Monday, November 19, 2007

A Bulldozer ... or a River ... Searching for the Right Simile After Stanley Plumly's Poetry

Finalist for the National Book Award (for his newest and tenth collection OLD HEART), winner of awards named for William Carlos Williams and Lenore Marshall, distinuished university professor at the University of Maryland -- all this arrived with Stanley Plumly as, dressed for a frosty Vermont night in the small 19th-century lecture hall in Johnson, Vermont, he took the podium and opened a book.

But from that moment on, there was only the low growling rumble of Plumly's voice, steady, slow, calm, pouring forth poem after poem.

He opened with this sonnet:

Wrong Side of the River

I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back.
But you began shouting and I didn't
want you to think I understood.
So I did nothing but stand still,
thinking that's what to do on the wrong side
of the river. After a while you did too.
We stood like that for a long time. Then
I raised a hand, as if to be called on,
and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

Then, in a brief diversion, he mentioned that his small school in Ohio where he grew up had odd ideas for field trips -- like visiting a classmate in an iron lung, or stopping at the slaughterhouse. Perhaps that explains the strange routes his classmates have taken since then, he noted, in a quiet slide into a longer piece that links each classmate's death or destiny with a particular bird.

In another quick comment, Plumly asserted that he's "kind of a literalist, in the sense that I really can't make anything up" -- an explanation for the poem "Simile" for which he first lined up a set of objects, then wrote from the physical line. He provided a doubly braided take in "Paraphrase as the Parable of the Prodigal Son," weaving a version of King Lear into his bitter ending.

Listening to the slow growl that lingered just long enough to make each string of alliteration more deliberate, I thought: This is a quiet steady reading, gentle somehow. But poem upon poem, I began to realize that -- in Vermont language -- Plumly's reading was "gentle like a bulldozer." Or a swollen river insisting on passage where there was once a dam.

Heir to Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, Plumly summons both the poets and their words in his work. His finale this evening was from his new collection and has the title "Elevens": referring, among other things, to the form, which is eleven verses, each containing eleven lines of eleven syllables each. "This is a sort of geography lesson, this poem -- it travels all over the place -- in a way it's about heights, elevations," he rumbled as he noted the use of the form to frame the ramble. Here's one part:

Eliot says that home is where you start from,
memory and body so confused they are the same.
In London, in Holland Park, in late October
on a Sunday, in an after-rain late afternoon,
I stood under the great horse chestnut
I'd stood under in the spring when it lit
its candelabra into flame. The chestnuts,
like the eyes of deer, were gone--buckeyes
if you'd grown up in Ohio, conkers if you
played them or fed them to the horses.
And half the leaves were gone. Yet through

the intricate yellow lattice of what was left
the changing sky took on a shape less random.

Listening to Plumly read from this collection adds depth and resonance, a force both vocal and already written onto the page. Read them aloud; they are clearly constructed for this rich possibility.

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