Only two poems in the December 2006 Poetry seriously engaged my attention. The first is Mary Ruefle's “The Bunny Gives Us a Lesson in Eternity,” which wonderfully begins “We are a sad people, without hats.” The entire poem sounds at least as good and sometimes better, as in this pair of lines about the bunny the sad people are watching read the sad people’s ancestor’s tombstones while around him other bunnies are, as the poet says, “screwing”:
Look how his mouth moves mouthing the words
While the others are busy making more of him.
Soon the more will ask of him to write their love
But I’m not convinced, or at least not enough to think it worth the effort to decide whether it’s worth the effort of deciding whether there’s anything here beyond cleverness and a good ear. The short selection of Ruefle’s poems here is not encouraging.
But perhaps I’m just tired (or even old!) since I feel even more formally indifferent about the second, Charles O. Hartman’s “The Strange,” a sometimes haunting poem which seems to me to be about the loss of a grown daughter, first mentioned in the 4th of 9 stanzas:
Times change by rungs and you bring
a child to an altered world.
Then woman. Then gone. I’m so
big beside the trusting bird—
slope patiently trodden up
by a populace of gifts.
Witness the blue, decrepit,
greasy cat in the guest room,
marking time. Witness catnip
gone to such prodigal seed
in the fallen flowerbox.
She would have said, the catnip,
your catnip, with a mocking
eye. It isn’t that I don’t
remember, only that things
grow well beyond me. Alone,
the dead oak whitens daily.
Beetles in the winter cord
multiply like dragonflies
over grass, like wishes. Look,
I break off there because that’s enough to show the visual conceit of the poem: 5-line stanzas, but a 3-line pattern of indentation, so that every third stanza has the same shape. Why? Once again, I just don’t even want to think about the work involved in discovering why.
Now, does this lesson my enjoyment of these two poems? Not in the last couple of days, as I’ve returned to them many times. But I doubt I’ll seek out other poems by Ruefle or Hartman, and I doubt that I’ll return to these two next year, or even next week. Clive James’s brilliant set of meditations, ”Listening for the Flavor: A Notebook“ (the best thing in this issue), makes a stab at, among other things, separating “poetry” from “a poem.” Poetry (losing the quotes) may live by moments, as Pound wished to have it, but a poem joins the moments up. James doesn’t quite argue (“plausible,” he says) that formal poems are more likely to contain their moments, to make themselves more memorable than their memorable parts. Whatever their larger work is like, the devices employed by Hartman and Ruefle in these poems seem either too local or too arbitrary to support a poem as opposed to poetry—I’ll remember "We are a sad people, without hats" and that 5 X 3 long after I've forgotten where they come from. I might very well be missing wonderful poetry, but there’s only so much time.
Tomorrow I’ll take the time to write about Paul Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes, and my excuse is that it’s reviewed by Brian Phillips in this same issue of Poetry. I wasted a year not reading this book, which I only bought about a month ago. Hey, and Muldoon is now the poetry editor of The New Yorker!