest pitch.
For a minute, I think all the fish in this pond
might lift our boat up and dump us in the feeding deep.
But you lift the slippery Brook Trout off my line—
a flash of its rose-lit spots in the moon
before it slides out of your hands, and the water rolls over.
What have I feared all this time?
The Green Drake nymphs surface. They molt, mate,
fall back into the pond—spent spinners. Their eggs sink to the bottom.
Bats sail over a rise, another rise.
The night is alive, and we are inside it.
A Hermit Thrush in the trees.
The steadfast thump of the frogs from the lilies.
Catone's poem "Fear of the Possible" in Boston Review is an incantation against letting the blip of fear take over.
I would like to thank Stacey Harwood-Lehman and The Best American Poetry blog for inviting me to be a guest blogger for the past five days. This blog became the winter vacation I wanted this year!