Thursday, August 15, 2013

`Brightening As They Fail'

A young poet whose work I admire wrote to me on Wednesday: “I've been allocating more time to reading poets thoroughly, and read Mary Jo Salter more or less in full this winter; she has an astounding ear and gift for arranging details into a compelling structure.  Not a profound poet, or maybe I should say she's a `novelistic’ poet rather than a philosophical one, but I haven't devoured poetry the way I have hers in years.” My reading of Salter has been desultory at best, and when I discovered that today, Aug. 15, is her fifty-ninth birthday, I borrowed A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) from the library. Among her new poems I found “Lunar Eclipse,” written “in memory of Anthony Hecht,” who died Oct. 20, 2004. The eclipse described by Salter occurred a week later, on Oct. 27-28. Go here for an explanation of the geometry of a lunar eclipse. 

During the eclipse, Salter says, she goes outside with pencil and notebook, “out to the moonstruck driveway, / knowing you’d be there.” In a total eclipse, the entire moon passes through the Earth’s umbral shadow and turns a vivid, Mars-like red. Her account of the eclipse merges with the great poet’s passing:  “I watched the giant fail-- / a dimming, a diminution, / among the attendant stars.” Hecht, she says, was called a “dark poet”: “Your last poems were in keeping / with that judgment; gave a world / where `no joy goes unwept.’” The quote is from “Motes,” Hecht’s final poem, written in iambic trimeter, published posthumously in The New Yorker on Nov. 1, 2004, and still uncollected. Salter misses the return of the moon (“a luminary’s comeback”) because of a “sudden / cloud” which becomes “a blanket pulled / over the vanquished head / of one on his deathbed--.” I think of Coleridge in his original 1798 version of “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet takes his infant son Hartley outside to see “the quiet moon.” But even more I think of Hecht’s “The Darkness and the Light are Both Alike to Thee,” a title borrowed from Psalms 139:12. The poem is collected in his final book of poems, The Darkness and the Light (2001): 

“Like trailing silks, the light
Hangs in the olive trees
As the pale wine of day
Drains to its very lees:
Huge presences of gray
Rise up, and then it’s night. 

“Distantly lights go on.
Scattered like fallen sparks
Bedded in peat, they seem
Set in the plushest darks
Until a timid gleam
Of matins turns them wan, 

“Like the elderly and frail
Who’ve lasted through the night,
Cold brows and silent lips,
For whom the rising light
Entails their own eclipse,
Brightening as they fail.”

No comments: