July: and, given the length and discursiveness of last month’s note, a reprieve, Reader: the briefest of remarks this time – little more than two passing images as I write a few hours before our deadline. But, really, a way of answering if only to myself that hackneyed question all poets are confronted with from time to time: Where do you get your ideas? Almost always, for me, as I suspect often is the case, there is no reliable reply: one stammers, shrugs one’s shoulders, or – the ineffable truth of gesture – looks a little toward the heavens, from whence inspiration has ostensibly alighted. Yet, on occasion, for whatever reasons, we do happen to know exactly a certain poem’s birthplace – a knowledge that arrives in two packages, I think. There is the more common form, what might be called its surface genealogy: in the poem that follows, for example, I can point to certain words and easily trace the path they took to arrive where they do. For example, the “study” – imported from that suburban retreat of Ward Cleaver, of all people, to which June directed various visitors in one or another of the series’ countless cable reruns; “Midas” arrives fresh from an illustration in my fourth grade History book; “saudade” courtesy a discussion of the African heritage of Brazilian music on NPR. And so on. Whereas the second, rarer level of excavation, unearths a work’s deeper generative impulse, no doubt located in the unconscious associative experiences of the poet that often are obscure even to her or him, or accessible only through deep reflection — which she or he likely has no incentive to pursue or actively avoids. As noted, however, serendipitously, I happen to have an example of this latter business at hand, which will be cleverly labeled I and II.
When I was a child visiting her home, and storms would come in the night, knocking out the electric power, my Irish grandmother would – whispering Hail Mary’s – retrieve a handful of stubby, subnacreous-looking tapers and a box of Diamond wooden matches from the hall closet, thinking to comfort me with their light. (I knew their location well, having filched a few to ignite in a secreted side-yard while she was entranced by Gunsmoke or Perry Mason.) From my bed I would prop myself on my elbows and listen to her peregrination through the rooms. At my door, she would pause, the wavering flame before her poised like a Sacred Heart — raised as far as her arthritic elbow would extend – transforming her shoulders and head into a sort of gleaming bust. Indeed, she seemed a veritable icon, a transcendent figure, not that I would have known that word: a restless yet pacific apparition captured in slow transit from one world to the next. The room, too, mysteriously gathering itself around her, it appeared, in a sort of silent awe, adulatory.
Inevitably, though the setting and circumstances remained the same — storms, spare bedroom, grandmother – it happened that a flashlight replaced the candle; my father’s doing, no doubt, out of concern that Gramma’s faltering grip would end up in catastrophe. Also the same were the hall closet depository and the subsequent sounds of her steps through the house, her appearance at my door. However, here the experiences diverged definitively. And not only, as you can easily imagine, in the quality of the light, but in the nature of the experience itself. No longer was my grandmother its center; now she had withdrawn into the very darkness she sought to dispel. Instead, all was there, to be inspected – the torch’s conical beam like an extension of some third entity’s eye whose disinterested, antiseptic gaze roamed and swooped at will over its surroundings – disarticulating now the corner of a wooden mantle, now a photograph or water glass — objects that seemed to shrink or throw up their hands in involuntary defense against its sudden attentions. In truth, I found these moments more disconcerting, more frightening than curative; it was a with a sigh of relief that I settled back into my pillow when my grandmother, satisfied that nothing… untoward had transpired, departed, leaving me in peace to watch the room and its objects’ shattered geometries slowly reassemble themselves.
And so to the poem – a trifle, I know! but suitable I hope to illuminate (sorry) the points above; probably not. In any case, it’s one I wrote a few weeks ago, about a reading lamp, which itself was vaguely prompted by one or another of CD Wright’s Early Elegies (adding yet another layer to the origin story).
For a Forties Reading Lamp
Far from the fusty study with its sturdy desk
Where once you lent your Midas touch
To rotary phones and checkbooks
Saudade hipsters in cardigans and twee fedoras now
Adore your swan-necked silhouette in Village vintage shops.
Amex, Uber, home and fit with a spiraled LED bulb,
The lucky couple leans you in just-so
Before a tintype of two staid, bare-chested matelots
Embracing on a Belle-Epoque day-bed, face à la caméra;
For the first time is it any wonder
Suddenly exposed in that harsh new light
They seem as shocked as you are?
That’s it for this month, then — not too bad, eh? 849 words. Of course, content is another matter.
Enjoy the issue!