‘On The Marriage of Art and Science,’ Sonya Dorman
we lean together over fuming acid
over the Bunsen burner’s small roar
stare out through a lens
to star’s fire
taking turns with the same equipment
you rise from your studies
holding a new crystal’s growth
and I sink back
from my labors with a poem in my mouth
I take object from my lips
five-pointed it’s like the cakes
our mothers baked
each with a red lamp a heart
in its middle
or it’s a five-fingered poem
here’s the life line that goes
all the way with no break
I carry the hand cake to you
you take a word from my cake
in your teeth
I bite off a research point
it makes a sound like a kiss
we go back to work
my poem smiling on your lip
your crystal sugaring my tongue
Sonya Dorman (1924—2005) was a science fiction writer and poet from New York City. She wrote mostly short stories, but was famous in and outside of science fiction circles for her poetry too, in particular her award-winning poem ‘Corruption of Metals.’
I chose this poem—or it chose me—on the merits of the last two lines, which should really be an image so common and trite I find it repellent, but for some reason it stood out to me. There’s a careful balancing act in this whole poem: the scene it’s showing is very straightforward and understandable, yet at the same time there is something of this poem which is always kept a mystery. The imagery of the “cakes” which seems to fluctuate (first it’s a descriptive comparison for a crystal, then the crystal seems to actually ‘become’ the cake—is this close to a metonym?), for example.
We are promised a poem which will tell us about the marriage of art and science, but do we really get that? With a different title we’d take it as a poem about a romance between two people, and nothing more; and perhaps this poem is nothing more than about how people with wildly different mindsets can find unity. But, in one of my typical indulgent moves, I also like the idea that the obscurity of this poem is very deliberate, and it is the overt efforts to make the reader ‘analyse’ the poem and decisions made by Dorman that is the ‘science’ here—pointing to what the unity of art and science really is.
‘Named,’ Stephen Dunn
He’d spent his life trying to control the names
people gave him;
oh the unfair and the accurate equally hurt.
Just recently he’d been a son-of-a-bitch
and sweetheart in the same day,
and once again knew what antonyms
love and control are, and how comforting
it must be to have a business card -
Manager, Specialist - and believe what it says.
Who, in fact, didn’t want his most useful name
to enter with him,
when he entered a room, who didn’t want to be
that kind of lie? A man who was a sweetheart
and a son-of-a-bitch
was also more or less every name
he’d ever been called, and when you die, he thought,
that’s when it happens,
you’re collected forever into a few small words.
But never to have been outrageous or exquisite,
no grand mistake
so utterly yours it causes whispers
in the peripheries of your presence - that was
“Reckless”; he wouldn’t object to such a name
if it came from the right voice with the right
amount of reverence.
Someone nearby, of course, certain to add “fool.”
Stephen Dunn (1939—) is an American poet, born in New York and has lived for most of his life in New Jersey. He was the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his collection Different Hours.
‘Named’ is on the very typical post-modern theme of identity, but what interests me mainly about this poem is how the structure seems to elevate the slight futility in trying to define your own identity, when it’s something largely defined by others. The shifting rhythm of the poem highlights the contrast between phrases of sympathy and patronisation, creating for me at least a far more interesting poem than one which simply focus on one viewpoint or the other.
‘Prayer to Granite,’ Sheila Nickerson
The children on the hill tumble.
We fear and call out, Come back!
Rock mothers listen without
comment. When their children
roll away—to the ocean to be
rounded—they do not say,
Come home, now, it is dinnertime-
lunchtime-bedtime. Rock mothers
do not cry in rage, expecting
their children to change.
What is gneiss of schist
will always be. Rock mothers
know what we cannot learn:
All is bedrock. With their
crystals locked in place, rock
mothers do not fear; but they
hear, and from every outcropping
bloom the visions of what they
hear: sand in the deserts, moss
in the forests, rainprints caught
in sandstone. Now, Mother Granite,
matriarch of feldspar, mica, and
quartz: hear and be kind to these
tumbling children whose rolling
bones will come back to you
no matter how I call.
Sheila Nickerson (1942—) is an American poet. Born in New York City, she spent many years in Alaska, becoming Alaska’s poet laureate in 1977. Much of her work has revolved around Alaska and Arctic exploration, most notably her non-fiction book Disappearance: A Map, which blends a tale of personal disappearance, Franklin’s Lost Expedition and other disappearances in Alaska, and the wild tundra landscapes.
