Wednesday, May 11, 2016

`Stripped of Surface Fripperies'

So many nature poems are not about nature but about the poet’s exquisite sensibility. The subtext reads: “Only a poet with so refined an eye – such as I – appreciates the wonder of it all.” This helps explain the careers of Emerson (“I am dumb in the pealing song”) and Mary Oliver (“I don’t even want to come in out of the rain”), who deploy equal parts sentimentality and Whitmanesque self-celebration. Dickinson and Frost are not nature poets. Neither, on most occasions, is Abbie Huston Evans (1881-1983), a poet whose name I must have seen but whose work I had never pursued until Brad Bigelow wrote about her recently at The Neglected Books Page: “Few poets have had her capacity for patience and her ability to see things from the long view.” I’ve borrowed from my library a copy of her Collected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970), and find that the best of her work has a non-Emersonian wit and tough-mindedness, as in this stanza from “To E.D. in July,” addressed to Dickinson in her grave:

“Tell me truth, did you find heaven
And your old neighbor, God?
Or is it nothingness, not even
A sleep, beneath the sod?
Did your relentless wish create
What is from what could be;
Or found you one grim predicate
Wherewith nouns must agree?”

Like Dickinson and Frost, Evans is a New Englander, with an affinity for the stony, for what in “Juniper” she calls “Lean-fingered and rock-clinging things, / Bitter-berried, far from springs.” In “Salvage,” the first poem in her first book (Outcrop, 1928), she observes “the mountain’s flinty bread.” Evans is an economical writer, terse and careful in her phrasing. Here is “Pegmatite” from Fact of Crystal (1961):

“Here am I relentlessly
Cropping out for you to see
In my final nudity.

“This is I and I am this,
Stripped of surface fripperies
That have covered up what is.

“Pasture green is well enough,
But earth’s core is fiercer stuff
Crammed with flashings in the rough.

“Take or leave me; but first think
How gem stuff can pack a chink
Till split edges make men blink.”

The poem could have ended after the second stanza and been a better poem. Pegmatite is a common igneous rock made of feldspar, quartz and mica. It resembles granite. The OED notes pegmatite is rooted in the ancient Greek for “something joined together or congealed.”

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