Why Poetry Cannot Be Skimmed

By Jessica Jopp Jessica Jopp

In response to a student who told me he just “skims” the poetry right before class

The barn was in the Netherlands,
in a field where fierce night wind
caught the straw as if to fuse
the winter stars to their coldness.
A farmer, woken by the sound, knowing
his animals would be agitated,
walked to the barn and by lantern
brushed the tails of his horses.
In calming them he gathered
many long, gleaming strands
of their nut-brown hair. Given over
to what he heard in the swishing of their tails—
the lash, the taut string of grief, turned slow,
persistence turned to rhythmic movement—
he hoped that if he listened long enough
the layered sound would become a salve.
He rolled the strands together, laid out
along the windowsills of the barn.

Then, once dry enough in spring,
he rolled them in paraffin wax
to preserve the sound
and left them to absorb
all the varied rays of sun, the spills
of rain, and then snow flying fast
across the latched windows and the slats,
the rhythm of other breathing,
animals plodding by the barn walls.
The wax melted as the years progressed
and other horses resided in the stalls,
and their tail strands were added
to the aging threads.  From that encased sound
deepening over years, a rope,
pulled strong and taut, would resonate.

Then another generation worked the land
and waxed the horse-tail cord again,
and in turn when it caught
that century’s light, was spun
into amber. Woven into the cells of hair:
the tones of canal and field,
pasture, furrows of plough,
leaf and shadow, straw and stone,
the human calling, the animal uttering.
And when melted again, incrementally
strands from other horses living there
were added until there were enough
layers of sound, set with the nourishment
of grass and salt, to be given away
and the space the hair had occupied
would be returned to emptiness.

The horse-hair cord was brought
by a farmer to a luthier’s shop
along a canal, and it was a perfect fit,
she said, for a violin bow
she had carved a few months earlier,
waiting, and for the bow-less violin
someone had just given her.  She knew
rosin carrying a current through
pastures, filled thirst, and the grief
of night wind and scavenged apples
made the gathered pieces a whole.

And now they are together in your hands
this moment to make
unrehearsed, immediate,
after all those animals’ years,
when you bring the instrument to your chin,
when you raise the hair-strung bow,
again their elemental sounding,
and then their measured note, their first.

Source: Poetry (February 2011).

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