Getting Me in the Gut

Posted by on Monday, January 9th, 2006

I wanted to write at least one more post about Nuala (I feel disrespectful calling her that, but it’s just so much easier to type) before we move on to something completely different. But I feel like we haven’t really given her much of a fair shake yet, though I suspect, this blog is just going to be like that. Busy people Lanea and I are, and so far no one’s stepped up to take any of the pressure off of us for interesting content………

Well, for starters, I like Nuala’s work. (We’re allowed to say that, right?) Not all of it, but I really dig a large chunk of it. And at the same time, I can say with great certainty that I never would have picked it up on my own. (That’s what’s cool about this blog, right?) For one, I’m just not the Irish studies girl that Lanea is. For another, through the years, I think my interests have grown more…obtuse?…than they used to be. One of the reasons, actually, why I stopped writing poetry with any real urge to publish was I was beginning to see a huge divide between the kind of poetry that I write and the kind of poetry I read. I can’t seem to write things that don’t make a very tangible sort of sense–even if only to me–and the kind of poetry I tend to love is the kind of poetry that makes a very different kind of sense, that occupies a different syntax, that is very difficult to define in any other sort of tangible way. John Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach, John Berryman–these are my heroes. They create something completey new, something completely different, and almost wholly unrecognizable except on a purely emotional, tonal level for me. I mentioned to Lanea an article that I saw in the New Yorker on Ashbery recently (the New Yorker won’t make it available on their website, dammit, but it was in the November 7, 2005 issue, if you have the urge to hunt it down–and I urge you to.). In it, Ashbery talks about "resisting the impulse to make sense." He thinks of his poems as "environments, the idea being that an environment is something you are immersed in but cannot possibly be conscious of the whole of." While I think this statement is a particularly apt description of the poetry of the likes of Ashbery, I think it really says a lot about poetry in general, how we read it, what our brains do when we’re confronted with verse. The first reading of a poem is like walking into a room and taking in the overall atmosphere–the smells, the colors, the people. Then, as our minds are want to do, we begin to dissect the room into pieces, focusing on the sofa, the painting on the wall, the clock in the corner. While fiction is generally taken in in gulps, poetry slows us down and really makes us take things in bit by bit. But it also shows the fractured nature of our thoughts. Because really, I think it’s hard to talk about a poem as a whole. Because once we focus in on the bits, it’s not always easy to step back and fit them back into the poem again, at least not in the same way as that first reading.

That was a bit of a tangent, but Lanea talked a bit about why she loved poetry in her last post, and for me, it’s a twofold experience, and those two experiences don’t always fit together. One takes place almost entirely in the gut. It’s the music of words and the very base instinct of how certain words strung together in a certain order make me feel. This part has little to do with meaning, and more about sound, syntax, and gut reaction. Then there’s the cerebral act of slicing and dicing, of navigating the the poem for a deeper meaning. Some poems go in for the gut above all, some stir my intellect first and foremost. Many do both, but many are one or the other for me.

Anyhow, I was saying that I probably would not have arrived at Nuala on my own. But look at what I gained by finding her after all: a renewed appreciation for, plain and simple, well-crafted verse. In my previous post on Nuala, I did some of that intellectual slicing and dicing, and that’s all well and good, but part of me feels like sort of talking around Nuala in a broader sort of way today.

My least favorite of her poems are the ones that have what I think of as the most colloquial tone–for instance, The Head ("My auntie’s man, Tom Murphy has a talent / for identifying skulls.") and "In Memoriam Elly Ni Dhomhnaill" ("She got an honours degree / in biology in Nineteen-four"). These poems show that Nuala is as much storyteller or bard as she is poet, but I think I like her best as modern mythmaker (or borrower, as the case may be). "Bond" and "Nightfishing", as we already discussed, but also a poem like "Mac Airt" where she shows a wicked sense of humor in her "feminist footnote" of what appears to be a story of divine birth by rape.

I think Nuala also has a talent for lyricism. For instance, her use of repetition in "The Smell of Blood", "This Lonely Load", "Aubade", and "Word on the Wind". I also enjoy her variations on themes, like in "Ark of the Covenant", which reads almost like a laundry list of promises of things to come. Again, "Aubade" comes to mind, with it’s variations on "It’s all the same" and "it’s not all the same". This use of variation brings an intensity to the poem, like a jazz solo focusing in on a core theme, improvising around it until it reaches that one final note: "It isn’t the same at all."

I think another reason why I wouldn’t likely have found Nuala’s work on my own, and this is maybe a little silly, but I’m a city girl.  I mean, I moved from moderate sized city to big, big city for a reason. Nature, to me, is a pretty park at the intersection of two major streets, or Lake Michigan with what is essentially a major highway running not 50 yards behind it. Moving to the burbs a couple of years ago (the most urban of burbs), the sight of a rabbit in my building’s courtyard still makes me giggle. And, well, Nuala likes her nature. There is very little she writes that isn’t very connected to the land or the sea in an almost tactile way. This is a woman who isn’t afraid to get down on her knees in a poem, and stick her hands in the mud. Now, I used to read a lot of Mary Oliver a long time ago, but she was sort of nature-lite. You could picture her in full-on khakis and mosquito netting, on a pristine little perch a good fifty yards away, taking notes in her little notebook. Not Nuala. She’s right there in the thick of it. And it turns out, I respect that in her work. Whether it’s nature or whatever, there’s nothing distant about her writing. She’s really a poet that’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and really go at the jugular of the matter. It’s lovely. It’s refreshing. I’m glad we were introduced.

I leave you with another of my favorites of hers, "Miraculous Grass" (trans. Seamus Heaney). Because organized religion fascinates me as a born-again atheist.

There you were in your purple vestments
half-way through the Mass, an ordained priest
under your linen alb and chasuble and stole:
and when you saw my face in the crowd
for Holy Communion
the consecrated host fell from your fingers.

I felt shame, I never
mentioned it once,
my lips were sealed.
But still it lurked in my heart
like a thorn under mud, and it
worked itself in so deep and sheer
it nearly killed me.

Next thing then, I was laid up in bed.
Consultants came in their hundreds,
doctors and brothers and priests,
but I baffled them all: I was
incurable, they left me for dead.

So out you go, men,
out with the spades and scythes,
the hooks and shovels and hoes.
Tackle the rubble,
cut back the bushes, clear off the rubbish,
the sappy growth, the whole straggle and mess
that infests my green unfortunate field.

And there where the sacred wafer fell
you will discover
in the middle of the shooting weeds
a clump of miraculous grass.

The priest will have to come then
with his delicate fingers, and lift the host
and bring it to me and put it on my tongue.
Where it will melt, and I will rise in the bed
as fit and well as the youngster I used to be.

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