My Cup Runneth Over
An owl outside my window was asking me something. Would it snow again this season? When would the leaves be back? Were the field mice hiding under the hood of my truck? Audible or visible owls almost always monopolize my mind, but I was absorbed in my first survey and gleaning of the score of finalists for Cold Mountain Review’s Narrative Poetry Contest. I wanted to tell the owl he should take a gander at these; they were that good. Now that I’ve finished my winnowing and sifting, re-reading and arranging and changing and rethinking, I believe that four or five of the poems in the pile could easily have been the winner of one contest or another that I’ve judged in the past half dozen years. They were that good, but I needed to select one winner and two honorable mentions, leaving the rest of my rankings to my hard drive. A jigger of Balvenie Doublewood, then a cup of coffee, fueled me as I numbered the entries tentatively and headed off to bed.
The next day was Sunday, and I dawdled under the quilt, thinking of the sacrifice of Isaac, Albert Bierstadt on expedition, the shape of West Virginia, a patient snake, the scent of burning peat, the many ways a poem can convey a narrative. More coffee. Ruminate and calculate and let impressions and images weave and twine and fray, speak out and soak in. It had become a little like chess and a little like courting, but I believed I had my top three choices and, a couple of days later, an opinion about the winner. Then I let them sit for a while as I pondered and got used to my choices. A week later: no snow, a few leaves on the forsythia outside the window, no sign of mice or owl. The order of rank had not altered.
I believe in the narrative of direct cause and effect and clear sequence, but I also value narratives that follow more associative currents and elliptical sequences, even cryptic ones. Narratives with a stable narrator and narratives with a confluence or diffusion of tongues. I have argued in a lecture for the narrative identity of “O Western Wind” – a love story, a journey, a plea to primal forces coupled with an appeal to Jesus or a complaint to Him – all posed as a question and an exasperation. Such possibilities refresh and alert me. But my favorite narrative poem is Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision, and every day I face its ending in a broadside on my wall: “Tell me a story of deep delight.” In that spirit I offer my congratulations to the authors of the following poems knowing that others in the stack of nineteen might be more definitively narrative but also convinced that none of the others wear the title poem any better or more delightfully.
The two poems I selected for Honorable Mention are “Feat,” whose punning title conceals the seriousness of the poem’s events, and “‘The Best Material for the Artist in the World,’” with a double entendre sewn neatly into those last three words. The former relates a simple story about a little boy who “coaxes a snake/ into an empty chip bag,” unaware of the danger of a reptile on a bus, a serpent in a tree. What follows is inevitable, and the snakebite is ingeniously compared to the arrow that struck the heel of Achilles. The language is precise and quietly evocative, the understatement intensifying and hypnotic. Questions of innocence and witness hover behind the couplets of the tale, and the poem closes with the slow-motion opening of the revelatory. The snake is “lean and brown,” the narrative lean and calm. It’s not a poem to forget. The other Honorable Mention recounts an 1859 journey to survey the Overland Trail, narrated by artist Albert Bierstadt. I wish American poets were more attracted to this kind of poem – historical, descriptive, psychological, adventurous, long enough (almost 150 lines) to really capture the movement across “unreckoned” landscape, time, understanding. How did people travel across the unknown back then? What perils did they face, both internal and external? It’s a little reminiscent of some accounts of the Corps of Discovery, but the prairie and its solitudes are addressed with a painter’s eye and a poet’s music and knack for comparison as “a purple braid/ runs the hem of the horizon” and the Platte River becomes “a muddy drudge.” When the author’s Bierstadt observes “[p]arish churches, common as mullein,” I see originality based on authenticity and keen eyes and that ghostly pneuma they are windows to. And it’s not nostalgia, this grasping for the past, but a recognition of the immediacy of the past, its ineradicable “newness” when painted true.
My choice for the prize this year is “Abraham’s Apprentice.” When Muriel Spark wrote that she wanted her writing not only to “please” but to “startle,” she might have been thinking of such a poem. This retelling of the story of Abraham’s greatest test in Genesis is set in Georgia, maybe just a few years back, told by the modern, nameless Isaac. It finds its form in a slyly calculated free verse that could hardly be more urgent in revealing its ramshackle farm which is a testament to resourcefulness and make-do, but also a palpable atmosphere as full of mystery as its abandoned, claustrophobic chicken coop and ambiguous land: “out the windows it was green and bright and black.” That description may seem casual at first, but like much of the poem, its waiting voltage is unmistakable. “I didn’t know exactly what was coming next,” says the narrator, “but I knew too much.” The scene that follows reflects the one we flinch at in the Bible, though roles are reversed, prisms put into play, proof of worth redirected and Jehovah pretty much A.W.O.L. Prepare to cringe and question and watch a psyche open like a dark flower as the boy struggling to kill the animal says he had to get “Furious all the way back to any old hurt that I needed, to hurt me forward now,/ I hit until it was enough.” I’ve said enough. The language is both loose cannon and tight knot, vivid and indelible – “the green and glistering cloud of flies.” The poem’s last line (which I won’t reveal here) is italicized but probably doesn’t need the typography to be unforgettable in the manner of “Tell me a story of deep delight” and “You must change your life.” The “deep delight” (and quicker horror) of “Abraham’s Apprentice” is testimony to the truth of Rilke’s directive. For the fortunate reader, it’s all cathartic in the best Aristotelian way.
As usual, I’d like another owl tonight, but with these poems in hand and heart, I really don’t need one. I hope readers find in them the same sustenance and fire I did. Do.
Timber Ridge, VA