Jun 21, 2012

Chloe Honum, "Spring": Another Kind of Rebirth


While looking for seasonal poems a few weeks ago, I came across Chloe Honum’s “Spring” (at Poetryfoundation.org, which just keeps on giving), and it’s a fitting poem with which to say goodbye to spring.

Depression and suicide are sadly common subjects among writers, but the first line of “Spring” still grabbed my attention. Even in its plainness it’s dramatic, and I wondered if the whole poem would prove overly dramatic? Will it be a confessional poem on steroids, trying to outdo Plath, Sexton, et al?

As for the poem’s relevance to spring, traditionally viewed as the season of birth and renewal, I wonder if Chloe Honum also has in mind T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month” and the fact (if it is one) that spring is the most common season for suicide? Whether or not that’s relevant, she is offering a new, tough, and imaginative take on old ideas. Also, her spring, unlike Eliot’s has at least as much pleasantness as darkness, in spite of the mother’s attempted suicide.

“Spring” is full of surprising images, which are expressed with leanness and torque. The opening juxtapositions tell us to fasten our seatbelts. Paraphrased, the first stanza gives us something like this:

         Mother attempted suicide.
         Icicles are dripping.
         Our house has a raincoat
         but we couldn’t make it wear that coat.

I feel punched—in a good way—by the unexpectedness of each new line and its connection (or apparent lack of it) to the surrounding lines.

The overall pattern of the poem also has movement and variety. After the uneasy opening, stanzas two and three are mostly homey and comforting—garden, birds, woods, daisy chains. However, we do have the combination of “bickered” and “prayed” to keep us off balance. (I might even hear an echo of Eliot’s “wept and fasted, wept and prayed,” but that’s probably far-fetched).
Then there’s a turn to a lyrical mix of philosophy and science in the final quatrain. What I hear at the end is that the mother, though alive, has fallen, and earth catches falling things; gravity is good. But it doesn’t catch moonlight, which goes right through cedar and rock, and moonlight might describe the state of the mother. She has only attempted suicide, not completed the act. It makes at least some kind of psychological sense to offer that she is (and the children are?) in a luminous state of dream or surrealistic drift.

The moonlight has “no pace to speak of.” What does that mean? Is  moonlight so outside our understanding of time, space and matter that its speed is incomprehensible? Again, we have probably entered a dreamy realm beyond logic and measurement. Is it a good thing if a human mind or soul passes through cedar and rock, avoiding collision and destruction? Or does that mean the mother keeps on dreamily falling forever? Or is it both?

Poetry has long offered the possibility of opposites coexisting (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is my favorite example; Keats’ “Cold Pastoral” is another). Scholars have posited that paradox is the very language of poetry; poetry must be allowed to transcend logic in order to offer the possibility of supra-rational ways of being.

Those ways might seem contradictory in our temporal, rational state, but what good is eternity or the sublime if they are bound by the same rules and restraints we find in our physical lives? And how is a poet to suggest such a realm beyond reason if not through paradox—which, we must remember, is only an apparent contradiction in terms?

“Spring” manages, in language accessible to sixth-graders, to present age-old complexities about states of being that whack science and philosophy upside the head.
And as we look at the poem’s particulars, how can we not be intrigued by a house’s raincoat?  “Birds flew from the woods’”—for a second that sounds ordinary. But we notice there’s also an apostrophe—these woods possess something, and that’s left dangling at the end of a poetic line. For an important moment we’re left hanging in the mystery of space between one line and the next  (“hanging in the enjambment”—that ought to be the title of a book).  We’re waiting breathlessly to find the mystery solved by the upcoming line, where we find “fingertips.”

Well, of course, the woods’ trees have fingertips! What is more fingertip-like than the tree-line of a woods in, say, early April? It’s a wonderful image, adding a lyrical originality to the familiar comparison between tree branches and fingers (or arms). And the birds—they belong in trees, of course, but when they fly from a tree’s fingertips, they become at least a little magical.

So does the entire poem, as it wonders just how to embrace or say farewell to a season full of images and contradictions that are all at once awe-ful, magical, mystical.



Anonymous said...

You having problems with your links, cupcake?

Banjo52 said...

Not again!??

Banjo52 said...

Pretty sure it's OK now. Technoplebe here.

Jean Spitzer said...

Love the photo of the velvet antlers. Like the poem.

Literal me will now point out that moonlight does not pass through cedar and rock.

PJ said...

I've spent this Spring landscaping, creating "rooms" on my half-acre. They're innocent enough, nothing sophisticated, but it's a still a matter of control and creating a place to be. Suicide must be seeing that only one act can accomplish something akin to that, that, "Finally I'm in control." Me, I trust process not solutions.

Anonymous said...

This poem is haunted, isn't it. The first line is so similar in delivery and content to: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure." (And yes, that's a hybrid of other translations.)

Nothing hits harder than the unthinkable or unbearable told flatly. And then that lovely elegiac tone and image at the end.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, thanks--I felt lucky there. Your reading may be literal, but we have to take it into account and wonder why Honum seems happy to ignore it (transcend it?). I don't think we should ever ignore the literal, though dealing with it can be difficult. I used to tell kids, "A tree may be symbol, but it's still a tree."

Paula, that, plus brain chemistry, is the most common explanation of suicide I've heard. It makes a chilling kind of sense. I wish I could say what you do about process. I do try.

AH, I like "haunted" AND your paraphrase of the first line. Your second para. is precisely what kept me coming back to the poem. I knew I found it quizzical, but liked it OK or better. With every reading I liked it more.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

When something dreadful falls on a beautiful day.

Rune Eide said...

I will have to step aside on this one. Eight years ago, in spring, I had a successful heart transplant. To me, personally, spring means "life".

Banjo52 said...

PA, yep.

Rune, Once again, congratulations. I cannot imagine what that must be like. The logic I've heard about "the cruelest month" is that we sense at some level that renewal is popping up all around, but we do not feel renewed.

I'm pretty sure I've never consciously been aware of that; spring is still a fine thing to me, though I'm not sure I prefer it to fall. Also, I wonder if we make too much of the seasons if we don't live in an agrarian culture. And of course most do not these days.

Brenda's Arizona said...

"All that falls is caught." Does the poet think mother will be caught? Or was mother like moonlight? The essence of mother would pass through cedar and rock, even if moonlight doesn't. (Literal, just like Jean...)

Spring isn't supposed to be depressing. This poem is.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, is there no potential for something positive or simply neutral in what happens to the moonlight?

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