The Flame Hatches
Here in upstate New York near the St. Lawrence River, bordering the expanse of that fabled northern land called Canada, I was awestruck by sunrise, the first sunrise after the solstice!
crack the red wax open
read note readdress dispatch
so he enabled the correspondences
of others and to be so occluded
by the flux of words gave pleasure
as crescendo filled the branchings
flickering the quilled exchanges
until one particular melody exhausted
silence and called out spontaneous
abyssal the flame hatches
That’s from the Irish poet Trevor Joyce’s new book What’s in Store—a three-hundred-plus-page veritable bodega. (I discovered it through my favorite blog here, entry for Dec. 13.) There are translations and reworkings of: “Folk Songs from the Finno-Ugric and Turkic Languages,” “Anonymous Love Songs from the Irish,” the Chinese poets Ruan Ji and Lu Zhaolin, as well as maybe half a dozen other sources. There are also short lyrics addressed to friends and loved ones. In light of all the Harriettalk about constraints and sonnets, one of the endnotes provides a tonic to too much purely formal ambition:
The many thirty-six-word poems scattered throughout this volume springs from an attempt to write a large work under rigorous constraints. … When I realized that the centrifugal forces had overpowered my original intentions for overall coherence, I published some more under the title “Ana” (as in Shakespeareana, Joyceana, etc.). Here I’ve allowed the princple of dispersal to overcome completely my initial nostalgia for order.
Not rage for order, as in Stevens, but nostalgia for order! I was reading Trevor Joyce concurrently with Laura Riding Jackson (did anyone have a greater rage for order?) and felt as though I were taking the measure of the gulf between my own attraction to (her) purity and my delight in the fallen state of poetry as it is. What’s in Store takes advantage of so many different forms and methods, trusting sheer accumulation to ward off the failure of coherence, that finally you really do get a clear picture of what Ben Friedlander in this comment thread called “quality of mind.” What else matters in the end? That Riding’s quality of mind shines through the failure of poetry to achieve her impossible standards—this is the miracle available to us, even though she was shockingly ungenerous about it.
Here’s another little miracle: language acquisition at its most banal. First, we sing before we can speak. This I learned from my first child, and now my second sings himself to sleep at night with (literally) la-la-las and yeah-yeah-yeahs. At seventeen months, he really doesn’t have any words. Or he didn’t, until last week he effectively made a musical request:
“Doe a deer. A deer.”
—the song “Do Re Mi.” It’s all he asks for; he can see from our bursts of laughter that we’re pleased with him. As I am with the notion that we don’t need language for basic necessities. We need it to ask for extras; for felicities. Like music. Or your mind: show me your mind.
Two more posts, and I am going emeritus on Harriet.
Doe, a deer!
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...