"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
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."
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Camille Dungy: What Poetry Is About!
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com