Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hayden Saunier on "Wooden Bowl of Spangled Fruit"


Wooden Bowl of Spangled Fruit” came about through the intersection of a writing exercise, an acting exercise, a snow day, and dusting. The snow day offered up an unexpected morning to write, as well as the quiet erasure of the outside world that would become the background of the poem. I was also happily under the influence of Mark Doty’s wonderful book about objects and looking, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, and so decided to really look at a still life in my own world to see what drew me in and what looked back.

Years ago, I had been given a collection of beaded, bejeweled fruit in a hand-hewn wooden bowl. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the two and how the primitive container gave gravitas to the gaudy, useless fruit. I plunked it down in front of me and looked. And looked. I remained outside, observing. I began to handle the pieces, then, being a multitasker, decided that as long as I wasn’t writing, I might as well dust and clean them up.

I am an actor— a term I use rather than actress in the same way I say poet, not poetess, but that’s another topic—and I often apply skills developed as an actor to writing. Many actors learn to practice what we call sense memory: how to recollect and recreate physical objects and sensations by focusing on texture, form, sound, smell, on any and all of the physical senses. This is precisely what I did as I held each apple, pear, plum. I stopped thinking about fruit and juxtaposition in favor of sharp, silver, fractured, gleam, and allowed the real conversation between observer and observed to begin. I found the first door into the poem through the cheap green plastic stem; it opened directly into childhood’s first world and my older brother’s army men. The poem was off—with its exploration of violence and savagery, real, imaginary, sublimated; surface beauty, shine, and shimmer; piercing, torture, and the gloriousness of bling with its sexiness and dazzle. I wrote about the bowl too, in its absolute plainness, but it didn’t make the final cut, and for that I have BPJ to thank. The spangled fruit had taken front and center stage.

I framed the poem with waiting, specifically with awaiting test results and the implication of bad news. The slightest bit of narrative gives me footing in a poem, another lesson I learned from theatre. So many thoughts, memories, and imaginings had trafficked between me and the objects before me that I felt time expand in the way it does when circumstances force us to face our mortality. While I was revising, two friends telephoned, each awaiting calls with potentially devastating news, so I allowed that to directly enter the poem. Still life is also called nature morte. A moment in time held, captured, even as time rushes past us while we look. Even as we glimpse how much each moment holds. Even as snow falling outside erases everything. 

15 comments:

  1. My favorite line is "Turn it inside out: the world’s a globe of nails." That adds a wonderful balance to the earlier moment when kids innocently playing marvel at the "varied
    shapes our torture and disfigurement
    could make"

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  2. Thanks, Grant. That line was the result of one of my discoveries when handling the fruit. One piece, a peach, had cracked open and I could see inside to a world of pins. When I turned the broken plastic inside out, the object became a medieval mace, or a bed of nails in the round. So I came to "globe of nails." Yes, a stark contrast to the children's pretend torture and also, I hope, to the beautiful, jeweled surface above.

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  3. Your reflection validates a poet's need for freedom and time. The journey from gaudy to poetic is exquisite!

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    1. There's no shortcutting the time either. I've certainly tried. I'm learning to recognize an opportunity, like a snow day, and not squander (I love that word) those moments.
      Thanks and here's to more of them!

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  4. I found myself thinking about the news the speaker is waiting for, just a little before you return to mention it again in the end. I think the poem really succeeds in enacting an experience for the reader. The rich distraction of the fruit only fully yields in the moment when the story of the aunts is told -- a brief respite. The rest is tension filled enough to stir up an anxiety in us about not getting too far away from what spurred the poem's activity in the first place. Wonderful poem!

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    1. I'm thrilled to hear this. Your comment also speaks to the gifts that good editors or trusted friends offer. As I mentioned in the essay, there was a fifth section that BPJ suggested I cut. It unbalanced the poem and got "too far away from what spurned the poem's activity," as you say, but I needed different eyes to see it. I am ever grateful to thoughtful readers.

