Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sheering Winds and the Gulf

I’ll admit it right up front:  Mary Margaret Carlisle responded to one of my previous posts, and I assume I will see her soon at the Walt Whitman Birthday Celebration at Lone Star College in Montgomery, hosted by David Parsons, himself a poet who will find himself mentioned again in these pages.  I have a couple of Mary Margaret’s volumes that I picked up previously at the Emily Dickinson Birthday Celebration, so Toss Me to the Waiting Sky (Poetry in the Arts) is the next volume to read.

I find an ekphrastic poem a good place to begin thinking about this book and the poet who wrote it.  Toward the end of the book is the poem “Branch of White Peonies and Pruning Shears” based on Edouard Manet’s painting with that title.  Below is the first strophe.

languidly sprawled
upon a sienna brown table
spreading petals
delicately curled at the edges
a branch of white blossoms
newly shorn
by a barely revealed
pair of pruning sheers (50)

Ekphrastic poems can be telling because they are a form in which a poet goes in search of subjects.  They are not poems written from immediate need or angst or joy, nor from current events, personal or political.  I hope someday to comment on Larry Thomas’s poems in The Skin of Light, and James Hoggard’s Triangles of Light (a book on Edward Hopper’s work), and Robert Wynne’s Museum of Parallel Art.  These books will probably tell us a great deal about their writers and what troubles them.

It is the last line of the strophe that opens up, for me, Carlisle’s poetry.  My reading of this poem and of so many poems in this book focuses on the “the barely revealed / pair of pruning sheers.”  We begin with a beautiful, closely observed scene, but there is always a realization of the effects of violence hinted at, barely revealed.  Life, the experience of life, is so wonder-ful, so sweet, but always in danger of being cut off, cut short.  Why select this painting of all the paintings to write about?  It’s the sheers, the homely, the everyday article, the tool in everyone’s garden, that hints at the fact that, somehow, beauty in its natural state is not enough for us.  We humans are compelled to possess, to own, to seek and claim and, often, to destroy. 

In the poem “Gadwall Duck Pond, West Texas,” Carlisle wrestles with a loss—“he won’t be back.”  It’s early winter, the pond is peaceful, like a mirror, with no one peering in.  Her temptation is to act, to control: 

I could chop another cord of logs
to stack beside the door before the flurries fall
or just give up, go home.
It’s just so quiet.  Can I make it through the winter?
Maybe I should close the cabin.  Sell it.  Buy a single condo
in the city.  Get a computer, TV, a telephone.  (page 21)

It just seems to be the net we are caught in as humans who live so much of our lives in noisy, distracting clusters of our cities:

This background of night
is the drone of highway traffic
hum of a neighbor’s air conditioner
songs of summer cicadas.
 . . . . The usual quiet stretch
between light’s out and dawn seems
endlessly interrupted by small noises
and the mockingbird atop
our fireplace chimney
opens and closes the golf umbrella
of sleep so often
silent midnight wakes us all. (“Is that Rain on the Roof?,” page 13)

You can’t get away from this being human—if you do, you wake and you’re back again and it is midnight.   As she writes about her son, in “Shearing”:  “Buddha smiling / before everything else follows.”

I wonder what the Gulf and living in Webster and so near Galveston has to do with this.  This is hurricane country, a place of temporary beauty and temporary terror.  Here you cannot expect anything to be permanent.

the roof tears off and up     the wind roars screaming
until a wordless silence drops
into the darkness
the only light a circle of stars until rain returns
followed by wind and it begins again  (“Rosemary for Remembrance,”  page 20)

There is in these six lines a narrative that I think peeks through many of her poems:  trauma, silence, trauma.  Or perhaps at other times:  peace, trauma, peace.  Time and place are both islands in which we humans live and work.

In “island girl,” Carlisle writes:

you are trapped
by the very thing
that has kept you safe
you cannot flee
beyond the harbor
of the tiny island
or yourself  (page 31)

In this poem, as in many of Carlisle’s poems, there are no capitals, no punctuation , no finality. 
“I become a solitary gull    a ship    a fish / a grain of sand upon the shore,” she writes in “Forming” (page 30).  Again, no punctuation, except for spacing, the blending and the isolation of syntax and white spaces. 

The title to this volume comes from the last line of a poem set on the Llano Estacado, another bare, isolating landscape.  She finds a mallard trapped, like the island girl.  In this case, the mallard is set free, and in this event Carlisle realizes she, too, is trapped, again like the island girl, in her own self: 

tethered tight by leather strands of memories.
I wonder—will I fly off alone
When life’s sharp knife cuts me free?
Or will I wait for someone else
To toss me to the waiting sky? (“Tethered in Llando Estacado,” page 42.)

What courage we have here!   Here is a woman willing to live in life’s temporary states, life’s isolated states.  Just toss me into the sky like a trapped bird set free.  There will be winds, there will be storms.  We are all shorn blossoms, cut from our root stock, petals lying on a brown table, birds set free.  

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