his safe smell was all around and he told me he was so sorry he would drink up every bit of water in Dresser’s Pond if that would make it all unhappen. it can’t

3 02 2008

LEARNING TO SWIM is a painful narrative of poems that — truly — I expected to hate as soon as I read the first page. I could see where they were going from that first page — as the poet intends —  and I didn’t think I had any desire to travel there.

 

I’ve only just begun to understand how to read poetry — reading particularly each word and phrase, not just the ideas and content, bringing a concentration that is unnecessary for comprehension but allows me to appreciate the art. It is not necessary to study a painting to understand what is portrayed, or even to appreciate it at some level. But if you do study it, and the artist has invested his skill in the painting, then you will be rewarded for your contemplation, especially if you have taken the time to educate your eye. This concentrated reading, I find, means that painful poetry has more power than painful prose.  And I’ve read enough “important” stories of trauma to have a distaste for it in literary form. So I set this book down when it got distasteful and ugly. I don’t feel that a book or a story has to be about some terrible act in order to be important, and I feel a distaste for the easy importance that clothes such stories. But that false patina of power is not what I found when I picked it up again — hoping to read swiftly until I found this passage, the one that had caught my eye in the first place:

 

There are veils

over the high bush blueberries,

like huge white wings

brushing the ground.

Mother and I scrooge under,

tin cans in hand,

and pull the berries down

so fast they rattle

and fill to the brim.

I hate their sour taste

but love being hidden

under the netting

where no one can see

me.

 

But as I quickly read, I found myself drawn in and found the story in these narrative poems so true as to be compelling. And these poems are true, reflecting not only the pain of the assault, but the eventual cleansing and moving on that happens in real life. A recovery that doesn’t make the original act any less repugnant, but is not a permanent destruction of youth and childhood either.

 

In the prologue, she says

 

This is what I remember:

that hot room,

your strange body,

your hands hurting,

and harsh words

telling me terrible things

would happen

if I ever

told.

 

But now you can’t

find me or reach me

or hurt me ever

again and once I tell the words

I am going to kick

you off my porch

and learn to breathe

again.

 

Perhaps you find this a promising beginning. I did not. But the speaker recovers, and so does the poetry.

Or, rather, first the poetry, then the person.

I hate the color yellow.

I hate limp curtains.

I hate iron bedsteads

and thick boys in shorts.

When I grow up

I will have a green room

with a soft, mounded bed

and white curtains

blowing in the windows.

In my room

there will never be

a thick boy in shorts.

 

For me this recovery was even more appreciated because I didn’t quite believe it was going to come, so fully, either in the story or especially in the almost poetry — I call it that just this once because it has so little besides formatting and intensity to make it such. Perhaps it is more fairly poetry that is almost not poetry…

 

Daddy held my hand

as we scrambled down

the path to Dresser’s Pond.

We waded in together,

and I thought of white, bony

things I could not see,

of a lake octopus waiting

to sucker its tentacles

around my skinny legs.

Daddy said,

“You are learning to swim,”

and I let go of his hand.

“I am learning to swim,”

I chanted

and when the bottom

fell away,

I bobbed on top,

my face like a white flower

before me.

 

Perhaps it is realistic because it is real — the book is subtitled A memoir. Perhaps parts are painful to read because they were painful to live — and to write, the author said that starting these poems was like eating ground glass (although I doubt she can truly make the comparison, I believe this right is included in the poet’s license.). The good thing to reflect on, is that perhaps she recovers so fully because that is what people do.

 

In the end, I don’t find this poetry to be many things that I want poetry to be. It is painful and uncomfortable in many places. But it’s true in a sense that includes emotions and goes beyond facts, and that is something.

 

LEARNING TO SWIM: a memoir by ann turner

ann turner’s books

 

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always engaged in revision

29 01 2008

[HIS LIFE WAS THE PRACTICE]

 

His   life   was    the    practice   of   forming   a   single

sentence  which,  as   he  grew    older,  he   tried   to

simplify,   reduce  its  compound-complex  structure

into one statement ruled by the  separate, inviolate

pronoun within which he attempted  to live,  always

engaged in revision and the act of becoming;  as the

distilled   statement   gradually   became  a   fleeting

inquiry, a mild interrogative, which he repeated and

refined,   making  it  increasingly  concise, almost, at

his  conclusion,  producing no  more  than  a  distinct

sound,  not  quite a word, less than a  cry,  which his

death  erased  leaving  the question mark hanging in

the   air,   like  a  broken  halo,  emblem  of  his  birth,

evolution and release: a full life.

STEPHEN DOBYNS

 

You can read another of Stephen Dobyns’ poems, Yellow Beak, here (recommended!): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16845

 

He is a poet and an author, including the detective stories featuring Charlie Bradshaw, each title of which has Saratoga as the first word.

 

Here’s 2 somethings from The Porcupine’s Kisses:

 

Look at this dark night: no stars, no moon. Look at this crowd of

people. Do you know one better than the other?

 

It isn’t yours until you can stand to see it break.

 

The Porcupine’s Kisses (Poets, Penguin)

 

His book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, looks like a good way to pull myself further into this new world of the poem that I have started to enter. Here’s a bit more about Dobyns, from the Amazon.com review:

 

Dobyns, the author of eight volumes of poetry (and 17 novels), believes, like Baudelaire, that “each poem … has an optimum number of words [and] an optimum number of pieces of information … and to go over or under even by one word weakens the whole.” Poetry, he says, belongs to the reader, not the writer, and as readers, “at the close of the poem, we must not only feel that our expectations have been met but that our lives have been increased, if only to a small degree.” And, if that’s not challenge enough for the writer, add to it “that the conclusion of a given piece must appear both inevitable and surprising.”

Best Words, Best Order, 2nd Edition: Essays on Poetry

 

I’d add that a good story always seems that way — inevitable and surprising, just like a good life. Surprising at the time, but in hindsight, how could it have gone any other way?