Saturday, December 1, 2012

Camille Dungy: What Poetry Is About!

"What is your poetry about?" is the second question I often get at a party after a stranger has pried out of me some answer that includes the word "poetry" (usually after multiple ways of asking it) to the first question:"What do you do?"

If I'm in a good mood, I might say something like "I try not to limit my work to particular themes, but I suppose critics could find the same recurring ones that other poets have written about: sex, death, love, war..." If I'm not in a particularly good mood, I might say "They're not about anything. They're art: they're about themselves." Neither answer is completely true, nor completely false. I suspect other poets might equivocate (in their own ways), if asked the same question.

I enjoy reading the blurbs on books of poetry. (In fact, whenever I come to any book for the first time, I read every character on front and back covers, title page, contents, acknowledgements, notes, dedication, preface--all of it--before proceeding to the first poem or paragraph.) I like to know what landmarks other readers have seen in the work, so I can identify them on my tour, and look for new ones that they may have not mentioned--or even better, overlooked.

On the back cover of Camille Dungy's Smith Blue, the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, Alan Shapiro speaks of "exquisite moments of intimacy," Ed Roberson raises a signpost of "love"--not simply between parents and children, lovers and spouses, but love "for butterflies, things and their places." Taking a more holistic approach to the collection, Waters comments upon the landscape of "loss" that he found in the poems--"palpable, less spiritual than common though no less devastating, spoken by one not afraid 'to hear what quiet really sounds like.'"

Intimacy. Love. Loss. They are all present in some repeating algorithm, embodied in each poem in some proportion that balances each of the three elements out over the entire collection. Over an entire life. "After Opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love" is typical in this regard.

To love like God can love, sometimes.
Before the kettle boils to a whistle, quiet. Quiet
that is lost on me, waiting as I am
for an alarm. The sort of things I notice:
the bay over redbud blossoms, mountains
over magnolia blooms. There is always something
starting somewhere, and I have lost ambition
to look into the details. Shame fits comfortably
as my best skirt, and what can I do
but walk around in that habit? Turn the page.
Turn another page. This was meant to be
about love. Now there is nothing left but this.

And if you are not satisfied with the mix in the above poem, simply turn the page to another, for the next one will likely have two parts intimacy to each part love and loss. And on and on.

But it is the one phrase in Waters' comments that foreshadows what rises from Dungy's poems to meet me in my stillness: "by one not afraid." With lovers, with the natural world, with words, it is her vulnerability that allows the loss. Or intimacy. Or love.

See how, in these lines from "Daisy Cutter," Dungy lays her throat bare to the vicissitudes of love, with its required intimacy, its inherent loss:

I think of my life. The way you hold me,

sometimes, you could choke me.
There is no way to protect myself,

except by some brilliant defense. I want
the black iris with their sabered blooms.

I want the flamethrowers: the peonies,
the sunflowers. I will cut down the beautiful ones

and let their nectared sweetness bleed
into the careless air. This is not the world

I'd hoped it could be. It is horrible,
the way we carry on. Last night, you catalogued

our arsenal. You taught me devastation
is a goal we announce in a celebration

of shrapnel.

The poem carries its own weight, even without knowing that "Daisy Cutter," as Dungy explains in her "Note" section, "refers to a controversial cluster bomb called by that name."

What is poetry, if not a "Daisy Cutter," exploding its words into various shock waves of "devastation" and "celebration," depending upon each reader's/hearer's viewpoint, distance from ground zero, protective clothing, or a million other variables? What can be a fireworks display for some turns out to be permanent disfigurement or death for others.

Applying the question asked of me to Camille Dungy, "What is Smith Blue about?" Intimacy, love, loss? Of course. The human element, if authentically present, will always carry these, and more--vulnerability included. Blue Smith, like all poetry that is the real deal, is ultimately about the human condition, about people finding themselves in it (both the condition and the poetry), in order to connect with something within themselves, and beyond themselves, so they can truly be themselves.

This is what poetry is about--not expression, but discovery--put in compelling language by Dungy in these lines from "Five for Truth:" "Certainly, we all have heard something we haven't seen,/and the hearing,/which should have been an answer,/has become a question/instead."

In the future when I'm asked what my poetry is about, I hope I'm quick enough to loosely quote from the final lines to part 4 of the same poem:

It's about "knowing at which stage of my ruin, exactly, I plan to let myself fly."

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

My-Friend-The-Poet-Morris-McCorvey was the first person (and maybe still the only person) I have heard reply to the casual question, "What do you do?" with, "I'm a poet." Leaves 'em speechless every time. And he's also the first one to tell me this, "The poet's work is seeing." As sure as I am that, even thirty years ago, he was not the first to suggest such a thing , he was the one who set me thinking about it, working with it, teaching it, exploring it, writing about it. And that - I can't stop myself - has made all the difference.

If not everything, Discovery is almost everything! Morris might say, "Certainly, we all have seen something we haven't heard,/and the seeing,/which should have been an observation,/has become a poem / instead." No, he would never say such a thing. Way too awkward.

Across the years, I have explored and interpreted The Way of Seeing (which is the poet's way), and I have found this additional intersection with what I think you are saying about Dungy's way. I used to tell my high school students that seeing the way poets see is like falling in love with the universe. When you fall in love with someone (or thing or way), you see every aspect of the one you love with special attention, investing it with power and richness and meaning you have not seen before. You don't see anything else the same way. And there are two new things that you want to do with and for the one you love: 1) Have sex. 2) Write poetry. Thus, say I, writing poetry is like making love with the universe. It sounds like you and Ms. Dungy might agree. Along with My-Friend-The-Poet-Morris-McCorvey perhaps.