May 28, 2013

When a Snake is Just a Snake: Emily Dickinson and A.E. Stallings

Momentary by A. E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

A narrow fellow in the grass by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation

"Momentary" by A.E. Stallings and "  "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" by Emily Dickinson. 
Snake Cousin??

I was unable to read A. E. Stallings’ poem, “Momentary,” without thinking of Emily Dickinson’s famous “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” I’m assuming Stallings was aware of the similarities and contrasts between the two poems. In fact, exploiting that difference may have been Stallings' motivation for “Momentary,” and I applaud her bold decision as well as the poem itself. At first, however, I wondered why she would mess with an icon—not only Emily Dickinson, but also that particular, widely known poem.

First, let’s address sex and gender. Anyone doubting that Dickinson’s reptile is somewhat, or completely, phallic should reread the poem with a penis in mind. This might add a (softly or firmly) comic dimension to the poem—and I do hear a primarily bemused, curious tone prior to Dickinson’s dramatic last line. Although Stallings is still more understated, Dickinson is not exactly a hysterical, Victorian old maid concerning her (unconsciously sexual) serpent.
I’m choosing the version of "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" in Thomas Johnson’s Final Harvest--still the definitive edition of E.D.’s Selected Works, as far as I know. This is also the version at Poetry Foundation, except that they do not replicate Dickinson’s quatrains or her quirky punctuation and capitalization. In other versions of the poem, the “boy” is changed to “child,” and the time of day changes from “Noon” to early “Morn.” I don’t know who made the change or why they did it.

In the early version I’m using, Dickinson’s contrivance of a male speaker is a fascinating complication, but it probably boils down to the stereotype of young males as more likely to be barefoot and encountering snakes than girls would be in the 1860s. Even today, if I say, “A kid is fascinated by a snake,” don’t most of us hear that kid as a boy? And given Dickinson’s language, his adventure is an encounter with his own sexuality as much as the reptile itself.

Whether the boy is straight or gay is not as important as it might seem. Either way, an encounter with his sexuality is, or at least might be, a terrifying experience—a confrontation with magic and terror all at once. For that matter, girls might experience even more of that “Zero at the bone,” that freeze of terror, when they witness and unconsciously sense the snake of Eden and Freud.

If we go in that direction with Dickinson, we might wonder if A.E. Stallings, with her female speaker and lady snake, is suggesting lesbianism. Instead, I think Stallings is trying to remove the snake from the sexual and demonic components conferred upon it by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Her snake is more simply a beautiful, mysterious creature of nature, and Stallings is sharing that experience with us: the beautiful thing that flees when I appear. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. Without the comparison to Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow,” I don’t think I’d have considered anything sexual about Stallings’ snake, although her decision to make the animal female is counterintuitive, or at least untraditional, and thus invites speculation.

Killdeer or Quizzical Eve??

Each snake seizes its speaker’s attention and elicits compelling images. Dickinson’s narrow fellow is a “spotted shaft” and when he moves, he’s “a whip lash, / Unbraiding in the sun,” as he parts the grass like a "comb." Stallings’ snake skin is like valuable metal, “chain mail . . . / Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.” It calls to mind a zither’s sound as well as a zithery, zigzagging motion when it “Quicksilver[s] into tall grasses” (Dickinson’s tamer “comb” of a snake might seem emasculated by comparison).

After disturbing it, Stallings can sight the snake’s movement “only by her flowing,” which strikes me as more graceful and mysterious than Dickinson’s grass-combing fellow—although the two poets’ perceptions are more alike than different. All of Stallings’ images have positive connotations: beauty, speed, grace and mystery—whereas E.D. is at least open to the argument that her snake is the “wrinkled,” terrifying, phallic, Satanic serpent of Eden.

Stallings’ female snake is entirely pretty and never menacing. When human and snake encounter each other, the snake flees. And in the final line, the speaker seems wistful that their meeting has amounted only to a “Momentary” experience.  She’s sad to see the snake go, its shiny “glamour” fading into a shadowy motion in the grasses, until the speaker regretfully concludes that all she can do is “recognize her going,” which she caused by disturbing it. 

