Margaret Avison: “New Year's Poem”
I have always been drawn to poems that contain, within their meditative movements, a hint of narrative and a textured visual richness. Certainly Margaret Avison’s lovely “New Year’s Poem” holds that triple attraction: deeply meditative, it is a feast for the eyes, while its delicate narrative allows me to sample, again and again, a formal seasonal party and its quiet aftermath. Still, it is not Avison’s difficult balance of image, thought, and story that I most admire in “New Year’s Poem”: It is her remarkable achievements with structure. Using fir needles and starlings, Arcturus and a single, luminous pearl, Avison has crafted journeys: vertical, circular, concentric, diagonal, temporal, and interior.
From our position beside the poem’s speaker, we follow her gaze—as we follow Avison’s almost stair-stepping initial lines—down to a windowledge and a solitary pearl, a pearl that in turn has spilled down, not only from the neck of its wearer but from the past. Where has it landed? Farther down, it seems, in the suet and snow. But no, it is here, back up on the windowledge, sharing its glow with the glow of the present morning.
The pearl’s vertical journey through space is mirrored twice at the poem’s center, as the speaker turns her gaze from the apartment’s interior down through the window to the birdclaw-etched snow, then up to Acturus, then down once again to the courtyard, and up to the windowledge—while time shifts, as it did for the pearl, from the past of memory to the present morning. What movements we’ve experienced in nine lines!—from the grave to the celestial, then again, in miniature, from the skull-and-crossbones aftermath of the birds to the amber crusts of bread now lifting within their lifting bodies.
And what of those “waist” lines? Those quiet, centered moments that, taken together, echo haiku? I’m reminded once more of the birdfoot Xs etched in snow. The lines of the X, its bones, cross through one another on their diagonal journeys, each holding, for a moment, a bit of the other as they meet. So these momentary, centered lines hold a bit of the poem’s past and a bit of its future. The solitary pearl cast its glow upward to illuminate the dying season and downward to blend with the opening morning. “I remember” touches the “black-and-silver crisscross” of the formal party and the enigmatic, stiff grave of another season. What a “gentle and just pleasure it is,” Avison tells us, to know that a dark, cosmic-cast wind can, on occasion, smooth itself to stillness, just there at a windowledge, just there at our fingertips.
Or perhaps those compressed and centered lines, like stones dropped in a pond, create a concentric movement. This poem denies no journey. As its closing words circle back to its title, we might feel, also, that the poem’s final destination has always been the interior—which has, in turn, been its point of departure: the reflective human mind, unchilled and habitable, holding simultaneously what has fallen and will fall.
Linda Bierds on Margaret Avison’s “New Year's Poem” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
Linda Bierds was born in Wilmington, Delaware and raised in Seattle, Washington. She earned her BA and MA, with an emphasis in fiction, from the University of Washington. Bierds’s many collections of poetry include Flights of the Harvest Mare (1985); Heart and Perimeter (1991); The Ghost Trio (1994), which was...