‘Prayer to Granite,’ from Nickerson’s collection To the Waters and the Wild: Poems of Alaska is not specifically on this theme of disappearance, having been written many years before—but it’s certainly a theme which is useful to have in mind when reading the poem. The ‘disappearance’ here would be the ‘loss’ of children from a mother’s life: either literal, or simply more figuratively as they grow more independent. What I love is that this subject is treated with humour—the absurdity of pleading with granite is not shied away from—but this doesn’t lessen the ultimate heartbreak of the poem; Nickerson doesn’t need to use melodramatic language to do this, instead letting the subject speak for itself.
I love the conceit of praying to granite, too. Like all good conceits it plays with the imagery intelligently: introducing us to the topic (“Rock mothers listen without / comment”) and then developing it into more abstract imagery as the poem continues (“Rock mothers know…all is bedrock” “bones will come back to you”); using the imagery not just as idle metaphor but a real bouncing board off which the narrator’s arguments develop and change as she ponders more and more.
It also does a great job of placing us in the Alaskan wilderness; with very few descriptions, we can imagine the scene which causes these thoughts quite vividly. But for me there’s also an additional intelligence to the conceit—the unwielding and (forgive me) stony reaction of the granite shows us how fruitless the plea is: we are not emotionless rock, but soft humanity, and cannot ultimately let our children “roll away” without sorrow or some small sadness, knowing that they will always return to Mother Granite.
‘The List of Most Difficult Words,’ Len Roberts
I was still standing although
Gabriella Wells and Barbara Ryan were too,
their bodies dark against the wall of light
that dull-pewter December afternoon,
shadows with words that flowed
so easily from their mouths,
fluorescent and grievous,
pied and effervescent,
words I’d spelled out to the rhythm
of my father’s hoarse whispers
during our nightly practice sessions
beneath the dim bulb,
desultory and exaggeration
mixed with his Schaefer breath
and Lucky Strike smoke
as I went down
The List of Most Difficult Words
with a man whose wife had left,
one son grown into madness,
the other into death,
my father’s hundred and five-pound skeleton
of skin glowing in that beer-flooded kitchen
when he’d lift the harmonica
to blow a few long, sad riffs
of country into a song
while he waited for me to hit
the single l of spiraling,
the silent i of receipt,
the two of us working words hard
those nights on Olmstead Street,
sure they would someday save me.
Len Roberts (1947—2007) was an American poet, born in New York and living most of his life in Pennsylvania. He taught English Literature at Northampton College and the University of Pittsburgh for over 30 years, and published 9 collections of poems.
I find it hard to say what it is exactly I like so much about this very simple poem—but then its simplicity is a very large part of that; simplicity in subject but written in a complex way which brings out the beauty of that subject. It’s a poem about a very mundane happening, but it makes me think of how it can be mundane moments, and not the most melodramatic, that can bring to us emotions that are the most complex and hard to understand. It makes me think of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’ too: so much of the emotion in this poem is unsaid, going underneath the words.
I think this poem really works on the strength of it’s rhythm, something I am coming to appreciate more and more in poetry. Roberts has complete control of the meter and it works all the better in this poem as we sound out the words the same as the narrator must have. Those words become somewhat of a refrain for the poem—note how they lead us from specific time to specific time; it’s a very clever way of taking us through various flashbacks but making sure we aren’t ‘lost’ in that time skipping. The power of nostalgia is used really well too: the specific names of girls, which to me suggests a boyhood infatuation, to the childish capitalisation of the List, the senses evoked by the imagery, and the sudden ‘catching up’ of the ending which brings us with a whomp to the present, and causes us to re-evaluate the importance of these spelling exercises.
‘What Did You Do On Your Weekend in Vancouver?,’ Mark Granier
Walked with the traffic-stream over a high
humming bridge: airborne
before a strange city, its lives
crystallised, flickering with intelligence.
Backcloth of ashgreen mountains,
tangerine dusk, all the colours of elsewhere.
The voices whispering you should be 21
not 41 I crumpled up and let fall
over the rail, little bits
of flotsam that would find me later.
Sat at the window in Kitto’s Japanese restaurant,
wrote nothing worth writing, thought
nothing worth thinking, unless it was
“I’m here… here… here…”
(shadowface ghosting the glass)
held by the carnival of passing faces,
their tanned legs, their many hairstyles.
