Sunday, March 18, 2012

`In the Midst of the Green'

When we say “nondescript” we don’t mean without description, without the qualities that distinguish one thing from another. Rather, we mean difficult to describe, whether from over-familiarity or laziness. Is an apple nondescript? Not if we care to look at it carefully, touch it, smell it, bite into it, hear the crunch and savor the tang. A writer’s job is to deny “nondescript,” to defy the notion of superficial similarity. In a letter from 1956 to her brother Philip, Amy Clampitt writes: “The weather has gone foggy and nondescript again, and foghorns are wailing on the river” (Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt, ed. Willard Spiegelman, 2005). This is a personal letter, and such glides past specificity are easily forgiven, though fog certainly defies our powers of description and invites a metaphor – pea soup, cotton wool, smoke.  

In a poem from Archaic Figure (1987), “Babel Aboard the Hellas International Express,” Clampitt turns the adjective into a noun: “Stout ruddy women; lean, fair-haired, ruddy man; / two small dark nondescripts.” This is shorthand, a harmless slight, an economical way to fill in the frame and remain true to the picture. In her final collection, A Silence Opens (1994), as though to make amends for earlier concessions to nondescription, she titles a poem “Nondescript”:
“There comes, in certain latitudes, a season
no one would call the fall,
when the year-old foliage of live oaks,
green once but now a nondescript
dun or ocher, goes innumerably twiddling
and twirling down

“in the midst of a mist, a gold dust
of pollen and petals no one,
so far as I know, has yet written of
as amounting to spring in the middle
of fall, or vice versa: the very notion
of spring being mainly

“defined, come to think of it, by the English,
at least since Chaucer put it
in the month of April, ignoring all of this
in-betweenness, this process that’s less
an advent than it is a wandering vaguely
nel mezzo del cammin:

“not to speak of an April brown down under, or
a perennial tropical zone,
in Italy also not only the live oaks’ non-
descript but the camphor trees’ untimely
crimson keeps on coming down, coming down
in the midst of the green.”

Clampitt might be describing Houston with its live oaks and seasons confusedly inverted to Northern eyes and ears. I’m forever recalibrating my seasonal clock, making allowances for “in-betweenness.” Clampitt gets the leaves right, “dun or ocher.” They’ve been falling for the last month, and the trees never go bare. Fallen, the leaves turn concave and resemble the flattened shells of wood turtles. When the sidewalks are dry and the breeze moves them, they make a distinctive clicking sound, not the dull scratch of maple leaves. Now car windows are powdered with “a gold dust / of pollen” from the oaks, a seasonal marker “ no one,” Clampitt says, “so far as I know, has yet written of,” though she just devoted four memorable stanzas to its description.

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