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  5. Terrific poem. The interlude with the toy soldiers particularly struck me -- and the tenuous link to it through the green plastic. The brain's capacity to leap from one idea/image/sound to another never ceases to amaze.

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    1. Yes, those tenuous links are amazing. I think this might be what is meant when someone describes a poem as being "received." Our minds/brains are making connections in all sorts of ways-- here the green plastic in my hand and the green plastic in my memory connected and led me to the chime between "leaf-and-stem" and "army men." My mind was prepared to make sense of it. We are indeed a species of meaning makers. Don't you find this in your own work?

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  6. I like how the dark thread continues from the toy soldiers to the aunts, "as pink/polished thumbs/bore fiercely down?", and how St. Sebastian can also be a symbol for the aunts, what they might have endured, as well as what they could fantasize doing to someone. Introducing an upbeat tone near the end, with "a chorus line of pastied/Vegas showgirls, sparkling" is refreshing, and skillfully distracts the reader before moving into the serious last lines.
    The poem is evidence of pure reverie -- a gift -- to remind us that creative, open daydreaming can still exist in a complicated, high-paced world. Thank you!

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    1. Oh yes, I think the aunts are more tortured than torturers, just as pinned in and strapped as the fruit, and with the potential to unleash some pent up resentment. Who could blame them? They get neither the wildness of the children or the sexy bling of the showgirls; they just get girdles, dress shields and talcum powder. Thank you back!

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  7. I love the way "Wooden Bowl with Spangled Fruit" combines jewel-like colors with the images of needle sticks and other forms of pain. The contrast of the sweet homey arts-and-crafts with the violence and threat makes the poem unforgettable. And how those colors beam!

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  8. This fine poem comes as a relief to me. At the end of my lonely monologue on last month’s BPJ Forum I was beginning to doubt my feeling that we don’t always pay enough attention to how a poem looks on the page today – and I meant in general, not in the specific poem.

    I wasn’t talking about the music, cadences or rhythms inherent in the words off the page, the diction and word order which give such pleasure in a good public reading, but how we can also get the eye involved in such a way that the whole experience is lifted to another level of intensity, meaning and pleasure alone in our armchairs. And of course the imagery too, because my feeling is that on the page a picture can gain so much power by striding a line break, being punctuated in some curious way by graphic caesuras, fractured by very short lines or empowered by long ones to be heavier, more incarnate – even single words slipped to the opposite margin. Indeed, whatever we want!

    One of the things I like best about Hayden Saunier’s poem is the way the style, diction, rhythm, imagery etc, are homogenous throughout, obviously the work of the same sensibility, but that the forms, the lines and the line breaks are completely different section by section. I also like the amount of space the eye is given, the line ends and stanza breaks (as if) which give the poem a very strong sense of almost traditional form. Because of course it’s quite a metaphysical poem, a virtuoso piece that exercises the mind with it’s leaps, contortions and elisions, the bowl of wooden fruit becoming a verbal etude or string quartet. And I’m very grateful for the intervals so I can take a little break before I start over.

    It’s not a ‘formalist’ poem at all, even though it looks like one at first glance. And I like that too – I like the way a modern poet with a good ear can write in all the traditional meters and stanza forms at once while remaining absolutely free of them. But that does take work – a poem like this doesn’t just come. At least it doesn’t for me.

    A great pleasure, and thanks,

    Christopher

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    1. I confess that I struggle with form and I should probably get down on my knees more often in thanks and praise for the computer and word processing programs. Daily, in fact. I love to play with line breaks, lengths, white space; I love to make a small adjustment and then follow its reverberation through the poem, or take a leap and try something completely different. This particular poem with its changing angles and refractions cried out for a different “look” for each section, and form followed function. It’s always a balancing act between all the elements. Someone once described the section break to me as a bench for the reader to sit down on and take a break before continuing on. That vision of the poem as a place to travel into and through has always stuck with me. Thanks so much, Christopher.

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