By contrast, and before we ever get to Dickinson’s memorable conclusion, “Zero at the Bone,” her boy-speaker is spooked by a snake that “closes at your feet / And opens further on.” There is distance between human and reptile. 

Eve with Headless Mallards
This Victorian snake likes a “bog,” which conjures swamps—dirty, messy, dank, sludgy, even sinister. Bog might also suggest the primordial ooze from which we came, but that doesn't mean we like our origins. When the boy dares to stoop for the snake, trying to “secure it,” it “wrinkled and was gone.” Compare those actions to Stalling’s more positive, even magical quicksilvering and zithering motions. Both snakes disappear into the grasses, but the two speakers’ perceptions are rather different.

I hear wonderfully understated poetry in the final lines of both poems. In Dickinson’s haunting, supra-rational conclusion, the snake creates a deathly panic, and who but Dickinson would think to name that fear “Zero at the bone”? In any case, after a brief fascination with the snake, the boy seems glad to be safely rid of it, while Stallings’ speaker is left with admiration and a sense of loss as Lady Snake avoids her and escapes. 

Bog with Barn Swallow's escape, bottom right

To return to my original point about sexuality in both poems, I think Stallings might be gently trying for a correction of Dickinson’s repressed and therefore heightened sexualization of things, including a serpentine, Puritanical demon (though, I repeat, “Zero at the bone” is the only place where Dickinson expresses dramatic fear, or fear of any significance; in fact, her overall tone seems rather bemused). One could even argue that the two poems are models of nineteenth- versus twentieth/twenty-first century apprehensions of human experience.

Many humans (not me) see the beauty of snakes that simply do what they must as a species. Whether phallic or merely reptile, scaring humans is not their primary concern. Writing more than a century after Dickinson, Stallings can more thoughtfully and aesthetically appreciate Nature and its creatures. She can calm down, holster her Freudian gun, and paint us a snake at least as exotic as Dickinson’s. But it’s a snake that conveys grace and quiet avoidance of conflict. It deserves no demonizing or over-dramatizing. 

Momentary by A. E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

A narrow fellow in the grass by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation


May 20, 2013

Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"

In my teens and twenties, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) might have been my main portal into the world of poetry, although in recent decades I’ve found him verbose, pompous and sententious. Even so, there are parts of The Prelude and the Intimations Ode (“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”) that still stir me and capture my own thoughts or impressions. 
I’m writing this in the wake of some country drives in the hilly parts of Ohio (south and east of Interstate 71), which—don’t laugh—are a little like Wordsworth’s Lake District in the north of England.

At about five pages, the entire Intimations Ode might be too long for those not inclined toward Wordsworth’s philosophizing, but here is the link for those who'd like it:
     Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth : The Poetry Foundation

And here are some parts of the ode that I still find relevant and important:

            There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                              To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
               The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
                      Turn wheresoe'er I may,
                              By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

                                                            I raise
                      The song of thanks and praise
               . . .  for those obstinate questionings
               Of sense and outward things,
               Fallings from us, vanishings;

High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
                      But for those first affections,
                      Those shadowy recollections,
               Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,

And of course there's the famous passage that provided the title for the 1961 movie Splendour in the Grass with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood:

      Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
                      We will grieve not, rather find
                      Strength in what remains behind;
                      In the primal sympathy
                      Which having been must ever be;
                      In the soothing thoughts that spring
                      Out of human suffering;
                      In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

I’m now aware that secluded woodlands and farms might be ideal places for odd, foul, or criminal human behaviors, as well as the worship of nature and deities. They are certainly places for working your ass off. Awareness of such realities is part of the sadness of growing up, which Wordsworth addresses in the Ode.

However, pastoral scenes still stir me more than art and architecture do. I’ve never lived on a farm or in a remote area and I know nothing firsthand about the details or hardships of such lives. But for me the best manmade sights, sites and occasions in city life have never matched nature’s offerings, where there seems to be plenty of green, open space, variety, peace and silence, until I really listen—at which time there’s a festival in every field, every woods. Or are those the sounds of tornadoes or species slaughtering each other, which is necessary, for them? 

