“Superb in clarity and confidence…”
That’s the first line of “On an Attic Red-Figured Kylix Depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx (470 B.C.) by the `Oedipus Painter’ in the Vatican Collections,” one of fourteen poems by Helen Pinkerton included in `The Harvesters’ and Other Poems on Works of Art, a chapbook published in 1984 by Robert L. Barth of Florence, Ky. The line succinctly suggests two of the defining qualities of Pinkerton’s poetry, the discovery of which was among the most pleasing gifts I received in 2010. Here’s the complete poem:
“Superb in clarity and confidence,
A cross-legged traveller, he sits at ease.
His thinker’s pose, ironically conceived,
Is subtly touched with dubious innocence.
That riddle solved won Thebes. Yet, who that raised
This wine-cup to the gods would not remember,
Oedipus, your quick rage where three roads crossed,
Iokasta’s cry, your blindness, and then see
The riddle of divine veracity?”
The poem is not included among the twenty-three in the section titled “Bright Fictions” in Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith: Poems (Swallow Press, 2002), her de facto collected poems. It does appear in Bright Fictions: Poems on Works of Art, a chapbook of twenty-seven poems published by Barth in 1994. On Monday, nine days after Christmas, in the first mail delivery of 2011, I received both chapbooks and an assortment of other gifts from Pinkerton – a lovely omen for the new year. Chief among the others is another chapbook, by Pinkerton’s friend Janet Lewis – The Indian in the Woods, published in 1980 by Matrix Press of Palo Alto. Here is one of its fifteen poems, “Like Summer Hay”:
“Like summer hay it falls
Over the marshes, over
The cranberry flats,
the wild deer lay.
“Now the deer leave tracks
Down the pine hollow; petals
Laid two by two, brown
Against the snow.”
You know the final image is accurate if you’ve ever followed a deer in the winter woods. It evokes neither Bambi nor Hemingway, and was written by Lewis (1899-1998) when she was in her early twenties.
Among Pinkerton’s other gifts are Landscape, Memory & the Poetry of Janet Lewis by Brigitte Carnochan, a chapbook with photographs, published by Stanford University Libraries and the Department of English at Stanford in 1995; two reprints of essays by Pinkerton from The Southern Review: “The Theme of Loss in the Earlier Poems of Catherine David and Edgar Bowers” (1973) and “Contexts for `Being,’ `Divinity,’ and `Self’ in Paul Valéry and Edgar Bowers (1977); and photocopies of three articles about Bowers after his death in 2000, by the poets Dick Davis, Clive Wilmer and David Yezzi. Bowers’ work I’ve loved for forty years, Lewis’ for a decade or so and Pinkerton’s for hardly six months. The epigraph on the title page to Bright Fictions: Poems on Works of Art is from an unidentified work by Robert Bridges:
“Beauty that is the soul’s familiar angel…”
Great poets appear among us as frequently as angels, and we’re blessed by their unbidden generosity. Another Bright Fictions poem is “On Leonard Baskin’s Etching Benevolent Angel”:
“I, too, have felt the fire of being burn
Till all my flesh and my mind, too, seemed ash,
And I as if I were not. There, at the turn
Of what is not and of what is, forms flash
Out of and into being. So, from black
Seemingly shapes itself your angel’s white—
Arm, cheek, and plumage—while, equal in power
Black eye and wing emerge ready for flight.
For both the existential ground is bright.”