Real-life Poetry Top Ten, February 5, 2021:
Donna de la Perrière edition
1 make it new
When I read Donna de la Perrière’s poems, it is as though (I am as though) I have been told about poetry all my life but am only now reading poetry for the first time.
2 how did this happen
At Brown, in 1991, late August or early September, I heard Donna read a draft of her poem (she called it a short story at the time) “Occupational Marks and Other Signs” (she called it “Duino” at the time). I felt physically as if the top of my head were taken off:
it will probably go away you will concentrate think
clearly but still this other thing is happening also
imagine for example the scene of a hunt people
crouch in thick animal skins fires are lit in progressively
widening arcs on the floor something quiet and
thorough and violent consider crossing yourself or
screaming consider what might occur if you fought
your way out of this room consider what they would do
if you suddenly just now flew away out into the air
Above all, the music, the melodic and rhythmical control; the poem shocks me in so many different ways at once. It connects as a kind of negative transcendentalism, or a kind of shimmering negation, luminous negation; it channels these things, it is, to use an old-fashioned word, vatic, and it is utterly unpretentious. I could tell right away that I was in the presence of a new reality.
The poem reminds me a tiny bit of Plath, but it is much more poised, much more self-aware (N.B. I love Plath); it reminds me a tiny bit of The Hotel Wently Poems, but it is much more open (N.B. I love Wieners), and, yes, the structure of the poem, its emotional trajectory, its through-line, and its trace, are gorgeously experimental (and that word still matters).
3 yes, Rilke
And yes, of course, the poem is an oblique meditation on The Duino Elegies, but it is not merely scholarly; it is profoundly learned, profoundly inventive and imaginative; if you want to think about Rilke you should, but you don’t need to: the poem is metaphysical realism, a spiritual and phenomenological potboiler, embodied and enacted in a secular present haunted by messengers:
after God there were angels they came out of the dark
come like old acquaintances
interesting if not entirely friendly
the day they return you do the regular things
ignore them briefly then pay some attention
we are not biologists
this question: what is body and your eyes
can hardly make out the way it shades
off into the other thing something glows
just next to your eye spine curved back like
a fish all those ridges backbone landscape
the places where you decided
not to go
4 a different way to be life-affirming
I am amazed by the poem because it is despairing and horrible and it also finds a way to be (not just persuasively, but) authentically life-affirming:
light and air falling from wires
try to explain why the basic impurity
of light air water
misjudgment misunderstanding all of it:
the blank surface the false start
the eye just missing
Of Saint Erasure (in which “Occupational Marks and Other Signs” appears), Claudia Keelan wrote:“Here, physical law is what guides, and, though the poet, despite postmodernism’s plethora of claims, is not a biologist, it is nonetheless in the recognition of the ultimate ‘desertion’ of physical life that poetry, in the hands of a poet as wise as de la Perriere, stakes its powerful claim: it helps us die.”
5 the voices
The voices in de la Perrière’s poems are often in difficulty, and they are often movingly aware of their own unresolvable conflicts: the poems frequently begin in medias res, in the middle of the action of catastrophe: here is the opening of “Reaping Wheel”:
That was our arrangement. I would look at you. I would see that you were beautiful. From far away. This is a story about distance.
You were beautiful. I couldn’t say anything. Living entirely in my own head.
The movement from past, to possibility, to impossibility, to present, back to past (movement as statement of paralysis) creates a map,
maybe a world, a circuit of desire that becomes a process of becoming.
6 the voice against herself
The speaker seems to indict herself in the process of discovering herself:
This is easy, this is heaven. This is perfect. I didn’t say anything. I wanted to come home. I didn’t know anything. Like a river that
fights its own bed. (This is heaven, this is easy.)
The poem swerves, to a different, but not separate, story, a different place made of the same language world:
O old friend. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t take it, he rode it out as long as he could, and it was my hometown, the year everything went
wrong: the blood pooled on the sidewalk, the smoke and cinders from the burned theatre, the railroad depot where the chateau once
stood, the motorcycle overturned in the creek, the ever-loosening grip.
The poem is the theater in which the speaker challenges and disqualifies her voice, her language, her ability to be aware or to have been aware in the present (in what was the present all too briefly):
I’m writing it down, in the wrong window, in the wrong language and decade.
“Window” here is wrong and perfect, like death. Perspective becomes voice, and, by the way, the speaker is addressing death (the perfect kiss, the perfect apostrophe):
When you touched a friend of mind, I thought I would lose my mind. But really, I was not ready. (O death, O death, you’re cruel and
you are constant.) He’s all lost, and everyone is gone, it’s a ghost town, and really I was not ready.
The readiness is all, and we are not ready. That a poem can embody such awareness of difficulty and limit is an astonishing gift.
So to sing the soul, so to sew the soul. And what is self but memory of soul. Memory or trace, memory or monument (the frailest monument).
Yeats calls the aging human body “a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick” unless it is animated by the soul that claps and sings it into meaning.
One of the most radical things de la Perrière does is to locate soul-singing (and soul-making) in the dying and suffering body. (The word radical is still important, too, even though I challenge my own need for it. Radical means root.)
8 now what?
Here, in its entirety, is “Even your breath can’t save you, / even your bones give you away”:
this repulsion or simply
an abandonment of moving forward
was called into question
was parsed and undone
a temptation of bones was held as if cradled
was heralded belief-ridden
was called sister, sister
was called into being as a hospital garment
was called into being as a thousand small hands
was parsed and undone (as if held, as if cradled)
lifting up from the window was the barest of flags
and the veil gone to seed
was boundried belief-ridden
from breath from a word
was the barest of flags
was called sister, sister (was held, as if cradled)
by the hospital garment which falls as it will
The body is the winding-sheet, the body becomes soul-making, not hope but mercy.
9 direct address
So to sing the soul, so to sew the soul. So the self-in-process is made and unmade, woven and unwoven, and the poet knows with her very, very remarkable musical grace what the (provisional, contingent) pieces of identity are, and the poem reimagines elegy, so that each possible facet of the transgressive female subject is loved.
Here is “Mère”:
The old women rose with the moon
twisting their gnarled arms across the sky
they hovered over the places they had walked
they passed the houses where they had lived as girls
the dark, pine-arched roads here they had received first kisses
and clutched at boys or other girls in the quickening dark
they passed the hospitals or rooms where they had birthed children
they passed the graves of children, they passed their own graves
they tore light out of the stars and wore it as cloaks
other light they flung to earth where it split apart and shattered
they crowned each other with the wrecks of their longings and despairs
they fell apart, cohered again, they spun with the weather
they watched the world flame out, ignoring them at best or hating them
they rose over the ridge like a troop of fixed stars
The poem greets injustice and life and justice and says farewell in the same breath. And because there is love, there is triumph, though it diminishes the triumph to put it that way. There is the quest for reality, the quest for justice (and the resistance to closure) (soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing).
10 my whole life
Reading your poems has been the greatest privilege of my life.