Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Monday, March 5, 2012

Jim Northrup, "wahbegan"

Didja ever hear a sound
smell something
taste something
that brought you back
to Vietnam, instantly?
Didja ever wonder
when it would end?
It ended for my brother.
He died in the war
but didn't fall down
for fifteen tortured years.
His flashbacks are over,
another casualty whose name
will never be on the Wall.
Some can find peace
only in death.
The sound of his
family crying hurt.
The smell of the flowers
didn't comfort us.
The bitter taste
in my mouth
still sours me.
How about a memorial
for those who made it
through the war
but still died
before their time?

This painful poem gets some of its power from the way it renders the idea of "flashback" in a subtle parallel structure.  The speaker's brother experienced a lingering repetition of his time in Vietnam through triggers of sound, smell, and taste.  In the same way, the speaker now lives with the constant recollection of his brother's death:  the sense experiences associated with the event continue to mark his life, so that through grief, he himself has taken on a sour taste.

What makes this loss harder to bear is that it is not publicly memorialized.  This lack is noted at the poem's halfway point and then repeated at the end, without any mitigation or resolution for its feeling of injustice.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Richard Wilbur, "April 5, 1974"

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

With quietness and precision, Wilbur gives us a narrative of a incident in early spring.  It happens as the poet is "strolling" in a "dull pasture," words which could suggest a life of unthinking habit.  He has gotten into something of a rut, maybe.  As he stares at the ground, what appears to be a radical change in the universe's physical constitution turns out to be the optical effect of a "subtle flood of steam" which has risen and drifted as the earth begins to thaw.

What seemed to be an unprecedented rebellion of "matter" itself against "natural law" was not really anything outrageous or new, but only part of the natural course of things. Still, there is sense that for the poet something new has happened--  "There was a subtle flood of steam/ moving upon the face of things."  For him, "the face of things," his perceptual experience of the world, has been changed in a way that though "subtle" is deeply important.  This movement of the steam has been a "flood"-- and even more Biblically, it has "moved upon the face of things," just as "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" in the act that began creation. 

The "rippling of the land," though an illusion, is a real indication of a new, unexpected vitality, for "It came of winter's giving ground."  As though making a crucial concession in an argument, the earth begins to lose its rigidity-- like "a set mind" realizing that its way of imagining the world, while not wholly false, has been too limited.  Winter is not the whole story.  To a mind thus restricted, the disturbing experience of "doubt" turns out to be a blessing, since it opens the way not to chaos and meaninglessness, but to "mother-wit," a perceptiveness that is older, more expansive, shrewder, more weathered, more generous.