This is “Ink,” a sonnet by David Slavitt from Falling from Silence (2001):
“Poised above the paper, the pen’s nib
is gravid with ink, a tremulous black droplet
by which one can learn to calibrate fluctuations
of weather, inner and outer, as if it were crimson
liquid that lives in thermometers’ wells: a poet’s
day is not merely his own, for clouds as they drift
across his skies will darken or brighten your own.
Or is it yet stranger? When San Gennaro’s dried
“blood liquefies in the phial, the people of Naples
offer up prayers of thanks, but the miracle’s true
work is within their own hearts where freshets of faith,
of hope, and even of charity run renewed.
His drop of ink can do that too: it dries
but later flows elsewhere in your tears, in your blood.”
“Ink” is one of those time-released poems that on first reading seems pleasant and skillful enough but undistinguished. With time you recall an image or phrase or even a word (in this case gravid, which I first learned 40 years ago in Light in August, and which in the context of the poem seems at first inappropriate and then acutely right), and you return to the poem to discover the nature of its hold on you. In the six or seven years since I first encountered “Ink” I’ve read it perhaps a dozen times and it remains inexhaustible. The poem’s rapid transubstantiation of liquids goes ink, “crimson liquid” (mercury), “clouds” (water), blood, ink, blood. For more about San Gennaro (Saint Januarius) go here. The poem embodies its theme – that a poem can have a transforming, prayer-like impact on readers.
At Dave Lull’s suggestion I read Slavitt’s prose collection, Re Verse (2005), a mingling of criticism, memoir and gossip. Slavitt addresses “Ink” in the final essay, “The Poetry of Grief.” Before reproducing the poem he addresses “the overarching mystery of poetry, which is that a poet can write something quite private and readers can respond to it, supplying from their own lives those energizing details that the literary work invites and exploits.”
This merely but memorably states the obvious: A work of art is collaborative. The best readers are active readers, responding in complex and often private ways to a poem. Not all understandings are equal and some are plain wrong but the reader is not a tabula rasa, a passive receptor. A good reader works. After “Ink,” Slavitt writes:
“Eliot says somewhere that in bad poetry, those things that ought to be conscious are left unconscious, and those things that ought to be left unconscious are made conscious. Another way of describing this mysterious business is to think of a poem as an act of discovery. (Frost used to say, `No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.’) If the poet knows what he is going to discover, the poem is probably not worth writing [or reading]. What I did not realize during the writing of [“Ink”] was its connection with an earlier poem about my mother’s murder, in 1982.”
Slavitt inserts another poem, “Bloody Murder,” but I stopped reading. For years I had been enjoying a poem, never suspecting it touched on the murder of his mother or even that his mother had been murdered. This was a shocking reminder of poetry’s oblique mystery. The most powerful poems often work by indirection. Literalness can be numbing and diffuse, a particularly apt thought prompted as it is by an essay titled “The Poetry of Grief.” Immediately after “Bloody Murder,” Slavitt writes:
“The blood at the end of `Ink,’ then, is not mere blood, but relates to that of my mother and, through her, that of Jesus.”