Thursday, May 17, 2018

Leslie Saunders: 'Praise song for a pair of Earrings'. Puzzling over value #6

First the whole poem.  from  Nominy-Dominy, by Leslie Saunders  published by Two Rivers Press. 2018
Praise song for a Pair of Earrings 
‘Then Anchises by divine will and destiny lay with the immortal goddess, the mortal, not knowing the truth of it….’

A man may be shipwrecked in a dozen different ways,
by how a far-off cloud resembles land, the longed-for
shore obscured by mist and glimmer; or by how

across a room of friends an unknown woman looks
at him a moment longer than she should-and so
a suitor may wait a lifetime for his lover. Or, maybe,

just this once, his luck is in; a goddess has fallen
for a mortal man. He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

by love and all its dusky fingerings, its sweetest
of nothings. She’ll be his bride. His hands tremble
as he fumbles with her girdle, trespassing, lingering,

then lifts the veil-god-her beauty is unbearable.
He shades his eyes from the blaze, the torques and cuffs,
in her soft lobes the flower-buds of hammered gold;

then the tumbling crown of hair. He knows, and chooses
not to know, the truth. From somewhere deep within
he cries her name, a wedding-bed is made, and history begins.

It is a sign of the current climate in poetry world that calling something clever needs an immediate qualification. Clever carries with it a host of accompanying adjectives like elitist, and the sense that something that is exhibiting  'cleverness’ is somehow incomplete or lacking.
This is a clever poem. Clever here is a straight-forward compliment. 
In a world of selfie poems, which seem like nothing more than weather reports from a country you didn’t know existed and have no desire to visit, and the opposite extreme where syntax does acrobatics and the screams of the plundered thesaurus echo along the lines, it’s easy to forget that there are still poets writing intelligent, memorable, well-written poems which offer the reader more than the spectacle of the poet writing a poem.
This poem comes from the book Nominy-Dominy. I am not this book’s Model Reader. I have very little knowledge of Classical literature, not having been to the kind of school where Latin and Greek were taught. Poems that not only allude to stories but rely on that extra textual knowledge for their effect, are always in danger of seeming willfully obscure to those of us who don’t know that story.  
However, Saunders sidesteps that problem in this poem in two ways. The first is by providing an epigraph. Even if you don’t know the specific story to which it alludes, it provides an adequate outline: a man sleeps with a goddess. The second way is more interesting and is a characteristic of Nominy-Dominy:  myths are always potential metaphors. They are often specific, idealized or perhaps distilled versions of a general experience. 
The opening of the poem shifts the story into metaphor; ‘meeting as shipwreck’, and in doing so manages to suggest the experience is universal and timeless. The shift occurs in the first two verses, from shipwreck taken literally to shipwreck as metaphor; that sudden moment of arrested recognition across a room, capturing that strange moment when, for once, the story plays out immediately in all its unexpected, baffling euphoria.

A man may be shipwrecked in a dozen different ways,
by how a far-off cloud resembles land, the longed-for
shore obscured by mist and glimmer; or by how
across a room of friends an unknown woman looks
at him a moment longer than she should-and so
a suitor may wait a lifetime for his lover. Or, maybe,
just this once, his luck is in; a goddess has fallen
for a mortal man. He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

The language of the poem is proof that the thesaurus is not necessary. A good poem can be written without the poet searching desperately for words that no one else would think of using. Although some of the expressions could be described as commonplace if you were wedded to the idea that poems must be 'verbally inventive': ’just this once, his luck is in’, there’s a lyricism to the lines, and the way the words are marshaled and what they are doing that makes them work. 
You can see the skill required for such ‘plain English’ if you try and alter the words. Take ’that she’s girlish, untouched /by love and all its dusky fingerings’ and try changing or removing the adjective ‘dusky’.  
Once the opening lines shift the specific story into metaphor, the poem becomes a way of thinking about what happens when one person falls abruptly for another; the odd ways in which understanding and knowledge play against willful not knowing, contained in the apparently simple phrase ‘He knows, and chooses/ not to know, the truth’.
Everything leads to the revelation: ‘her beauty is unbearable’. In the poem, he recognizes the goddess. It’s a neat but complex image: on the one hand, there is that moment of awed recognition when the reality of the other is revealed. On another, the sense that recognition shocks us into realizing we had underestimated either the other or the encounter.  Whatever was casual or insignificant or commonplace about this event is abruptly challenged by this moment of awareness.  
As with the diction, the poem is quietly impressive technically. There are only two end stopped lines and one of them is the final line.  Sentences run over stanzas pulling the reader onwards. While this is not in itself remarkable (most of the poems in Nominy Dominydo this), in this specific case, form preforms content.   
He’s ready to believe whatever
she may tell him-that she’s girlish, untouched

by love and all its dusky fingerings, its sweetest
of nothings. She’ll be his bride. His hands tremble
as he fumbles with her girdle, trespassing, lingering,

then lifts the veil- god-her beauty is unbearable.
 That abrupt stop after ‘nothings’ followed by the shortest sentence in the poem arrests the man’s progress as he falls and shipwrecks on her beauty. The poem too falls, in a series of tumbling lines and stanzas until: ‘Then lifts the veil-god-her beauty is unbearable.’
The heavily end stopped line performs the ship wreck. Though if you spend too long thinking about this, you’ll end up wondering why ‘god’ and not ‘gods’ and that’s a rabbit hole worth going down.
The last line ends 'and history begins’. The statement is doing double duty: history as the story of the couple, their time together, the version of the meeting they will relate later, and whatever happens next that is caused by this meeting. It’s also (probably) a reference to the results of Anchises’ decision. In the Roman’s national epic, the product of this meeting will found Rome and his parentage will be used as a guarantee of Rome's divine destiny . 
Another pleasure of this book, is that after you’ve enjoyed the poems as poems, there’s the pleasure of discovering more about stories you didn’t know. A writer in medieval England might think that British history begins in this meeting, and that is a story worth pursuing.   
Although I’ve just spent over a thousand words enthusing about this one poem, without in any way exhausting what is good about it, the quality is characteristic of the other poems in the book. Enthusings about the whole book should follow but if you like this poem, then the book is full of similar pieces and the quality is consistent throughout. 

From Nominy-Dominy by Leslie Saunders. Published by Two Rivers Press. 2018