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Poetry for Grown-ups

Marie Ponsot’s Easy and Don Paterson’s Rain.

Marie Ponsot, born in 1921, is still writing, and writing well, in her ninth decade. She has had a late flourishing: The Bird Catcher, from 1998, won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Springing, a new and selected, came out in 2002. That much of her mature writing comes so late in life is hardly surprising, considering she raised seven (!) children and presumably had her hands full in her middle years.

Easy, by Marie Ponsot.
Alfred A. Knopf. $26.00.

Marie Ponsot, born in 1921, is still writing, and writing well, in her ninth decade. She has had a late flourishing: The Bird Catcher, from 1998, won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Springing, a new and selected, came out in 2002. That much of her mature writing comes so late in life is hardly surprising, considering she raised seven (!) children and presumably had her hands full in her middle years. Ponsot can be almost metaphysically cerebral in her conceits, or earthily matter-of-fact—at her best, she combines these seemingly antithetical traits. Some of her finest writing is on the subject of pregnancy and child-rearing, where she captures the brute physicality, the animal pains and pleasures, without sentimentalizing. (“We are a tangle, / bitch and pups, in the oldest comity,” she says in the sensual and finely-wrought “The Story After the Story.”)

What to make, then, of her new collection, Easy? Easy in what sense? To write? To read? Accessible? Promiscuous? The cover photograph, of a clichéd single red rose in a vase, but of the vase smashing, winks with irony. More air, perhaps, gets into these new poems: the focus is on sky, clouds, light, wind. The book begins with a stir of air from the “five-petaled” electric fan and concludes with the word “breathlessly.” Between, clouds and wind often make an appearance (or transparence), even in translation from the French (du Bellay’s “To the Winds, from a Winnower of Wheat”). A study of clouds, “This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo,” contains what might amount to an elegant ars poetica:

The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.

Fittingly, this collection is concerned with wisdom and acceptance; the darkest emotion is wry ruefulness, or rueful wryness, an embracing of the “winter test.” Ponsot declares, in “Cometing”:

I like to drink my language in
straight up, no ice no twist no spin
—no fruity phrases, just unspun
words trued right toward a nice
idea, for chaser. True’s a risk.
Take it I say. Do true for fun. 

Slyly, this call for plain speaking is served up in a trope, in tetrameter, complete with rhymes, and the paper umbrellas of internal chimes and assonance. There is something subversive in suggesting that one should do “true” not for its own sake, but because it is “fun.” Occasionally we do get a flat statement that conveys a truth directly, like an electric shock, to the mind of the reader. In “What Speaks Out” (about a solid silver lute from a Mesopotamian grave site of three women), Ponsot describes, “From its baseboard stares / the head of a boar made / by someone who had seen a boar.” She is also attracted here to the apothegmatic, as in “Simples” (quoted in its entirety): “what do I want // well I want to / get better.”

Still, for all the airiness of this collection (emphasized by the layout, with its spaces between lines), the solid sonnet is, I think, Ponsot’s métier (making it curious she is scarcely on the formalist radar.) Among the more delightful, “Peter Rabbit’s Middle Sister,” on the unadventurous Mopsy:

your chest hot, your heart fast in the thorned clutch
of your hedge-hemmed root-safe bedtime-tale hutch.

And, from “Language Acquisition”:

We wait: while sun sucks earth juices up from wry
root-runs tangled under dark, while the girl
no longer vegetal, steps into view:
a moving speaker, an “I” the air whirls
toward the green exuberance of “You.”

At a second glance, we see that “exuberance” is used with etymological precision: Ponsot is mindful of its agricultural roots, its Latin sense of fertile growth, abundant fruitfulness (ūber figures often in Virgil’s Georgics.) The pun, we are often reminded, is the lowest form of wit. But it is also the highest.

There is a fine line between profound simplicity and so-what banality, and there are poems to either side in this collection, but the unevenness is perhaps an indication that Ponsot has risked “doing true” with the earned insouciance of old age.

Rain, by Don Paterson.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.00.

If an easy breeziness, a breathiness, has entered Ponsot’s late work, Don Paterson’s poems from the middle of the journey have become more grounded (Paterson, who has long written well about not just love but sex—a subject that on the whole has seemed ceded by heterosexual male poets of late—here also explores the terrors and tenderness of parenthood) and have a noon-day clarity with sharp shadows. That Rain has won the Forward prize, and that Paterson recently won the Queen’s Gold Medal, renews one’s faith in prizes.  

Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1963, Paterson famously left school at sixteen and became a musician, but at twenty had a road-to-Damascus moment (watching Tony Harrison on television) that converted him to poetry. An autodidact, he learned the old-fashioned way, by deep, long reading in the tradition, and as a result he has a confidence of his place in that tradition (see his introductory essay to New British Poets, boldly reclaiming the “mainstream”) that gives his work a timelessness even as it engages the topicality of pop culture. (The reviewer is grateful for Google, as she is no way hip enough to have known about electronica/experimental musician, Natalie “Tusia” Beridze, to whom there is a dithyrambic ode in Ogden Nashian couplets, rejoicing in words like “Minimoog.”)

Paterson flirts with the reader, though that flirtation seems sometimes to be less courtship than corrida, the reader charging into empty air while the steely point drives home between the shoulder blades. “Two Trees,” which opens this collection, is typical Paterson. In two rhymed, twelve-line stanzas, he describes an orange tree and lemon tree that have been grafted together, only to be severed later:

And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Having set us up for a tragic version of Baucis and Philemon, the speaker then flatly denies the pathetic fallacy he has so involved us in. But the denial rings both true and false—and hints at more pain than would a glib exploitation of trees as metaphor. Though he has invoked the human comparison only to reject it, the comparison remains invoked, like an unresolved dissonance throbbing in the air. However much it is a poem “about trees,” it also continues to suggest a terrible, human severing; the book opens in its mutilated shade.

Paterson has a genius for metaphor as well as music. In “The Human Sheld,” in bristly footnote-studded Scots, the poet explains that the reason he sleeps with his arm over his lover’s breast is that in his dreams he stands shuddering behind a long shield—a disturbingly martial epic-simile of an image. Somehow the verdigris of the language, and the fact that in reality the lovers are supine, also suggests an ancient tomb. (The poem in more ways than one evokes Larkin.) It’s a lot to accomplish in eight lines. (I admire the ambition of Paterson’s longer poems—such as the seven-part “Phantom” in memory of poet and friend Michael Donaghy—but I think Paterson is paradoxically more profound in the short lyrics, where metaphor is the engine of thought.)

While “Rain” is rightly the title and closing poem, “The Swing” is the fulcrum of this collection. A poem “about” setting up a swing for the poet’s twin boys, it adumbrates another narrative—a child in utero who will, in the wake of a break-up, not be born—the swing itself becoming a metaphor of the passage of life (a modern answer to Bede’s swallow). The poem is in hymn meter, and has something of the cadence of another agnostic masterpiece, “The Darkling Thrush.” The poem closes:

But for all the coldness of my creed
for all those I denied
for all the others she had freed
like arrows from her side

for all the child was barely here
and for all that we were over
I could not weigh the ghosts we are
against those we deliver

I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground

The image of children being freed “like arrows from her side” is daring and strange for all its directness. I covet the pun on “deliver.” The sudden shift to commit to a gender for the “child,” the “it” spoken of earlier in the poem, is a risky upping of the ante—but one that is handsomely rewarded. As Housman said, himself quoting Keats, the end of this “goes through me like a spear.”

For me it is a perfect poem, perfect not in its defined-by-an-impossible-to-prove-negative sense of “without flaw,” though I find no flaw here, but in its original Latin sense—something “complete,” “accomplished,” “thoroughly-made.” It’s a real poem, and I mean that in the way that I might speak of whether a pearl—that organic response to the irritant—is real or false: determined by its depth of luster, its weight, its size, its shape, its color, and, ultimately, for all the appearance of smoothness, its roughness against the teeth.

Originally Published: April 30th, 2010

A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford University. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Stallings’s poetry is known for its ingenuity...

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  1. May 21, 2010
     Michael Ferris

    Masterful reviews, of Don Paterson's work especially. I find more poetry in Ms Stallings's reviews that I find in most contemporary books of verse, but she has made me believe that Don Paterson's "Rain" will be the delightful exception.

  2. June 14, 2015
     Jim Clark

    In re: Don Paterson's comment above, I must say, you wrote my own thoughts exactly - or should I say, true?