April, and again National Poetry Month rolls around, and we are deluged with all manner of new books, readings, celebrations, long-over due appreciations and thoughtful reassessments, panel discussions and events from “poets across the country challenging themselves to write a poem each day in April; to skyward murals of poems on the rooftops of Miami buildings for fliers to see; to students in Seattle, many of whom are refugees, telling their personal stories through poems broadcast on public radio…” per the Academy of American Poets newsletter. All well and good, of course. But I find my thoughts turning again and again to a poem from Plume contributor Nomi Stone, recently published in The Atlantic. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Quite astonishing, yes? And if not, I offer it to you here, blessedly without comment, with kind permission of the author.
Thinking of My Wife as a Child by the Sea, While We Clean Mussels Together
Before prising keel worms off the backs of mussels,
we have to tap them with a knife, when good sense, fear,
life, shuts their lips. I do chop the lemongrass. I do close
the lid. Their bodies inside are soft. It hurts me to do it,
but not for long. We bring the shell-clatter after to the loch
with our dog and son. I love this quiet house by the water
and lighting the fire and imagining my wife as a child
throwing a sweater over her pajamas to cycle with no hands
by the sea. Isn’t it beautiful and terrible to exist inside
time: to already be not there but here then here—
Now, then. Uncharacteristically keeping things in house, let’s turn to another poem from another Plume contributor, Dorianne Laux’ s LIFE ON EARTH, and Associate Editor Sally Bluimis-Dunn’s careful appreciation of its delights. (Joseph Campana will return to his post in this space next month.)
On Dorianne Laux’s LIFE ON EARTH
When Danny asked me to write this brief essay for the April PLUME Newsletter, it was not so much the writing itself that caused me worry but the weight of wanting to find a poem that would speak with relative clarity as we struggle with the ongoing trauma/post trauma of the pandemic and the new horror of the war in Ukraine.
When my son, Ben, was about five and I was pointing out a passing gray fox, a swaying stand of pines, the wide-eyed gaze of a cow in a nearby field, he chimed right in, not with the enthusiasm I was expecting, but rather with a plea—“Mom, will you please stop appreciating everything?” Likely he did not need my prodding. Three decades later, Ben is a most alert observer. But I still believe that we all need at least occasional reminding of just how lucky we are to live on this planet.
I began my search by looking through books of poems on my shelf. There was Jack Gilbert’s “Burning”: “It is the pace of our living/that makes the world available… A thousand years ago when they built the gardens/ of Kyoto, the stones were set in the streams askew./ Whoever went quickly would fall in. When we slow./ the garden can choose what we notice. Can change/our heart.” And there was Stanley Kunitz’s “Robin Redbreast” in which the speaker tries to rescue a bird tormented by blue jays: “So I scooped him up/after they knocked him down,/in league with that ounce of heart/pounding in my palm,/that dumb beak gaping./Poor thing! Poor foolish life!/ without sense enough to stop/running in desperate circles,/needing my lucky help…”
Then, last night I attended a Zoom reading which featured TheMothers, the newest chapbook in the Conversation Series from Slapering Hol Press. I admired all the poems, but when Dorianne read, “Life on Earth,” I heard a poem speak with the deep gratitude I was seeking for this newsletter. Out of all the poems out in this world, what luck in timing to hear this one. I emailed Dorianne immediately after the reading to ask permission, and she generously agreed.
LIFE ON EARTH
The odds are we never should have been born.
Not one of us. Not one in 400 trillion to be
exact. Only one among the 250 million
released in a flood of semen that glides
like a glassine limousine filled with tadpoles
of possible people, one of whom may
or may not be you, a being made of water
and blood, a creature with eyeballs and limbs
that end in fists, a you with all your particular
perfumes, the chords of your sinewy legs
singing as they form, your organs humming
and buzzing with new life, moonbeams
lighting up your brain’s gray coils,
the exquisite hills of your face, the human
toy your mother longs for, your father
yearns to hold, the unmistakable you
who will take your first breath, your first
step, bang a copper pot with a wooden spoon,
trace the lichen growing on a boulder you climb
to see the wild expanse of a field, the one
whose heart will yield to the yellow forsythia
named after William Forsyth—not the American
actor with piercing blue eyes, but the Scottish
botanist who discovered the yellow bells
on a highland hillside blooming
to beat the band, zigzagging down
an unknown Scottish slope. And those
are only a few of the things
you will one day know, slowly chipping away
at your ignorance and doubt, you
who were born from ashes and will return
to ash. When you think you might be
through with this body and soul, look down
at an anthill or up at the stars, remember
your gambler chances, the bounty
of good luck you were born for.
