Thursday, October 30, 2008

Muriel Nelson, With a Big Simile

These poems are made of things over- and underheard, stolen, mis-taken, and sometimes spelled by ear—disparate bits and odd God-thoughts; i.e., my imperfect observations, fascinations, and shortcomings along with some I’ve borrowed. If the poems hold together for you, language and line breaks must be playing with your ears, too.

“For the Night People” originally followed “Sun and Migraine,” which was published earlier in BPJ. In the title, you may hear a bow to Ed Hirsch. If you’re a fellow migraine sufferer, you’ll also recognize the joy of waking up not sick and reveling in lights and noises which don’t hurt. But maybe they should. Of course, in Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought, God is odd. So are Adam’s ribs either before or after one is removed, if you take the story both literally (that is, poetically) and (quoting one of my students) “with a big simile on [your] face.” Biblical creation stories are also at odds with each other, each of them carefully saved. Underlying the Apple computer image at the poem’s end is the ancient phrase, “Keep me as the apple of thine eye,” and my envy of the Russian word yabloko, which keeps that apple-eye image in a single word.

“Feeding the Venus Flytrap” probably doesn’t need much commentary if memory is still fresh of the siege of Sarajevo and Vedran Smailović, the cellist who honored the dead and made a bit of peace at the center of war horror. You may know what I learned after our little Venus Flytrap died of starvation: its food needs to be moving in order to stimulate the plant to close its “mouth” and eat. No bottles for that baby. But maybe the accumulation of long e sounds feeds the poem and allows Easter to cohabitate with Venus.

I hope “To Wit, To Dote” will grow up to be a book someday because I love the sharp sounds and rich meanings of these old words, and their Lego-like possibilities for play. It seems that the twenty-first century could use ways to put witting and doting into relationship in order to enact that ancient phrase, “to know in one’s heart.” I confess, this poem carried on even more in its first few versions. Perhaps in my dotage, I’ll know when to end.


  1. I like the intimacy of this one, the sly sexiness of steeples, the poignant politics... but most especially
    the perfect pitch of a grand slam mentality at work! (at play!) here. Praise Venus!

  2. Hey, Sherry!

    Praises to you and your smart, sly reading! I had no idea that I was committing the heresy of steeple sexiness. Blame words. Blame Venus!


  3. "Feeding the Venus Flytrap" was one of my favorite poems in this very high-quality issue of the BPJ.

    I was wondering if you would mind addressing the progression of the poem. Starting with the pastoral, moving into the political, and ending again with the natural. Was this a concious effort or an organic process?

    Thank you for your poems!

  4. What strikes me about To Wit, To Dote is line 9, which does something poems so rarely do: answer a question it poses. First we get some questions: "Will wit be wizened then, or I awake?//Will the alarm cat pounce in such a nick?" then a fascinating turn to asking "you." It poses the questions as highly rhetorical, and requesting the answer from "you" seems to make it all the more unanswerable, unless "you" magically takes over the voice of the poem.

    The turn also seems to me to be central to the poem's meaning and to what you discussed in your essay about the poem. That is, for lack of better terms, brainlogic versus heartlogic.

    "Do you think?" (as in, do you use your mind?)
    "I hope." (as in, I use my heart.)

    Somewhere in here there was a question for you, but I might have lost it. I suppose it's something like: How do you see this turn working (is it a turn for you at all?) and how does it relate to the relationship between the "you" and the speaker?

    Thanks in advance for answering :)

  5. Hi, Jacques.

    Thanks for your question and your flattering assumption that there could have been “progress” and logic in the messy way this poem came about.

    I’m not sure I can reconstruct any method, but it’s likely that I leafed through my notebook where I write fleeting ideas and quotations, copied out those which seemed freshest, oddest, or most promising, and then let them play with or against each other, listening to the combinations.

    I guess my method is like playing with Legos. Our sons used to say they needed “a red four-bump piece” or a black propeller, which they would take from something else--ideally from what the brother was making!

    So, IF fog is comforting, and the idea holds together because of a lulling rhythm and childhood’s security in being tucked in, then washing dishes in the dark is comforting and easy with you (with the doubts tucked AWAY in parentheses).

    Instead of any idea of progression, sound provides my “Lego bumps.” Here, the long e sounds stick parts of the poem together, along with the rhythms, and lead to much of what happens (the growth of the simple question, “How does the piece start?” by means of a mishearing into “How does the peace start?” and that coupling of Easter with Venus at the end.

    Thanks for your fine reading, and best to you!


  6. Dear Matt,

    What fascinating ideas! I’ll quote some of your phrases below and comment.

    1. “. . .unless "you" magically takes over the voice of the poem”:

    Yes. Maybe it does. (You does?) After circling “unclear pronoun reference” and “vague use of the word ‘you’” in essays by students, I come home, try to relax, get out of the MLA harness, and enjoy using the “strategies” I learn from students. It was my former teacher and great ironist, Heather McHugh, who taught me ways to read with both eyes plus the one in the back of the head, and to write to reward readers like you who enjoy multiple meanings. In this poem, “you” certainly could be read as the poem’s speaker questioning herself. It could also be illness personified. Or the reader. I prefer all three!

    2. “ brainlogic versus heartlogic”: "Do you think?" (as in, do you use your mind?)
    "I hope." (as in, I use my heart.):

    Yes, yes—and the more dire possibility that neither is possible when the garbage gods are on their way to collect the body. I’m thinking of the last line of the English version of that old love song turned Passion hymn, “Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded”: “Let me never, never, Outlive my love. . .[and the church version goes on] to thee.”

    3. “How do you see this turn working (is it a turn for you at all?) and how does it relate to the relationship between the "you" and the speaker?”

    Hmm. If it works as a turn for you, take it! (Do you know Yogi Berra’s “If you see a fork in the road, take it”?) For me, there’s an emotional turn at the beginning of Stanza 3 and another at the beginning of Stanza 6: First the questioning (What’s happening?), then confrontation (I know you, illness. You’re tiresome, and you’ve come too soon.), and then the joy of being alive to say in real life and real time the simple, dear word, “now.”

    Does any of this make any sense?


  7. Hi Muriel,

    After feasting on your poems' fine nectar I feel smarter, and were the garbage gods to come for me today I might be a little more ready to face them (the way I face the buzzards sailing over my house every afternoon). You've got me pondering maws--Venus gentle (or do its jaws snap? I've never had one) vs. the harsher clamping of a Waste Management truck--and a study I once read of purring's healing effects. Does a fly's buzz improve the meal for the plant? Questions, questions. I like how your poems open me up to them. Thank you!


  8. Beth, thanks for that wonderful word “maws” and the ways you relate maws to buzzes and purrs!

    Now, I’m hearing “maw” and “ma” (my dictionary says that “maw" is dialect for “ma”) along with “ma-chinery” and evil “machination.” I suppose someone could or already has developed a theory about the first “ma-ma” each of our maws uttered to our ma and the rewarding mammary stuff which magically arrived in our mouths. Do you think that the name Mary and all its variants, and other female M-names come from “ma”?

    I love your questions, Beth. You must have more answers than I. I don’t know how the soft maw of a Venus Flytrap could snap, but I wonder, too, about vibrations. The entire universe seems to vibrate in one way or another. Do you know of studies showing plants’ responses to sounds? A long time ago, I read about findings that high sounds in the range of many bird calls stimulate plants to grow, but the source was _Organic Gardening_, which tended to publish lots of home experiments without much scientific rigor. Why don’t you suggest that subject to Michael Pollan, as another sequel to _The Botany of Desire_?

    Thanks for your wonderings, Beth!

    Muriel Nelson