Sometimes I'll like a poem and not really know why. My affection confuses me and feels all the more genuine for it. Confusion feels more natural than understanding. Affection is raw, wisdom is cooked.
It happened to me this morning. It happened because I couldn't sleep so rather than toss and turn in bed and bother my wife I got up and came out to sit in the half-lit living room and read the October 2017 issue of Poetry that arrived in my mailbox this week but I hadn't made time for. It happened when I got to page twenty-six and read this poem by Sylvia Legris.
Here's "Violet", by Sylvia Legris:
A garland to fend off the dizzies.
A garland to keep the quinsy at bay.
March closes the seeded umbilicus.
April opens the musty secundina.
Equinox the half-melt rot.
Easter the thin asquintable light.
One thing poetry does is make a place for weird words to live. Some of us who like poetry are kind of weird ourselves. We're folks who have to fight to feel at home in the world. Poetry does the same thing for words that might not have a ready place in the world. "Quinsy". "Umbilicus". "Secundina". "Asquintable". Legris has given these words a place to live. It's a small thing but I find it kind of heartwarming, like seeing someone give food to a homeless person or drop off a box of winter coats at Goodwill.
The construction is opaque. Six end-stopped lines composed of two fragments, two sentences of the most basic subject-verb-predicate variety, and then two more fragments. The rhythm is loose but has a certain logic to it: three or four beats in a line, nothing longer than eleven syllables. The content implies the poem could logically be broken into couplets, but it isn't. It's a little puzzle-box of a poem, a magic spell.
I think of Ophelia's lines from Hamlet:
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
Ophelia teases out the emblematic meanings of flowers, but also (as I read it) is trying to use them to accomplish a sort of magic in her brother Laertes. Remember what you've done and think about your life, you dolt!
So what's Legris's magic? What's she trying to work, and in whom?
"A garland" — of violets, presumably — "to fend off the dizzies. A garland to keep the quinsy" — an inflammation of the throat — "at bay." So far it seems like a protection spell, a description of herbal remedy. What else?
"March closes the seeded umbilicus." It's gardening language but also medical language. It feels ancient in its personification of the month. I think of Hesiod, Virgil, Spenser. "April opens the musty secundina." I think of T.S. Eliot's opening line in The Waste Land: "April is the cruelest month."
What kind of magic is this? It's the magic of saying how things are. Here's a way to write a poem: describe a natural process. That's all you need. Stay loyal to that truth and the mystery of birth and growth and death will lend your words all the power they need. Legris summons the magic of birth, the end of winter, the power of beginnings and fruition.
The poem is both pagan and Christian. It tries to make us feel that by setting up the two poles of "Equinox" and "Easter". Equinox is the sweet stink of rotting fruit (there's a passage about rotting fruit in Nietzsche I'd like to reference, in Also Sprach Zarathustra, but my copy is in the other room where my wife is still asleep). Easter is an overwhelming light, an "asquintable" light. Equinox is a leveling out, a turning point where for a brief span the forces of birth and death, cold and warmth, day and night are of equal strength. Easter is an overcoming, an overthrowing of death for once and all. The equinox has its form of reality: it's an act of interpretation of natural signs that happens every year. Easter has its form of reality: it's an act of remembrance of what supposedly happened once and a reinforcement of its consequences in our lives.
What's it all add up to? I'm trying too hard, or I haven't tried hard enough. I can't tell which. My affection for this poem: I don't understand it, and I find that embarrassing. That's good: love isn't cool.
What's it all add up to? A beautiful poem, a poem that reads well and that gives the mind and the imagination something to play with.
What's it all add up to? An awareness. A mode of experience. Reading the poem we become aware of nature, of time's impact on our life, on our lives, of the coming into being of things, of the coming to fruition of things, of the year, of the moment, of plants, of women, of women's lives. We become aware that nature is always already interpreted for us, and to break through that icy shell of interpretation we need words of acidic strangeness and sentences broken into sharp fragments. There are powers in language, among them the power to heal and the power to ward and the power to thaw.
Sylvia Legris has a few more poems in this issue of Poetry and a relatively new book out called The Hideous Hidden.