Tuesday, November 03, 2009

`A Pleasure Secret and Austere'

Eric Ormsby affixes two epigraphs to his poem “Mullein” (collected in Coastlines, 1992, and Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems, 2007). The second, by Whitman, I knew: “And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen [sic] and pokeweed.” That’s the final line of Section 5 of “Song of Myself.” Say it aloud, and the entire poem if you have the time, and you’ll know why Ormsby relishes the taste of Whitman’s words in his mouth.

The first epigraph, “A pleasure secret and austere,” is attributed to Archibald Lampman’s “In November.” The name meant nothing but I hadn’t bothered until last weekend to discover his identity. The loss is mine. Lampman (1861-1899) was a Canadian poet born in Morpeth, Ontario, about 75 miles due north of Cleveland, Ohio, my birthplace, on the other side of Lake Erie. For most of my life I’ve lived within shouting distance of Canada but remain ignorant of its culture and history. From what I’ve learned, not knowing Lampman is comparable to not knowing E.A. Robinson, a poet whose work his resembles.

Lampman wrote two poems titled “In November,” distinguished as “(1)” and “(2).” He seems to have written many such month-poems – “In May,” “In October,” and so forth. Ormsby took his epigraph from the final line of “(2)”:

“With loitering step and quiet eye,
Beneath the low November sky,
I wandered in the woods, and found
A clearing, where the broken ground
Was scattered with black stumps and briers,
And the old wreck of forest fires.
It was a bleak and sandy spot,
And, all about, the vacant plot,
Was peopled and inhabited
By scores of mulleins long since dead.
A silent and forsaken brood
In that mute opening of the wood,
So shrivelled and so thin they were,
So gray, so haggard, and austere,
Not plants at all thy seemed to me,
But rather some spare company
Of hermit folk, who long ago,
Wandering in bodies to and fro,
Had chanced upon this lonely way,
And rested thus, till death one day
Surprised them at their compline prayer,
And left them standing lifeless there.

“There was no sound about the wood
Save the wind's secret stir. I stood
Among the mullein-stalks as still
As if myself had grown to be
One of their sombre company,
A body without wish or will.
And as I stood, quite suddenly,
Down from a furrow in the sky
The sun shone out a little space
Across that silent sober place,
Over the sand heaps and brown sod,
The mulleins and dead goldenrod,
And passed beyond the thickets gray,
And lit the fallen leaves that lay,
Level and deep within the wood,
A rustling yellow multitude.

“And all around me the thin light,
So sere, so melancholy bright,
Fell like the half-reflected gleam
Or shadow of some former dream;
A moment's golden reverie
Poured out on every plant and tree
A semblance of weird joy, or less,
A sort of spectral happiness;
And I, too, standing idly there,
With muffled hands in the chill air,
Felt the warm glow about my feet,
And shuddering betwixt cold and heat,
Drew my thoughts closer, like a cloak,
While something in my blood awoke,
A nameless and unnatural cheer,
A pleasure secret and austere.”

If Giacometti had sculpted a wildflower it might have been the mullein. Go here to see one in its summer glory, but note the dead stalks in the background, probably leftovers from the preceding year. That’s the “sombre company” the speaker in Lampman’s poem finds himself among. In winter, the gray stalks rustle in the wind, a ghostly sound Lampman's poem suggests, and that’s one of the reasons I like his choice of plant. The mullein is conspicuous – tall with velvety leaves near the ground, but humble and scorned. It’s a scrappy opportunist flourishing in empty lots and trash heaps. In his poem Ormsby says the mullein “grows big and green where other green things die.” It “domesticates / Small desolations.” Ormsby continues:

“I sometimes glimpse a mullein by the weed-
Whacked border of the parking lot,
Invisible though so conspicuous
Beyond the stuttering whiteness of the flood-
Lit asphalt, or poplaring a sewer-pipe…”

Lampman seems a modest poet drawn to modest subjects. His gift is for phrases – “A moment's golden reverie,” “A semblance of weird joy,” “A nameless and unnatural cheer, /A pleasure secret and austere.” That couplet suggests how I’m feeling about Lampman’s poems. Here is “In November (1),” a sonnet and altogether more conventional poem, but one that also recalls – or predicts – the poems of Robert Frost:

“The leafless forests slowly yield
To the thick-driving snow. A little while
And night shall darken down. In shouting file
The woodmen's carts go by me homeward-wheeled,
Past the thin fading stubbles, half concealed,
Now golden-gray, sowed softly through with snow,
Where the last ploughman follows still his row,
Turning black furrows through the whitening field.
Far off the village lamps begin to gleam,
Fast drives the snow, and no man comes this way;
The hills grow wintry white, and bleak winds moan
About the naked uplands. I alone
Am neither sad, nor shelterless, nor gray,
Wrapped round with thought, content to watch and dream.”

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