THE NOTICE OF A LADY PRUNING
I came into a dangerous place,
A garden with high bushes and a yard
In which a plaster duck was sunning,
And mocking with its randomness
The eye’s notice of its particular.
The place was not particular.
Each day the sun brings this world’s new,
And lights its deathless essences,
And the green door of the garage
Grows more responsive to the light
Which heats its pealing surfaces
— Now at the garden’s unlatched border,
Quick, relating shadows crossed
My eye’s discovery—I thought
I was in the place before,
The sense of a succession broken,
Blurred by reasonable challenge.
Seeing, I was the sufferer,
Caught, like a ragtime trumpeter
Commuting the blood beats in his eyes,
Or Priam standing at the wall,
Compelled to see his children fall,
And the black thread of his miseries
Drawn across his careful eyes
— So I, drawn inward by the pull
Of the discharges of the garden.
Philosophy consoled my notice
With its deepening containment,
Allowing the stirred details to settle,
And the common frame of suffering
To close around the women spinning
The dull, random details of lives
Unworthy of holding to the light,
But trotting, in their lives, the ring.
There was a lady in the garden
Reaching to a bush with shears
The frail suspension of her arms,
Her failing hinges, baring her person
To the general eye of pity,
II. THE RETIRED MOTHER
It was a chickenwire fence
Around the garden every day
Whose arid boundary she enlarged
With new discovery of containment.
Often the roaming neighbor eye
Would find her in the spreading round
Of her exertion, nearly over,
Now leaning in the flower stands
Or reaching to a bush with shears,
Or walking with her labrador
Behind the straining, trembling leash
Two times around the empty pond.
Toward winter a son visited
And helped to fasten the storm windows.
He stood a ladder to the house
And climbed, she steadied from beneath
And in his shirt’s woven enclosure
She saw the strength of her son’s spine.
With much love later on she wrapped
The customary marble cake.
The tautological tramp of each thing,
To be this or that, regularly,
Each object made a thought and each
Made greater by the grave eye’s notice,
The precious square in which she stood
In her specific misery,
Reaching to a bush with shears,
The quiet days of her last years,
And the appreciate concern,
Each word a beautiful lineament
Of her soul’s infinite body.
Note : I spent much of my senior year at Harvard, l967-8, writing this poem for Robert Lowell’s poetry composition class. At the same time—I was 20-21 — I was writing my thesis on Chapman’s Homer, a minitious textual comparison of a passage in Chapman’s Elizabethan translation of the Odyssey with the Greek original. I was much taken by Chapman’s way of emphasizing the archetypal, Platonic function or -ness or “nature” of things, and that sort of self-consciousness infuses the language of “The Notice of A Lady Pruning,” the eye’s “discovery,” “the frail suspension of her arms,” “his shirt’s woven enclosure,” etc. My ambition was to become a poet in the grand tradition, and Lowell was the greatest living poet, Frost having died. Lowell was severely manic depressive, and when he came to our classroom he would sometimes sit for 20 minute, in such a dark state that he was unable to speak. But when he pulled himself together, he was absolutely brilliant.
Lowell didn’t think much of this poem. He thought the best one I showed him was a much shorter one, called “To My Father.”
To you who aren’t thoughtful in this fashion,
Who finds in my unrest a waste of passion,
And in the wrenching of my words no task,
What shall I answer when you rightly ask
The possibilities of this dark age?
I only know to beg a father’s courage.
In those days a great poet was still considered to be an oracle of his time. That ended with the death of Frost, was the hoary voice of America. The Harvard English Department was still worshiping the canon of T.S. Eliot, and “The Notice of a Lady Pruning,” with its classical allusions, must have been one of the last ambitious efforts in that tradition. The Atlantic turned it down, and it has lain mouldering in a trunkful of juvenilia in my study in the Adirondacks until this moment, when I have fished it out, looking for evidence, for a book on Tibetan Buddhism that I am writing, that I was even then aware of samsaric, neurally modulated nature of perception.
One day, I heard “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” and realized that he was the oracle of my time, the sixties, which I would not fully embrace until a few years later. Overnight my role model changed from Eliot to Dylan, and by l970 I had morphed into a singer-songwriter. By then, poetry no longer played a central role in the culture. It was operating in a cultural vacuum. Poets had become, to borrow a metaphor from the western spadefoot toad, a shrinking pool of carnivorous tadpoles, competing ferociously for limited grants and niches in academe. Success as a poet became a matter of muscling your way into the little grupinho, winning a prize became a much function of the poet’s political skills as his literary talent. It wasn’t a game that I had much interest in playing, and accordingly my Muse croaked on the night police beat of the Washington Post in the riot-torn summer of l968.
Is the same thing now happening with “literary non-fiction,” the genre I began to practice in the mid-seventies, with John MacPhee and Peter Mathiessen as my role models. The sort of rigorous, classic liberal-arts education I had, with eight years of ancient Greek, etc., is now obsolete, according a recent broadcast on Vermont public radio. There is so much information out there that people only have time to absorb brief treatments of any one subject. The culture is morphing very quickly, and I don’t have much excitement about where it is going, and or much interest in trying to keep up with it, in learning the hip talk of gen whatever. So this site has become not only about vanishing species and cultures, but of a vanishing breed of writer—moi. I guess I’ll just keep doing my thing, and we’ll all go out together.
But there is still a place for poetry, especially in other cultures where it is still appreciated. It is an elemental form of expression, like music, that wells up from the depths of our being. My old friend from New Hampshire hippie days, John Van Hazinga, who is living like a crazy yogin/sage alone in the woods, growing fruit trees and grafting new strains of fruit, writes haiku-like poems, sometimes several a day, that he e-mails. I call them hazinkus. Here’s one called “Another Poem Ending in Mayonnaise” :
All I really want to do
is play farmer.
Put on my bib overalls,
load my donkey cart,
Head down the highway
to peddle my wares,
While sipping plum wine
from a jar
That once contained