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You may have seen the news items here and there about Anne Stevenson’s having just received the Poetry Foundation’s “Neglected Masters” award, which honors a significant but under-recognized American poet. It’s incredible to think that when the Library of America publishes her selected poems next spring it will be her first book of poems to appear in the United States for over two decades.
Stevenson was born in England of American parents in 1933. She was brought up in New England and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, graduating with a Hopwood Award for poetry from the University of Michigan in 1954 – but she spent much of her life in England, Scotland, and Wales. Her poem “The Enigma” (from a book, Stone Milk, just out in the UK) appeared, with two others, in our September 2006 issue. Anne describes the “deep crevasse / between one rough dream and another,” in which “The hand / of my conscience fought with the claw of my fear.” Anne came to town last week, and in a visit with the staff here, read her work and chatted for a while. Among the things she told us about was meeting Elizabeth Bishop, whose work Anne, then a young poet and mother, was researching for a book: on excusing herself to check the laundry at one point during a visit, Anne returned only to find the door locked against her! She also told us about her fellow Michigan student, Frank O’Hara, about writing and raising a family, about playing music and losing much of her hearing. It was moving for us, and I think, for her, to look back on a full life and its poetry.
Autumnal thoughts, to be sure! In keeping with the season, perhaps, are the poets in our October issue. Frank Bidart, for example, also takes stock in his poem, “If See No End In Is” –
“What none knows is when, not if.
Now that your life nears its end
when you burn back what you see
is ruin. You think, it is a prison. No,
it is a vast resonating chamber in
which each thing you say or do is
new, but the same…”
Dan Beachy-Quick’s poem “Lines” asks, “who is this I that says I?” and finds “… Another life placed / In the middle of the life I called my own.”
And Carol Frost thinks of “the ones / who line the corridors and sit / silent in wheelchairs / before the television with the volume off,” “Methuselahs the nurses wash / and dress without haste — / none needed.” In this poem, we find a woman who “had drunk from the poppy-cup / and drowses in her world of dream.”
Mary Jo Bang’s “And as in Alice” reaches for a different vision altogether, conjuring an Alice who visits Wonderland with a black and white panda in the crook of her arm – a metaphor, you ask?
“Alice cannot be in the poem, she says, because
She’s only a metaphor for childhood
And a poem is a metaphor already
So we’d only have a metaphor
Inside a metaphor. Do you see?
They all nod. They see…”
Enigmas are everywhere. Anne Stevenson has registered, like the other poets mentioned here, the strangeness of what we see, feel, and hear when we look back upon our lives:
“One form, now another; one configuration, now another.
Like fossils locked deep in the folds of my brain,
outliving a time by telling its story. Like stars.”