May 2013 Discussion Guide

About Time

Seizing the Day in the May 2013 Poetry

About Time

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In her essay "Light Speaking," which appears in the May 2013 Poetry, V. Penelope Pelizzon shows how well poetry and photography click. Poems and photographs both attempt to stop time, she explains—an argument supported by this issue's arresting texts and images. She sprinkles her piece with photographs: there's her father, standing on a rock in Trieste in 1939, hat cocked, cheeks full, the briars behind him in bloom. There's her uncle, wearing a playful expression and a crown made of aluminum laurels, shadows of unseen objects dappling his face. And there's the author as a young girl, looking nonchalant despite the chicken in her arms. The pictures' details are captivating; as Pelizzon writes, "once you start looking [at vernacular photographs], you’re trapped. An hour later your palms are gray with dust."

How do photos try to stop time? One way is by turning the momentary click of the lens into the palm-graying hour of examination. Another is by preserving that instant over the course of years. Such phenomena are crucial to our understanding of poetry as well: this month's issue includes a portfolio of work by Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner Marie Ponsot, who has been publishing poetry for more than fifty years. Just as Pelizzon's decades-old photos ask us to pause and study their particulars, so do Ponsot's poems slow us down, inviting us to notice the shape of a line and the chime of a rhyme. And so do her older works carry us backward in time, returning us to the eras of their making.

As if aware of this effect, several of her poems explicitly describe the passage of time. In "Out of Water," Ponsot describes children intent on picking wildflowers:

I warn, “They won’t last, out of water.”
The children pick some anyway.

In or out of water
children don’t last either.

I watch them as they pick.
Still free of what’s next
and what was yesterday
they pick today.

Through her warning, the speaker reveals her familiarity with both past and future: she can predict these blossoms' demise because she has seen other flowers die out of water. But children, newer to the world, pick flowers without that sense of consequence. They don't know flowers will die, just as they don't know they themselves "won't last"—that they will transmute into adults, and that their adulthood will end in turn. Free of yesterday or tomorrow, they inhabit the eternal present of a photograph—at least for now. And yet we, scrutinizing this poem as one scrutinizes a picture, join the speaker in recognizing the ephemerality of the children in its frame.

How does Ponsot's poem put us on pause? Her content conspires with her form to demand our deep attention. Note the sly rhymes—"water" and "either," "anyway" and "yesterday"—especially evident upon rereading. Note also the wordplay in "they pick today," which offers additional meanings that we cannot immediately apprehend: the children have picked the day in the same way they pick flowers, and so today will perish too.

Geoffrey Brock imagines a day not as ephemeral flower but as ripening fruit. His poem "The Day" reads as follows:

It hangs on its
             stem like a plum
at the edge of a
              darkening thicket.

It’s swelling and
             blushing and ripe
and I reach out a
              hand to pick it

but flesh moves
            slow through time
and evening
            comes on fast

and just when I
              think my fingers
might seize that sweetness at last
              the gentlest of breezes rises

and the plum lets
               go of the stem.
And now it’s my fingers ripening
               and evening that’s reaching for them.

The speaker wants to "pick" a plum, just as Ponsot's children pick flowers. Yet time moves faster than he does: the plum ripens and falls before he can reach it—and he then realizes that the hours are ripening him, too, and that the day will soon "pick" him. (Again like Ponsot's children, he will presumably not last long "out of water," or off the branch.) A series of antitheses bolsters this ultimate opposition: day vs. night, slow vs. fast, rise vs. fall, seizing vs. letting go. And the poem's physical form mirrors its content: each line seems to hang off the next, like a plum from a branch, and consecutive lines appear to reach for each other from opposite ends of the page, much as the hand reaches for the plum. Rhymes, too, reach across stanzas: note the distances separating "thicket" and "pick it," "fast" and "last." When the plum lets go of the stem, the poem ends—it's as though evening has come to the poem, just as it is coming for the poet. Seize the day, the poem seems to warn, before it seizes—or ceases—you.

Why do you think Brock uses a plum to symbolize the day? Perhaps because a fruit—like a flower, a day, and a person—experiences a defined life cycle; and a plum, with its dusky skin, embodies both the passing day and the evening itself. Poems so rich in detail demand slow reading, and permit years of recollection.

Pelizzon discusses not only contemporary photographs but also their forerunners, daguerrotypes. She describes Rilke's "Portrait of My Father as a Young Man," and remarks that when you look at a dagerrotype, "you see your own self reflected. The effect is almost like a double exposure; two moments meet on the daguerreotype’s surface. It’s integral to that final stanza to see that what the speaker is holding is a gleaming plate on which his own living face overlaps with that of his lost father."

Don't we interact with poems in similar ways? Don't we see our own reflections in the poems we read—and don't those reflections change as we grow older, seeming to change the poems in turn? Imagine how different "Out of Water" might appear to readers before and after they have children. What would you make of "The Day" if you had first read it years ago, before you had tried a single plum?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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