Discussion Guide

To Have Been Here

Four poems in the September 2017 Issue of Poetry

A. R. Ammons begins “Finishing Up” with a question: “I wonder if I know enough to know what it’s really like / to have been here.” This question leads to another (“have I seen sights enough to give / seeing over”) and then to another, each concluding not with a question mark but with a colon. Thanks to this idiosyncratic punctuation, every thought runs into the next, an echo of the ongoing flow of the speaker’s life. And in a reflection of that life’s rhythms and repetitions, the poem recycles its own language: “anyway,” he writes, “it may be way on on the way,” and “the clouds, I’ve waited with white / October clouds…. // but white clouds shade other white / ones gray.”

This poem revolves around a wishful misapprehension. “I suppose I haven’t done and seen / enough yet to go,” Ammons writes, as though the speaker’s evaluation of his own experience determines when he will die. By that same logic, each new observation he makes—of, say, “the wire vines left when frost’s red dyes strip the leaves // away”—inches him closer to death, even as it involves him more deeply with life.

In “The Mink,” Rosanna Warren’s lines of poetry paint all sorts of other lines: a spit of land, a swatch of ocean, a curve of islands, lengths of grass, the “bunched / black parabolas” of a leaping mink. A more abstract formation, the arc of memory, guides Warren from the hopping animal to a dying boy. Why? The mink—“absolute / predator who cracks a rabbit’s spine / in one bite”—echoes the cancer that cracks the boy’s lifeline. No wonder she remembers the boy on a walk along a “spit out into the North Atlantic,” nearing the end of land and the beginning of uncharted terrain.

The boy’s fate—his coming confrontation with the unknown—terrifies her, and her fear “made his death, when it came, / unspeakable.” Yet, she writes, “it’s the dead boy / I’ve stored inside me all these years.” Even as he represented her horror of life’s termination, he stayed with her, providing a kind of continuity—and, ultimately speech, in the form of a poem.

“By hook or by bent,” writes Atsuro Riley in “Creekthroat,” “I guttle the rudimental stories.” The poem itself is bent: it zigzags down the page like a jagged brook. Guttle, which relates to gut, means “to eat or drink greedily and noisily,” and Riley floods his poem with appetitive terms: suck, swallow, nursed, want, lunged, and gulped.

Gut has an emotional as well as a physical meaning—and this speaker hungers not for meals but for tales. “I learned to lie in want,” Riley writes, “for succor-food, for forms.” Hence the striking form of his own poem. Hence, too, its abundant and surprising sound echoes, which follow no apparent pattern, and which shift between exact and slant rhymes: not and got, wait and bait, scoop and shape, bent and dint and want.

“Creekthroat” brims with literary influence. “In-scoop” echoes “inscape,” a term devised by Gerard Manley Hopkins to signify the unique inner nature of a person or thing. “The rocky breasts forever” allude to Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” which imagines cliffs to be the source of knowledge, the food that Riley’s speaker so desperately wants. And Bishop’s own desperation, voiced in another of her poems, pops up in Riley’s final line. “On foot or by boat by night,” he writes, “(please) come slake me with radicle stories.” Similarly, Bishop concludes her villanelle “One Art” with an urgent, italicized parenthetical. Radicle relates to root; the speaker wants to go back to original sources, to dig deep. And where parental predecessors disappoint (—We seen his mama she dry and scant”), poetic ones provide nourishment aplenty.

In “The Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Patricia Lockwood casts Keats’s earlier, more sedate “Ode” in an unprecedented light: she compares it to a bad boy who has it out for old ladies. In one case, the ode “swung its urn / at the back of her head”; in another, it’s “pushing nanas off bridges.” For this ode, it’s always “death-to-old-ladies o’clock.”

But Lockwood’s “Ode” isn’t just an entertaining, and counterintuitive, reel of scenes in which a Romantic poem murders old ladies. It’s also a meditation on the speaker’s own impermanence, and on the impermanence of her work. Unlike the characters on Keats’s urn—who are, he writes, “for ever young”—she will herself become an old lady, and “without having written anything like / the Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In the meantime, lost or not, the poem serves as an immortal means of facing mortality: “you let me / memorize your most satiny parts / and repeat them in hospital waiting rooms,” Lockwood writes; the poem was “something to say in the face of tall sickness.”

Originally Published: September 1st, 2017
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In