Thursday, 30 June 2016

Rebecca Watts: Emperor Penguin

(The Polar Museum, Cambridge)

                This afterlife
is inaccurate: everything here is dry.

                I try to make
a true impression, but the chick

                I've been given
refuses to play the part, persists with its leaning

                as if it could
imagine anything beyond our destiny.

                Before I was seized
my throat was an open channel,

                my beak
a conduit for the sea. It is not shame

                that forces
my head to hang: it is the inured act

                I've grown too stiff
to shake off. Chick even like this

                you look hungry.
There is no escape. Turn in and face up.

Published 2014. First the poet addresses the reader, then the penguin chick addresses the reader, then the poet addresses the chick – or at that point have they merged? They could be in the museum room ("Everything here is dry"), or in Antactica, the dryest place on Earth.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

David Ferry: The White Skunk

That glorious morning late in August when
The rosy-fingered dawn had scattered shadows
Away from the dreams I had dreamed the night before,
I looked out the back door of my condo, seeing
The parking lot we share, the cars we own,
And the houses all around, an embracing scene,
And there was Manfred and his small child Julia,
And, I thought for a moment, a little white toy
Trundling along behind her on its wheels.
But something was wrong with this. Julia, though little,
Wasn't so little as to be trundling such
A toy as what I thought I was seeing there,
On that glorious morning late in August when
The rosy-fingered dawn had scattered shadows.

And then I saw that the toy I thought I saw
Was not a toy but a little white skunk intently
Following Julia's legs and studying them,
And then, of course, her father had snatched her up
Into his arms, and was backing away from the skunk,
And kicking at it to get it away, but the skunk
Kept following, it seemed for a very long time,
As the three of them kept on this way on their way,
Julia crying now, a piercing cry,
And Manfred perplexed, a father protecting his child,
Backing away and saying, in a voice
Carefully calm and maybe pretending to be
Almost amused, "What should I do about this?"
Holding his child in his arms, having to keep
Backing away, unable to turn his back
On this bizarre studious creature following them.
Transfixed in the doorway of the place I live in
I stood there out of time, watching them go.

But then, as they were halfway down the driveway
The creature turned aside and disappeared
Into the tall grass alongside the driveway,
And Manfred, carrying Julia, was able to turn
And quickly make his way away from there
To the preschool across the street from the end of the driveway.
A moment later the skunk appeared again
And ran across the lawn beside our house,
Intently studying the ground, near-sighted
Creature reading the ground for information,
Moving about the yard between our house
And the kindred house next door, purposeful, wandering.
What was it trying to find? Where was it going?
A reader of the ground as if it were.

The walls of the facility at Mount Auburn
Where she kept wandering the halls, reading blank walls
To see if there was an exit there, or maybe
A bulletin board telling her what to do,
Telling her how to be there, or where to be,
Or what she was trying to find, or where she was going,
Intently studying where it was she was.

The skunk was white where a skunk is normally black,
And striped black where it's normally striped white.
Was it transmogrified? Come up from down there
In the Underworld where it could have been changed like that?
It came back over across the lawn toward where
I was standing transfixed in the doorway of my dwelling,
Its eyes still intently studying the ground,
Close reader of the text whose narrative
Or whose instruction it was following.

Orpheus, I, stepped back in nameless fear,
As it looked as if the skunk was reading its way
Toward the back porch steps up into my condo,
Coming toward me as if it were coming home.
And then the skunk ran past my back porch steps
Reading the ground, paying no heed to me,
And disappeared into the ground cover we planted
To ornament the door yard of our dwellings
Into the world the strange white skunk had disappeared from.

From Bewilderment (2012). A magical poem that stays rooted in the real world and simultaneously floats on reverberations from mythology and from the act of disappearing into another world through reading. Ferry's style here is explicity Virgilian: the following poem in the collection is a translation from Book VI of the Aeneid depicting the masses waiting to be carried by Charon across the Styx.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Basil Bunting: from Briggflats

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey's madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells' late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bull's hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworm's way.

The first verse of "Briggflats", published 1966. Rawthey is the bull's name. The whole poem is intensely musical, one of the loveliest in English from last century. In theory you should recite it aloud in a Northumberland accent, if you can do that.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Kathleen Jamie: The Hinds

Walking in a waking dream
I watched nineteen deer
pour from ridge to glen-floor,
then each in turn leap,
leap the new-raised
peat-dark burn. This
was the distaff side;
hinds at their ease, alive
to lands held on long lease
in their animal minds,
and filing through a breached
never-mended dyke,
the herd flowed up over
heather-slopes to scree
where they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.

Published 2014. The theme of the irrational, impossible escape into magic ("You'll be happy, but never go home") is a disturbing thread running through a particular kind of animal poetry, and not just animal poetry - viz. Charlotte Mew's eerie "The Changeling". In this poem, though, the ending feels slightly bolted-on: the detailed description of the waking dream is remote from the dreamer until the moment when the deer turn to invite her into the dream.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Rosemary Dobson: The Tiger

The tiger paces up and down
Behind the black bars of the page,
He pads on silent angry feet,
His heart is smouldering with rage.

Captive within the lines of type
He seeks, and yet can never find,
The world where he was free to range:
He is the poet's furious mind.

His are the unblinking eyes that stare
Into the gold heart of the sun,
He rakes the sky of stars and hunts
The darkness down, and is not done.

His was the world to roam, who now
Is captive to the black-barred page.
Reader, unlock the lines and face
The splendid danger of his rage!

Published in Child with a Cockatoo (1955). A gloss on every poem every written about tigers, panthers, jaguars, et al. Being a gloss, it's arguably over-explicit ("He is the poet's furious mind"), but by the end this doesn't weaken its narrowly focused achievement.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Osip Mandelstam: 'When the goldfinch...'

When the goldfinch, in his airy confection,
Suddenly gets angry, begins to quake,
His spite sets off his scholar's robes,
Shows to advantage his cute black cap.

And he slanders the hundred bars,
Curses the sticks and perches of his prison
And the world's turned completely inside out,
And surely there's a forest Salamanca
For birds so smart, so disobedient.

                                               December 1936

Tr. Andrew Davis. Mandelstam, then in internal exile in Voronezh, wrote several bird poems in this period: he was a caged singer. "Salamanca" might refer both to the city's famous university and to Cervantes / Don Quixote, fellow-prisoners of the state and of extra-worldliness.

Friday, 24 June 2016

John Kinsella: Owl

Massive owl in redgum surprised
in heavy moonlight by my passing:
a barn or boobook, quite different
though even a grey-white glow
could not illuminate identity.

So I went back to the place today;
a thin dead branch, not much more than a twig,
that took your eerie weight, phantom bird.
And below, an answer. A component
of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole.

A vengeful or indifferent or hungry bird
perched in calculation? Whatever the answer,
I went again tonight to see if your hunting
took you there: opportunistic or logical.
And clouds sweeping over the harsh moon,

what weight their stains would bear.
But you were not there; and why should you be?
It’s spring and the mice are opening gateways
everywhere: a vast burrowing and surfacing,
the small weight of their bodies adding up.

From Armour (2011). Kinsella seems to be burrowing into into thought the way the mice are burrowing into the ground. Is he escaping the danger represented by poetry, or trying to find a new path towards it?

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Christina Rossetti: Clouds

White sheep, white sheep,
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops,
You all stand still.
When the wind blows,
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go? 

Echoed in the Plath poem ("Sheep in Fog") I posted earlier; in fact the resonances are strong enough to be more than coincidence.