When it came down to it, did nothing at all
but come down to earth, in the air,
finding myself at last on a bridge
into a strange city.
Mark Granier (1957—) is an Irish poet and photographer, currently teaching Creative Writing at University College Dublin.
In ‘Weekend in Vancouver,’ Granier takes the role of the interloper, an outsider to the city. This dislocation is reflected in many ways in the poem—the couplet structure, for one, which breaks up the thoughts in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but most noticeably for me the lines ‘held by the carnival of passing faces, / their tanned legs, their many hairstyles,’ which presents us with quite jarring imagery of people dislocated from their bodies—or maybe the speaker so dislocated from people that they appear as these strange, almost grotesque visions. The speaker cannot place himself in the city (is he on a bridge in the city? Or so high above it that he’s ‘airborne?) and this displacement ultimately alienates him.
In this way, I feel, the poem reflects the somewhat contradictory role a poet must play generally—that is, they should be keenly aware of their surroundings and try to replicate them (whether it’s objectively or subjectively); yet, this positioning means they are always kept a certain distance from the world, and may never fully feel a part of it—at least, the speaker doesn’t appear to feel he is here. In that way, might we see the poem as ‘the bridge’ into the city—a pathway which leads the reader into the experiences the poet is trying to relate? Certainly it should be noticeable that the poem open and closes on that imagery.
‘Antenna Forest,’ Rolf Jacobsen
(trans. Robert Greenwald)
Up on the city’s roofs there are large fields.
That’s where silence crept up to
when there was no room for it on the streets.
Now the forest comes in its turn.
It needs to be where silence lives.
Tree upon tree in strange groves.
They don’t do very well, because the floor is too hard.
So they make a sparse forest, one branch toward the east,
and one toward the west. Until it looks like crosses. A forest
of crosses. And the wind asks
—Who’s resting here
in these deep graves?
Rolf Jacobsen (1907—1994) was a Norwegian poet—the Norwegian modernist poet, and one of the most important Scandinavian writers of the 20th Century. His early work, with its focus on industry and modern inventions like cars and turbines, meant he was associated with the Futurists, but as we can see here he took a far more ambivalent view to modernity.
To lament the loss of the natural world has become quite a cliché for poets, but what makes this poem transcend that limitation for me is that it gives us a far more complex understanding of the conflict between urbanity and nature than we might first expect. It is really more a reminder of just how susceptible to our environments humans are—that we might not be quite the masters of the world as we make ourselves out to be—and how these changes can creep up on us, almost surreptitiously. The poem uses a tactic of queering: presenting what we take to be “normal” as if it were alien, novel. And in doing so we realise how monumental these changes are—and what it is that we might have lost.
‘Another Dying Chieftain,’ Rayna Green
he was a braids-and-shades dog soldier
AIM all the way
reduced to telling white women
about coup counting
in a hotel room
where they wanted his style
and he wanted the reporters
so he seduced them with lectures
on the degrees of Sioux adoption
trying to make the talk
pass for battle
when the others came in
Indian women and not his tribe
they knew what kind of war was being fought
and one asked
when he was finished
what degree were you adopted in
when he shook his fist at her
it didn’t make headlines
there’s no good day to die
in these wars
Rayna Green (1942—) is a Cherokee from Oklahoma, currently heading the American Indian Program Office at the Smithsonian. Her work—and academic interest—often revolves around the representation of Native American women in both White and native contexts, and an anthology she edited, That’s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women is definitely essential reading for anyone interested by the topic.
‘Another Dying Chieftain,’ shows off another of Green’s attributes—her wit and scathing satire. On first reading the poem we’d be forgiven for thinking the poem was entirely sympathetic to the chieftain, sympathising with his frustration that his oppression—and resistance—has become nothing more than a fashionable interest for academics and liberals.
What to me makes the poem really stand out, however, is that it also criticises this yearning for recognition, and links it to masculine bravado. The giveaway for me is the reference to “a good day to die”: while attributed to Crazy Horse, this is largely a romanticisation of the truth, translated poorly, and made famous by the film Little Big Horn. The ‘chieftain,’ for all his good intentions, is stuck in mythologies of the past: “reduced to telling white women / about coup counting,” he finds his identity in masculine traditions in which he couldn’t possibly have actually participated.
