Sunday, January 15, 2017


My local library has been culling its collection. They are removing titles that are rarely checked out and then the Friends of the Library are selling said titles through their store for a couple of dollars per book. I recently acquired two hardbound books of poetry that have been handled by few hands and have given me the gifts of poems I cannot imagine having waited so late in my life to have the pleasure of reading.


"...the moon and moon, / The yellow moon of words about the nightingale / In measureless measures, not a bird for me / But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air / I have never—shall never hear."

When I first encountered American Sonnets, an anthology edited by David Bromwich, on the shelf, I opened the book to a random page. Page 89 contained "Autumn Refrain" by Wallace Stevens. I read the poem about three or four times right there, trying to figure out what Stevens was doing. A bit stunned, I immediately opened the book back to page 89 and read "Autumn Refrain" another five or six times. Over the next few days, I would read the poem many times.

I love the repetition of words and phrases throughout the poem—"moon," "skreak," "skritter," "gone," "stillness." I love the lilting, lumbering, stumbling rhythm of the lines. (And yes, there is both the lightness of lilt and weight of lumber in this poem, simultaneously and paradoxically.) I love the sound and stillness that is established. I love the darkness of the scene. I can hear the bird calls, even as I cannot.

I may never know what a "measureless measure" is, but perhaps if I read this poem a few more hundred times, all will be revealed.


"First, there was the heaving oil / heavy as chaos; / then, like a light at the end of a tunnel, // the lantern of a caravel, and that was Genesis."

"Bone soldered by coral to bone, / mosaics / mantled by the benediction of the shark's shadow, // that was the Ark of the Covenant."

"and these groined caves with barnacles / pitted by stone / are our cathedrals, // and the furnace before the hurricanes: / Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills / into marl and cornmeal,"

When I first picked up Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, edited by Edward Baugh, I was once again struck by the first poem I read. In this case, it was the second poem in the book—"As John to Patmos" from In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962). Walcott's comparison of the religious exile John to his "prison island" of Patmos as (I am assuming) with the inhabitants of Walcott's home island of St. Lucia was both confounding and beautiful to me.

However, I bounced around in the book and came upon "The Sea Is History" from The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979). Once again, I was stunned by a poem I was reading and have been reading it over and over since.

In "The Sea Is History," Walcott marries biblical history, salvation history, to History with a capital "H" and to the history of the slave trade and the people that were abducted from West Africa and ended up in the Caribbean (literally and literally). His hand appears to be so light and deft, even as I can imagine him wrestling with the text to find the perfect word, to break the lines just right, to make the rhythm and meter work.


I am grateful for finally discovering each of these poems, whose words will now live on in me for quite some time.

Can I hear a bird's song the same again?

Can I read the Bible the same again?

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