Discussion Guide

Who Knows?

Invention and Attention in the February 2012 Poetry.

The contributors to the February 2012 Poetry make art of the unknown, painting visions of scenes they cannot see. Spend a moment with A.E. Stallings’s “Momentary,” which begins:

I never glimpse her but she goes
Who had been basking in the sun,
Her links of chain mail one by one
Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.

The creature vanishes the instant it comes into view, prompting the speaker to imagine the act she’d interrupted (“basking in the sun”). The following two lines perform a shifty double-act: does the speaker perceive the snakeskin’s glint while the snake leaves? Or is that glint just another feature in her invented scene? What would either option signify, and what purpose does this ambiguity play?

 “Too late I notice as she passes / Zither of chromatic scale,” Stallings continues, and concludes the poem:

I know her only by her flowing,
By her glamour disappearing
Into shadow as I’m nearing —
I only recognize her going.

In the final stanza, the poem itself becomes a zither, tinkling with rhymes. Every line ends in “ing,” lending this passage a “flow” of its own; notice the additional inner rhymes of “glamour” and “shadow,” “know” and “only.” The poem then “goes” just as the snake does. We might ask ourselves what this slithery figure has in common with poetry more generally. Do we know poems mostly by our failure to understand them? Do we recognize them by their foreignness? Is every poem—to borrow from Emily Dickinson—a “narrow fellow in the grass”?

Perhaps Stallings’s reptilian meditation creeps out of Dickinson, who describes a snake’s “notice sudden,” and adds:

I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone

Like Stallings, Dickinson remains unsure of what she’s seen: she thinks it’s a “Whip lash,” but it isn’t; she knows it only by its wrinkling and—as in “Momentary”—by its departure. Tellingly, neither poet ever clarifies that she is describing a snake.

In “Psalm to be Read with Closed Eyes,” D. Nurkse also portrays the invisible:

Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.

In the past, the speaker slept while his father carried him from car over carpet to bed; in the future, ignorance will transport him above cities and rivers. Yet the preponderance of adjectives—“blistering,” “briny,” “tacked,” “white”—asserts his familiarity with these unseen scenes. He even engages us in this contradictory form of cognizance: we are to read his psalm with our eyes closed, to know it without experiencing it. We are, perhaps, to imagine it, just as Stallings imagines the basking snake, and Durkse imagines both the nighttime voyages of childhood and the final journey of death. What do you think it means to read a poem with closed eyes—or to co-imagine a poem, alongside the poet?

Albert Goldbarth describes this mental process explicitly in “Keats’s Phrase”:

A hundred times we do our own pedestrian
version of early maritime cartography: the known world
stops, and over its edge the fuddled mapmaker writes
Here There Be Monsters and then illustrates
their non-existing coiled lengths and hell-breath
with a color-splotched vivacity he wouldn’t waste
on inhabited shores.

The first question that arises from this passage is why Goldbarth, Dickinson, and Nurkse all dwell on unsavory animals, but let us leave that matter to the zoologists. Goldbarth suggests that we envision the fantastic with greater clarity than we do the real. Do you agree? What does this idea suggest about poetry, or about any creative endeavor?

The Robert Frost poem “Not All There,” published in Poetry in 1936 and reprinted in this issue, suggests that a garden snake basks in each of us:

Not All There

I turned to speak to God,
About the world’s despair;
But to make bad matters worse,
I found God wasn’t there.

 God turned to speak to me
(Don’t anybody laugh)
God found I wasn’t there —
At least not over half.

The first stanza frames a familiar situation: the believer turns to God and finds him to be as absent as the snakes and sea creatures of our previous poems. The second, however, inverts the cliché. Now it’s God who seeks attention, and discovers the human is half-gone (notice how Frost has split the poem in half to complement this observation).  How might this moment change our readings of the other poems? Does the evanescent fascinate us because we are always disappearing? Do we appreciate the unknown because we don’t entirely know ourselves?

Originally Published: February 1st, 2012
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In