By way of introduction to this month’s collaborative “Featured Selection,” per usual first a brief introductory essay by the poet, followed by the work itself, and some biographical material.
on landscape, poetics and horsemanship
A river is a useful image and metaphor—through line that it is—just as thought and one’s expression of thinking in writing is a lifelong unfinished phrase, is obsessive and seeks its own justification. Reflective of the mind’s recurrent patterns—a surface where a breeze goes still or keeps on moving—a river’s a mirror for weather and inner weather, a reason and location, a place to watch phenomena.
The River Seine happens to be pretty much right outside my door, a stone’s throw down the hill in the village where I live in France. I like to walk it, ride there on my horse. Where the eye gazes, measures, wonders at seasons, colors, clouds, birds, wind, sunsets, the aftermath of storms. Considerations search out a physical counterpart in the real world—words mere approximations of a need to locate question, prayer, dream and daydream. Where the mind lingers, turns upon, returns to a place, thinking about things of this world as if they were imagined though they are most real—that’s inner geography.
The Seine—its woodlands, islands, night boats, barges of scrap and stone, built, industrial and wild shorelines—engenders time though seems not incumbent upon time, flows forth, preceding anything I know—any of my interior set of references, the wild, outsize, northwestern, American landscape where I come from in Alaska. The Seine is big. It’s big enough. It’s old. It rolls through this place where I ride and write, the great Fontainebleau forest, hunting grounds of kings—and were I a painter—whose visual need I share—I try to see what’s going on—flood, coots, swans, birches, flotsam, blackberries. Looking out at things, writing down with the urge to inhabit place with the nature of my thinking.
The mind questions, compares, desires, searches and seems never satisfied. The body’s instincts and needs are more answerable perhaps because more physical, at least in one’s great big wish for harmony. The tension and cohabitation of mind and body in a place interests me, in an attempt to reckon with my any questions. I’d like to think that a poem may enact the gaze, enter the physical world, venture there, render the casual phenomena of looking at what’s panoramic & the given—here and now—a place that little has to do with me—my story. The Seine and its implications precede me and reach beyond me, without pretense or decoration. Poetry is desire’s invention, searching to extend forms as we take them to be given. That writing can speak unpretentiously to something greater—sing its lyric love song to the sublime—and so be understood—most bodily—by anyone out there means something to me. By that I also mean humility.
Alaska, my girlhood cabin in a place as faraway as it takes, where landscape busts open just about anyone’s notions of scale, is the unsaid backdrop to most everything I imagine—mighty mountains dungaree blue, snow weep, forests on and on and so their dream, the impossibility of that forever, where the horizon bends in the offing, and the world curves beyond the line of vision to places Asian, west of west. I also come from a family of painters. I like to hope that words might do what one asks of paint—that weather, such as gusts in leaves or upon a snowfield, might enact the brush stroke, the softest lines upon the canvas, color an alpenglow or wind line. Writing, through the act of looking, searches out its like form, word by line, by breath by shape upon the page as the poem becomes a lexicon, aspires to an earned sense of composition.
The sensuousness of words themselves, their sounds, equally compel my gazing. The greens of this world right here before me—pond scum in the river’s backwater where a grey heron is penciled in. Ming green is the high light of afternoon. Milano is a green recollection of Italian trees in dust of spring. These clouds do what they’ve always done—the way they wooed painters of old with effects of atmosphere and sunshine. Or as if cut with scissors, fig leaves throw stenciled shadows upon some rain. The pleasure of yellow ochre of a spark of fire seen on the far shore of the Seine as dusk comes on and night falls cyan, then painted even darker—Prussian blue.
In ardent need of visual depth of field, I suppose I seek in writing some formal equivalent my wonderment and love for big, quiet places in the real world. A poem, a place to gaze from, seems a kind of visual, musical habitation. To look in order to hear something. To listen to what words can do most musically through prosody, the extended breath and constraint of poetry. To embody phenomena. That kind of motion, and its dream.
Landscape, like poetry, like horses, is ultimately for me a bodily need, for space—to reflect, a need for horizon lines, for harmonious movement, a way to write and ride. Place offers a way—through—to—color, weather, a frame of reference—gives poetry back to the present tense. That I may suspend my disbelief—here and now—in search of song. So—pussy willow, the Seine, Cradle Island, these sandy equine paths through old world woods. Or alpine country, the little Vosges Mountains where we often go in summertime, just happen to be where I am, where these questions arise, where I’m writing from. In horsemanship and in poetry, in search of physically felt language, of sharing with most modest moves, I’d like to be able to do—if not sing to—what landscape only does and is implicitly.
