Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Poetic Excursions

It’s a common complaint, and usually well justified: I didn’t have enough time to notice the day—the light on the dewy grass, the hummingbird by the window—or even to taste those cherries I had for lunch.

For my part, I often find myself slightly intoxicated by such things—perhaps too often. Which is as much as to say (I tell myself with a guilty pang) I don’t really have that much to do.

Today, for example, was a masterpiece of cool crisp air and blue sky. I logged a few hours in the office, to be sure, but also checked the available campsites on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, off the coast of California. (Another vacation in the offing?) I pruned the globe arborvitae beside the front stoop, which, the name notwithstanding, will not remain a globe unless you sheer it from time to time.

At eleven I drove out to Ridgedale Library (fifteen minutes away) to purchase a book I’d passed over yesterday due to lack of funds—Prague Pictures, Portraits of a City, by Jon Banville. As it happened, the bookshop was closed due to lack of staffing. There was a sign on the door asking for volunteers.

Groceries. A deposit at the bank. A few more hours in front of the computer. A few trips to the refrigerator for grapes. By three I’d had enough, and went out into the brilliant day once again. I doubt if I’ll ever go to Prague, but the thing was gnawing at me…

Yes, the book shop was open! The book about Prague was still on the shelf. And alongside it there was now a companion volume in the same series, Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire, by Ruy Castro. My lucky day! Nor was that the end of it. I snatched a copy of mind, language, society by philosopher John R. Searle (who needs to study up on capitalization, I think) and a nifty paperback edition of Jason and the Golden Fleece, which might be just the thing to pack on a trip to California, where some things are golden (though you might get fleeced). Then I spotted This I Believe: an A to Z of a Life, by Carlos Fuentes, and, tucked in among the numerous slim books of poetry that are fated to be forgotten almost before they appear in print, Swithering, by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson.

I’ve never heard of Robin Robertson, but I could tell, glancing at a few pages, that he’s a modern master of the old school of poets who have the experience, know the language, but also hear the music.


Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, framed by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun re-made her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

It’s a perfectly literal description, though with the lines “re-made her as a tree” we might think of Apollo pursuing Daphne until she turned into a tree. Patterns of love and loss. Dark butterfly, the impress of wet buttocks on a bench. Lots a precise wording everywhere. A very short poem.

I will probably spend more time peeling library stickers off this book than I will reading it. But it’s been a good day. A remarkable day. And it still is.

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