May 13, 2013

Everything That Glitters: T.R. Hummer's "Where You Go When She Sleeps"


We’ve all heard notions of falling love as the loss of oneself in merging with another, two souls and psyches becoming one. Over the years I’ve listened to discussions of whether this is love or infatuation or escapism or romanticitis extremis or psychotic delusion or horny ramification syndrome or one more tale we tell ourselves in yet another fit of self-aggrandizement.  

T.R. Hummer’s poem, “Where You Go When She Sleeps,” presents a version of that discussion: being or falling in love is like being a child who falls into a silo full of golden oats, which bury the child. This isn’t agrarian ecstasy; it’s death. And it’s not just death, but the death of a child, one who has teetered on an edge, fallen, and been smothered by the oats he found so alluring.


Some friends and I were discussing the poem, and they—all females—were outraged that Hummer would, even if only in metaphor, exploit the death of a child for the sake of an image conveying the completeness of the speaker’s love as he ponders his lady’s hair while she sleeps. I wondered aloud if--Gary Cooper and Harley-gang appearances to the contrary--males might be more inclined toward such rhapsodic extremism than women. We idolize; women plan. It's the world's dirty little secret. 

Evolutionary biologists tell us that it’s the female who does the choosing in the animal kingdom, of which we humans are a part. If that’s true, it seems to make sense that women respond more practically to potential partners as providers, fathers, reliable companions, escorts, future caretakers, and other unglamorous behaviors.

Does that mean women are less likely to fall into a silo-full of oats in the name of love? If so, is that a good thing?

In a related vein, over the years some female friends have agreed that most women need to experience loving a bastard, but only briefly and only once. Eventually women tend to choose mates more wisely. They want stability and security; it’s in their hard wiring, from chickadees to corporate lawyers.  

Is that true? Is coital pragmatism what it means to grow up? If so, do men ever grow up, or do we just keep tumbling into the vast oat bins at the base of every pedestal?

Near Stratford, Ontario

May 4, 2013

David Baker, "Old Man Throwing a Ball": a Homey Dialectic

As the title alone might suggest, David Baker’s “Old Man Throwing a Ball” offers warm, welcoming images, feelings, and ideas about humans, dogs, and spring. We see many reasons to like being alive in spite of the poem's honest awareness of how temporal those images are. There's an impressive, homey dialectic here, about life and death, order and wildness, and I’m glad for the poem’s company even though I have more questions about word choice than I usually do in a poem I admire. 

So, first, my reservations. Suspecting a typo for “lopes,” I had to look up the verb “lop,” which can mean to droop or to move awkwardly. I suspect it also plays on the more familiar “lope,” either of which could describe the dog’s motion in a way that makes him attractive, lovable, and sympathetic.

At the end of the second stanza, I struggle with the introduction of the old woman:  “Now his mother // dodders out, she’s old as the sky, wheeling / her green tank with its sweet vein, breath.”

I think she’s the old man’s wife, but then why “mother”?  If the man is already aged enough to stand “atilt” and earn the title of “old guy,” it seems unlikely that his mother—literally, his mother, not a wife as surrogate mother—is the second human character. I realize that some couples who’ve been married a long time refer to each other as “mother” and “father,” but here it’s the speaker who’s using that term of endearment, though he seems a stranger to both of the older people.  

I wrestled for a long time with the old woman’s “wheel”ing of a “green tank.” It must be an oxygen tank with its “sweet vein” of “breath,” but I wonder if that image and action could have been clearer. Are all oxygen tanks green? How many readers know that? Do all old women with oxygen tanks make a man turn to his dog for love? If so, does that fact make us squirm some?

Despite some metrical irregularities--which are more desirable than a cadence with military or nursery-school regularity--the poem walks by in a casual blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), so I wonder if Baker has forced some word choice to fit the meter. But David Baker is an eminent and contemporary poet; it seems unlikely he’d fall into that trap, so I’m trying to  assume that any miscommunication is my fault.

I’m a little uneasy with the cute poet-trick-word-play at the end of the fourth stanza and beginning of the fifth. The down-spread watering cans are followed immediately by “up,” which is the direction of the dog’s huffing. However, I love the brazenly lovable sweetness of the lab’s “mouthy ball.” Anyone who doesn’t is simply wrong—and perhaps not entirely human. So maybe it’s okay to lead into it with that play on Down and Up, with Up winning for now, though it huffs to do so.