Note: These reflections draw upon conversations with my sister, the painter, Asia Freeman, my reading of Matsuo Basho’s the Narrow Road to Oku, James Galvin’s essay “The Poetry of Place”, Nuno Oliviera’s Les Oeuvres Complètes, lines from Charles Wright’s poem from Black Zodiac
Take a loose rein and a deep seat,
John, my father-in-law, would say
To someone starting out on a long journey, meaning, take it easy,
Relax, let what’s taking you take you…
I think of landscape incessantly,
Mountains and rivers, lost lakes
Where sunsets festoon and override,
The scald of summer wheat fields, light-licked and poppy smeared.
Sunlight surrounds me and winter birds
Doodle and peck in the dead grass.
I’m emptied, ready to go. Again
I tell myself what I’ve told myself for almost thirty years—
Listen to John, do what the clouds do.
The Horses Are Going Down To The River
The river, well, you know, is all rivers and never
the same river—all along eternity
some swans, pilgrims, boaters, bargemen,
fly fisherman, teenagers, swimmers, ducks, dogs,
& a few wayfarers on horseback to whom I ask, “how far have you come?”
“From deep in the forest,” smiles the girl on the lead mare,
as in carry me my kind companion, hold me in sway,
take me farther down this afternoon than I
will ever wander alone.
A thud and jangle of hooves on the steep hill & little ones following
under the pines and beside them, the sharp scent of cut fields,
of blackberry near a tiny beach where the water’s lapping…
The river does what’s it’s supposed to, moves on down, is time’s undoing
—here and now, now and then, done and gone.
Now the horses are down by the river,
all the riders so quiet.
The woods ripple with September heat,
tick, leaf lull and the current all
quieter even than that—.
Here we are—says the body—
in a nightdress, in the halo of an open window—observing
how birds precede, prepare daylight, whistling—working—
in conversation—in accordance with—a larger, purposeful pattern.
Come with me—says the mind—
and the sunrise gives back what the cosmos understood as the unsaid—
and the tree—as electric—in its softness—
and the castle in its raiment of snow—
bijouté, damassé, silked in snow.
Carry us—says the body—waiting for my son
to be born—into the real world—says the mind,
embarking upon the snowy path to
the abandoned fountain—
all adazzle in the snowmelt,
the vacant meadow, pussy willow, sunlight inox
in vibrant, delicate end of winter warmth.
& the blood-tinged, alizarin crimson trees—of this world—
also waiting for spring to be written—.
To carry and to be carried—this is what the world is for.
All of a sudden, kind of glowing along the dirty waterline—
deep in that drawing, glinting zinky
something real quiet—.
You don’t have to
look hard into all that’s going on—to
see what I mean.
These silky, weensy whatnots. This discreet nebula of iotas—
some just got on with it, already up & exploded into yellow.
Here’s this accoutrement to big noise—
a mega jet cutting the airy way,
garbage barges decked out in trash, bouncing along with sloppy wake,
the loud, outmoded train shrill on its rails,
bumping down its freight of vehicles, chemicals, syrup, wine—
a peck of birds pretty much
dicing out tidbits of song
on this day. The air cannot be said to smell of what’s called nature,
the wind isn’t doing
What is willow then?
This sheen, this itsy fluff
implying the seasons are mere stations,
trafficking in phenomenon.
It is terrifying to think weather doesn’t mean much
heat surges off the charts, rain unbidden
flooding weird disturbances—hurricanes
of deepmost snow.
For a time I walked at the same speed as that boat,
then it got the better of me and throttled mightily on past
& I just stood there in my silly body
looking out into what’s called the physical, trying to see if
there was something—,
asking myself how are body and mind separate, if not
one and the same—.
Lucky girl, my papa said, that’s a sparrow’s nest, above your doorstep.
Of a season, those birds took shelter here, dwelt in
this lee wherein we enter, this home place—this circumference,
our routine & forms of
understanding, a privacy—bodily—
warmth in—snowed in—our tiny history,
and then in spring, those irises.
A certain love
of colors sky blue old red, things made of wood, my Mexico
pony blankets, nightlights on the shed under the chestnut trees,
say an old walnut table in a window, a horse outside that window
in its field. And my son runs through these few rooms toward my husband,
asking, is it nighttime? Est-ce qu’il fait nuit, Papa?
James Wright, who knew a few things about place, said this is the only life I have.
He, we, anyone, landscape,
if a threshold, of return—if impermanent forever—
my girlhood house adrift in snow
—I’m thinking of how some things hold us—in motion and in
stillness, and nothing never changes
and always—here’s where, regardless—
for beyond any choosing, there’s such a thing as need,
I need your body.
In France we say, prends-moi dans tes bras,
take me in your arms.