The poem opens with a grand fact that establishes the legitimacy of the poet’s voice, “The odds are we [humans] never should have been born./ …Not one [of us] in 400 trillion to be/ exact.” The line break after “to be” requires the reader to pause for a moment that is, at least distantly, Hamletian. And the litany of the phrases, “Not one of us. Not one … only one” intensifies the serious mood. But Dorianne is an expert in tonal shift. Immediately following is the sperm that “glides” in the fanciful “glassine limousine” with “possible people,”— all of which serve to lighten the opening tone, both sonically and imagistically.
Here is another example of the poem’s wonderful array of images and sounds. Each of us is a you, “a being of water/ and blood, a creature with eyeballs and limbs/ that end in fists, a you with all your particular/ perfumes, the chords of your sinewy legs /sing as they form, your organs humming…” Just consider the range from the violent “fists” to the more neutral “chords,” the double meaning of the sinews that do look like long chords and their transformation into song—the inner self, so exquisitely drawn, the inner self’s seamlessness with the outer world through metaphor, “the exquisite hills of your face,” the moon. There are so many examples of alliteration and assonance, each making the poem enter the reader with a kind of ease—
“highland hillside,” “beat the band,” “bounty,” “born,”, “gambler,” “chances.”
The poem’s title, “Life on Earth,” seems a good fit as it does not refer only to human existence, but to all life. This makes the improbable human even more of a lucky fluke. The poem speaks of “a field …whose heart will yield to the yellow forsythia.” Since the field has a “heart,” the reader can imagine that trees and plants have hearts too, not to mention animals and birds. The simple use of the word “heart” puts all of earth’s life forms on an equal footing. And with the transition of address from “we” to “you,” I could feel the poet speaking both directly to me as an individual and to each “you” who is part of the earth’s collective. That the poem is presented as one individual block of text only reenforces the idea that all of life is interconnected.
The sense of seamlessness among the “we,” “you,” and “I” is precisely what so many of us have experienced since the onset of the pandemic. The virus, of course, is not the topic of the poem, nor is the war in Ukraine, but each is there. What comes through is that we are all joined by having been given the rare prize of human existence that arrives with the implicit responsibility to protect each life and be thankful for it. Because our empathy and our interconnectedness have grown more palpable during these last virus-haunted years, we feel, even more profoundly, the tragedy of the war in Ukraine, the reckless disregard for human life. The war footage, testimony, and news enter us as pervasively as the air we breathe.
Dorianne offers up the opposites that compose us all, “Bang a pot with a wooden spoon” which is an exuberant action of the hand and then, the gentlest touch that “traces the lichen growing on a boulder”; and then these two consecutive images, “Your brain’s gray coils, the exquisite hills of your face.” Besides the “gray coils” feeling quite opposite to the “exquisite hills” in terms of visual beauty, there is a synergy between these images that occurs, at least to this reader. The “gray coils” next to the hills call to mind a snake, a creature that completes the natural scene, rather than something like a rope—the snake, bearer of the first temptation and harbinger of those to come—to which we will so humanly succumb.
During this fraught time of pandemic and war, I am grateful for this poem and how its ending circles back to the beginning, and counters our despair, reminding each of us of our “gambler chances, the bounty/of good luck you were born for.”
Quite a poem, quite an exegesis, I think.
Anything else? Ah, yes. In recent issues I have offered brief lists of our forthcoming print anthology’s contributors, in hopes of adding, per the Zeigarnik Effect, an entry in your mental to-do list” Plume Poetry 10coming in late July. That should do it.
And for those we missed at AWP – next year, I hope!
Finally, as usual, some recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:
Our cover art is this month is Lynn Saville’s magnificent “Jill in Newburgh”. For more information on the artist, a good start might be made at her website. Also, perhaps take a look at the essay by Aaron Norton (edited by Hillary Mitchell) on her recent exhibition,Dark Cities, at the Alessia Paladini Gallery in Milan.