Also, this curious juxtaposition of opposing directions is abrupt and self-conscious. It’s arguable that the sounds and meanings, especially across adjoining stanzas, further the quality of likability that informs the rest of the poem. Up and Down, we’re all in this together as we bounce along, more or less merrily.

My final question:  what does it mean to have antique watering cans that are “down-spread”?  Are the spouts tilted to the ground so that flowers reveal themselves in the holes at the tops of the cans?

I’m taking time to puzzle over all this because I very much like the poem as a whole. I like what it implies as well as its way of speaking. In spite of their age and creakiness, the characters and actions convey the season of spring, full of life and hope. Amid images of fading, I feel permitted to hope life will go on as long as the black dog keeps returning with his “mouthy ball.” The mythology, energy, and illusions of springtime promise that he’ll do it forever.

When Baker dares to declare, “These are the true lovers, / this dog, this man,” he’s knocking on sentimentality’s door. However, the statement is so hyperbolic, so seemingly outrageous that we can feel a touch of humor and irony in it, especially as they set the stage, more gravely, for the old woman with her green oxygen tank. The adage about dogs as man's best friend earns new meanings, new life. 

On the other hand, whether humorously or seriously, we might worry about the man’s preferring the dog to the wife/mother. Isn’t man’s connection to a wife and/or mother supposed to be the love story? But in this woman, there’s sickness and lurking mortality, while the dog offers not only the requisite unconditional dog’s love, but also an enduring image of vitality and action, even in old age. Maybe the man tosses the ball “even farther” after the dog "pees" because urination is a biological function, and biological functions echo our mammalian mortality. The dog’s peeing is a necessary pause in the thoughtless, epic ball-throwing marathon, which irritates and, perhaps unconsciously, worries the man. 

So throughout the poem there’s a tension, or dialectic, between chaos, vulnerability and mortality on the one hand and, on the other hand, order, affection and life. The old man is “atilt,” the black lab “lops,” the old woman “dodders” and “tips” down the path, and even the flowers “spill” from upside-down watering cans. Yet the old man is able to limber up and throw the ball still farther. The dog is indefatigable, and even the weakened old woman’s “green tank” has a “sweet vein,”—a reservoir of a bit more “breath” and a few more days or months.

The grass’s “rippling” strikes me as appealing and pretty, but it must go in the same worrisome column as the “wild elsewhere in our world.” Still, the man’s made a “path” for her there, and that path is “trim, soft underfoot.” The untamed and the comfortable are in a constant back-and-forth. The flowers spill, and the old man cannot name the third species of flora; so he relegates it to that same “wild elsewhere,” which he will one day “tend.”  (And what a magnificent, provocative phrase we’re given in a “wild elsewhere.” Are all our elsewheres "wild" by definition?). 

In Baker’s wonderful last line, that unnamed flower—wild and therefore chaotic—will nevertheless come when he calls for it. It will be tamed, like the dog or the “split rails” that are “docked” (like carefully arranged boats in a marina)  “along the front walk.”  In the yard “every inch” is “pruned” into “fine blossom” and made “miniature.” The stones are “set.”  Nothing is left to chance.

I hear echoes of Yeats’ fondness for manicured nature, as in “The Wild Swans at Coole,” rather than Wordsworth’s passion for mountains which are themselves passionate, full of winds and storms that both menace and instruct him. In Baker’s poem humans are engaged in a lovable effort to manage nature and wildness. That could easily be mocked as a sterile, mechanical, foolishly neoclassical, micromanaged scene; but Baker sees the humanness of it all and smiles. Man, “mother,” and dog will lose their struggle against chaos, wildness and death, but for the moment the speaker embraces them. Even in the lab's repetition of returning with the ball, we see a desire for harmony, order, affection. Throughout Baker's homey dialectic, the speaker himself becomes one more “true lover,” a benevolent sharer of a scene he’s tended for us.

Old Man Throwing a Ball by David Baker : The Poetry Foundation

Lovers' Lane