A friend, seeing his babe in ultrasound,
imagined it an astronaut, “behind
glass dome reflections, lost in space…,”
and so I had that image close to mind
when the technician finally tipped her screen
to me, revealing—not an astronaut, but Earth,
so “small, light blue, so touchingly alone.”
Thus Leonov. It was a commonplace,
back then, that once we had the earth in sight,
the isolation of the planet “known,”
we would clean up our act, would mend our ways—
a kind of cosmic recognition scene.
So much for that, the skeptic in me says.
And yet as I beheld you floating there
I felt myself grow small, the air grow thin,
as if I were the one adrift in space,
and you the one who might yet pull me in.
We settle down to sleep at night,
affectionate, facing one another,
or torso fast to torso pressed
as if our hearts could speak together.
Mornings, we wake back to back.
However much we love, there's something
in us always turns away.
Let us forgive this in each other.
We can make it up by day.
The crabapple tree is abandoned
to bloom, the sky to blue, the barn-
boards to the weather. Try
as I might to abandon myself
to work, I hear you splitting
wood. You've lost your father.
Three weeks before our son was born
you went out east to build a barn
from panels of translucent glass:
set in the middle of the marsh
with nothing close at hand for scale,
the barn might have been large enough
to accommodate a man, or small
enough for him to reach his arms
around it. It took a while to build
the barn: the week you planned to be
away stretched into two. You said
you felt like Odysseus, his wife
and infant son at home, detained
for years beyond his expectations.
I think about Odysseus,
set in the middle of his story,
nothing close at hand for scale:
it's hard to tell if it's his ship
that carries him back home, or he
who carries his black ship back
into harbour. A lot of things are like
that now: these days I carry around
our son, who one day will carry us
around, inside him.
The poems "Dos-à-dos," "May 31st," "Encounter," and "Scale" are from the collection All the Daylight Hours, by Amanda Jernigan, published by Cormorant Books Inc. (Toronto). Copyright © 2013 Amanda Jernigan. Used with the permission of the publisher.
Kateri Lanthier: You have an adept and unshowy way with rhyme, subtle and yet certainly powerful. “Mornings, we wake back to back. // However much we love, there’s something / in us always turns away. // Let us forgive this in each other. / We can make it up by day.” (From “Dos-à-dos” ) Your work connects strongly with the canon through epigraphs, quoted phrases and echoes, and polished rhyme and metre. Do you think there’s a swing back towards rhyme among contemporary North American poets? (The work of Americans as diverse as A.E. Stallings, Frederick Seidel and Gjertrud Schnackenberg suggests that some, at least, wish to keep it alive.) Have you been influenced by particular Canadian poets who deploy rhyme and do you feel a deep impulse towards it -- does it have a seductive hold on your practice?
Amanda Jernigan: "Seductive hold" is apt! There is a sensual pleasure to rhyme, for sure — sensual, and primary. I grew up on rhyming poetry: "Eve" and "Ozymandias …" and "Kubla Khan" and "Little Orphant Annie," read aloud to me from The Home Book of Verse by my maternal grandfather. There was also Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, and Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare; a child's anthology of Dickinson poems called I'm Nobody, Who Are You?; and, of course, A. A. Milne's Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young. I'm sure that these early influences have had a more thoroughgoing effect on my work than have any newer ones. But there are certainly contemporary Canadian poets whose use of rhyme affirmed for me that I could use this legacy of my childhood reading. Richard Outram, whose work I encountered when I was in my late teens, was important, here — but also Jay Macpherson and George Johnston (both of whose work exhibits, like Dickinson's, a deceptively childlike quality, at times).
Somebody-or-other called rhyme "that ancient goddess of happy coincidence," and I like that very much — but rhyme is also closely associated with another ancient goddess: Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. In this age of digitization, it is easy to forget that the real business of living is not to school computers but to school brains — "to school an intelligence and make it a soul," as Keats put it. So what is needed are not technologies that make things memorable to computers but technologies that make them memorable to human beings. Rhyme is one such technology. Metre is another. Ancient and effective, both.
Then, too, rhyme is part of the a-linear aspect of language: the part of language that can reach backwards or forwards in time, that can tie itself into knots. That's part of its fascination for me. Even the words of colloquial prose have a secret life, in their sounds, whereby one will call out to another across a syntactic interval, large or small. A good poet, it seems to me, will train herself to listen in on this sotto voce conversation, whether or not she chooses to turn it up in the mix. (And poets do sometimes have good reasons for wanting to submerge the links of rhyme, rather than highlight them: I think of certain rigorously discontinuous poems by Toronto poet Souvankham Thammavongsa.)
I don't feel sufficiently well read in the work of my contemporaries to comment on this matter of the resurgence of rhyme, in any general way. I certainly don't think rhyme ever went away: as I said above, it's there, in language, whether we listen to it or not. What excites me, in poetry, is not so much rhyme in itself as it is the intelligent or unexpected use of rhyme, in the nexus of other poetic techniques, to achieve a certain effect. To pull a recent example from my shelf — here's Darren Bifford's poem "St. John of the Cross," from his 2012 collection Wedding in Fire Country:
ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
To know your road you must walk eyes closed into the dark
His eyes so tightly shut
what he sees
is not the dark of each
pupil like prairies at night
but two jewels
thieved within two fists:
held just right they shine;
shining they cut.
This is no nursery rhyme — but its effect is no less dependent on rhyme, on the sharp edges of those -ight and -ut words, exposed at line endings or buried mid-line, played off against the jewel-in-darkness glimmer of those long-ees. I think, too, of brief, memorable poems by Mark Callanan and Jason Guriel ("Nativity," "The Buried Hatchet") where rhyme is at work in an almost clandestine way — but no less important, for that. One of my favourite contemporary Canadian poets, Steven Heighton, is a total sound-junky: rhyme for him is as much momentum as it is semantic or mnemonic device:
Bad luck, it's said, to enter your own name
and numbers in the new address book.
All the same, as you slowly comb
through the old one for things to pick
out and transfer, you are tempted to coin
yourself a sparkling new address,
new name, befitting the freshness of this clean-
slating, this brisk kiss
so long to the heart-renders — every friend
you buried or let drift ...
I could go on! But, you know, I think that on some simple level rhyme is music; music is joy, and pleasure, and exuberance. I think I'm channelling Peter Pan, here, to go back to my childhood influences. ("I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!") There's always seemed to me something a bit grumpy — a bit, well, Captain Hookish — about the desire to banish rhyme from the poetic toolbox altogether. It's perhaps no coincidence that the Captain eventually gets his comeuppance from that crocodile, time, with its slant-rhyming mantra: "tick tock, tick tock, tick tock …"
Kateri Lanthier holds a BA and MA in English from the University of Toronto. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in design, architecture and art. Her poems and reviews have appeared in journals in Canada, the United States and England, including Descant, Grain, Matrix, The Antigonish Review, Saturday Night, Quarry, Writing Women, London Magazine, The Toronto Quarterly, The Acrobat, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and are forthcoming in Great Lakes Review and Green Mountains Review. Her first collection of poetry, Reporting from Night, was published by Iguana Books in 2011. Her poem “The Coin Under the Leftmost Sliding Cup” won the 2013 Walrus Poetry Prize and is included in the anthology The Best of Walrus Poetry (ed. Michael Lista).
Amanda Jernigan has worked as a writer, scholar, editor and teacher. Her first book of poems, Groundwork, was published by Biblioasis in 2011, and her second collection, All the Daylight Hours, was published in 2013 by Cormorant Books. She lives and works in Canada with her partner, the artist John Haney.