Is there a hypocrisy too, or just irony, in that to identify most with this traditions he must confront or surround himself with white people? I can’t believe that the “kind of war” he fights would be so obvious as it might first appear—or why hide it in ambiguity? To me as much as the poem sympathises with the chieftain’s plight, it also doesn’t shy from condoning his actions as unproductive and self-destructive.
‘Protocols,’ Vikram Seth
What can I say to you? How can I retract
All that that fool, my voice, has spoken,
Now that the facts are plain, the placid surface cracked,
The protocols of friendship broken?
I cannot walk by day as now I walk at dawn
Past the still house where you lie sleeping.
May the sun burn these footprints on the lawn
And hold you in its warmth and keeping.
Vikram Seth (1952—) is an Indian novelist and poet. Across those styles is range is far-reaching: the verse-novel The Golden Gate or his saga of Nehru life, A Suitable Boy, are grand in scale, looking wide upon socio-political changes; his poems, by comparison, are neatly packed and intensely personal.
‘Protocols’ is one of my favourite Seth poems—not least because I think it requires bravery to write earnestly about such a personally embarrassing aspect of one’s self.
I think Seth was truly one of the first poets to really make me appreciate the use of rhyme beyond mere ornaments, and I hope reading it that you agree. His language is plain, never reaching for a thesaurus or beyond the immediate situation. But his use of form makes sure those words land with impact; perhaps not here, but elsewhere, Seth is a master of the ‘surprising rhyme’—his language so plain that we almost forget the rhyming pattern, and the rhyming word often undermining what’s gone before, or impressing a new perspective on the reader.
I also love those final two lines—it should be obvious by now I’m a sucker for dialectics, and the contradiction of wishing an unrequited lover the best in life while resenting they choose to live that life without you is put perfectly, and leaving that dazzling metaphor until the end ensures the poem goes out on a high note.
‘A Code Poem for the French Resistance (The Life That I Have),’ Leo Marks
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have,
Yet death will be but a pause,
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Leo Marks (1920—2001) was an English poet, playwright/screenwriter (he wrote the excellent Peeping Tom)and cryptographer. He showed a fondness for codebreaker from a young age, and during World War II worked for the SOE—the British espionage agency given the task of helping resistance movements in Occupied France.
One method for sending encrypted messages to agents in the field was to use poem codes. This page gives an explanation of how poem codes work, but the general idea is that the first few words of the poem are used as the basis for forming a cypher substitution; an agent familiar with a poem could then use it to decrypt secret messages.
While it is a strong method (for short messages), Marks quickly realised that using famous poems critically weakened the method—if the enemy could work out what poem was being used, then they’d be able to decrypt all further secret messages sent to and by the agent. Therefore, original poems had to be used—but memorable too, so that the agent wouldn’t have to write such sensitive information down.
This poem was written by Marks in memory of a girlfriend who died in an aircrash. It’s easy to see why it was chosen for a code: it’s simple language and use of repetition gives us immediately the urgency of the speaker’s voice, but also make it very memorable.
The French-British agent Violette Szabo used it as her poem code during her missions, as seen in the movie Carve Her Name With Pride. The use in that film was uncredited, but Marks later wrote about his time in the SOE in his book Between Silk and Cyanide.
‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge,’ Thomas Campion
Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love,
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.
This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.
Thomas Campion (1567—1620) was an English composer, poet, theorist and physician. He was very popular in courtly circles during his life time—writing masques for several nobles and royals of Europe—but following his death he fell into obscurity, partially due to the Puritan distaste for songs and dancing.
Although Campion’s works are often presented nowadays as ‘poems,’ most of them were in fact songs, and intended to be accompanied with music. Therefore they suffer in comparison to his immediate contemporaries—nothing of the rhythmic complexity of Marlowe, or the twists and turns of Donne’s excellent conceits. They’re simple, plain, and rely too often on cliches to fill the lines (and indeed he considered his lyrics frivolous). Yet if his rhythm or imagery are too simple that doesn’t make them totally flawed—and it is his use of rhythm here, I think, which makes the poem work—those long penultimate lines seem ungainly at first but they cleverly add a certain amount of closure and profundity to the poem, giving it a lasting impression.
Other poetry tumblrs:
- A Poem A Day
- Punch-in-the-face Poetry
- Visual Poetry
- Caribbean Writers
- Fuck Yeah Lesbian Literature
- Between Poems
- A Lady Poet A Day