The Seasons Are Stations
August’s incandescent, a ripple in the tapestry trees,
a nest of shadows, a leafy dust, sated, silent in every leaf.
Almost autumn’s a sheen in the wind,
the wind in a tailspin,
heat at the C-note.
Then the wind is gone.
What happens now?
What shall we say is happening?
Walking up the road, in the Vosges, up the mountain,
the seasons are stations—
a stand of birches mortal white.
Sweet smelling yellow grass—in the wind’s transgressions,
us, too, up in dust,
the sorrowful way,
the road is old, it’s cool in the pines.
Passion, devotion, wrongdoing—
stations, I mean waypoints,
blonde death, pine scent in end of summertime heat,
walking on, hand-in-hand
in evergreen & the end-of-summertime trees, following the mountain—.
What happens then, at the beautiful end?—freedom, amends, consolation—
the clear-cut’s a marker—so head toward that.
Words drift up
where wind droops down, lupine,
bluebells, broken blade serrated edge of mountain tops.
It’s not just the mind making things pretty,
it’s real—places like this—high country, far faraway
up the mountain, in blue jean blue
these tall, tall pine trees deep down valleys.
Below a lake, like a fairytale, floats
where sunset fadeth and the elk cries out
to Montana moonlight over the Vosges.
My high country prairie
—where shelter is taken,
where still we suffer—and still we dream,
where we leave the window open and say come in
to the wind.
What were we speaking of before we slept?
What was the song we like to sing?
I see my life come shining, from the west down to the east
Any day now, any way now, I shall be released.
My Metaphor’s Metaphor
So the wind, a silk
unwound from its bobbin, the Seine in autumn ripped, runs
in opposite directions, coots and cormorant
in pirouette. Seabirds flung
to see what the wet hath wrought—
some sideways reticent rain.
A painter, any lover of color, would want that
of arousing the gaze into wakefulness, all rosy
& the current
pulses down through the forest of hinds,
the sand strewn hunting paths of the king, turning
through the belle capitale, cataloguing its monuments, indexing
its incorporated waste,
the steps of her palaces bathed beneath
a pure luxury of cloud.
May I call it by its name?
Name whatever it was for whatever it is?
A girl’s winsome threshold of drowned intentions,
the weeping willow’s nest
of reflections, the boudoir of the swan,
(my highroad, his playground, our cooling pond,
the wind’s rivulet, a basket of crumbs)—
message me back, my metaphor’s
metaphor, momentum of and lookalike, anaphoric, say
a through-line, the way of the ancients, a vein of sand, this
muddy towpath along which some thoroughbreds gallop,
take an image of your choosing—
any eddy of leaves.
I stand on the white bridge and wait for my friend.
I tell you I didn’t get what I bargained for. Nor did I wager.
I did as my mama said. Just kept my big brown eyes wide open.
So, letting my metaphor do its thing.
A current, a rivulet remains true to itself, I like to think that
it’s a song,
whatnot sidling along in eternal return.
Sometimes I Achieve Surrender
We walk the river & one season, each station becomes another
—and all along the river
—in countercurrent—winter birds row, rip back, waver up
ride the air, wherever
the wind is, whatever it’s doing, wherever it’s going
& we are family walking the river, walking the tow-path on Cradle Island
as barges drag down ancient cargoes of sand and stone.
It isn’t easy being ‘a family’, who we are, not the same after
a child is born—we awaken differently, love differently,
we are tired, hungry, happy, tender, angry, otherwise aware—.
I meant to say, no one is alone in the same way, anymore.
I am not selfish in the same way, anymore.
I don’t mean I am selfless. I mean I am conscious
of self and time, of the insufficiency of any one
body—moving, borne along in any given
We walk the river at winter’s end—and on the river
the geese have returned, noisily heading north—
again, I see them—in loud announcement, mid current—steadily
riding down a slack wind, the momentum of
their bodies, the torn air, their rhythm of
coming and going to a place, at home
I think, I, too,
am destined—by place, a person—
though could I move, traverse, see big, belong everywhere and nowhere
like an animal in absolute air—
yet there is no absolute I
and I am no longer afraid of
the passage of time—
what I have done or did not—my bit part—I
have endeavored, desired
sometimes, I too have achieved surrender—.
All I’ve ever done has also been bidden.
All my choices have been driven by love—.
Molly Lou Freeman shares poems from a book manuscript entitled Shelter. She is currently writing a novel. Recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and poetry awards from the French National Literary Endowment, she teaches and translates poetry in Paris. Her poems have been published in numerous American poetry journals. She has recently lectured on poetry at the NYU and Columbia University Departments of Creative Writing. She makes her home in France and is living this year in Mexico.