Poet April Ossmann is also the executive director of Alice James Books. I asked her how the two forms of devotion dovetail, and she said firmly that being a poet gives her insight into work that comes to the press -- and wrestling with work that comes to the press causes her to raise the bar for her own work.
When her debut collection ANXIOUS MUSIC was published by Four Way Books in 2007, it was compared with the work of Robert Frost and Marie Howe. But I suspect the Frost reference is a casual comparison based on both Frost and Ossmann drawing imagery and determination from New England. I found the work musical, elegantly framed in precise rhythms and forms. Here's the second poem in the collection (with permission from the publisher):
I am looking for epergne when I find it, Sunday morning
in my Webster's Unabridged between ensorcell
(what desire does to the brain)
what we think the head does to the spirit,
though it might be the opposite--
the soul ensphering the body, the body
meant to contain only what it could, a tenth,
of its guiding spirit, the rest
streaming continually out--
the way light illuminates the lampshade and spills over the edges--
but the word that stops my search is ensoul:
where did they find a being without one--a body, a bleak house
waiting for that happy family of four?
Is it something slipped
to the baby just before birth or in the slap just after
(the soul so deeply asleep it needs slapping awake)?
To endow with a soul awes me:
perhaps we're every color and shape of soulless vase
awaiting water and blossom, and only a saintly few so graced,
but what stops my breath is
to take or put into the soul,
as if the soul were a receptacle that could be filled
with anything--daisies or roses, trash or ashes. I'd want
to be exquisitely careful what I allowed in there--
when I think of it, I've had or assumed
scant control over what I allowed in
or what's been tossed in my soul.
I have been the epergne I was looking for--
that ornamental silver stand or crystal dish
meant to put food in or take food from--
I have not done what the poets have done
which is to give objects or words a soul--a variation
on idolatry--or a form of grace?
What the poets have done is to give death
a soul, which I have not done not out of humility, but fear:
once death has soul, if death is the mother of beauty
what mercies or cruelties are not possible?
Ossmann's choice of form creates a dance on the page, that sense of backing and then pressing forward again in a ballroom dance or even a two-step. I like it.
Here is April Ossmann's commentary on the piece:
How I Write, and How I Wrote “Epergne”
by April Ossmann
I’m a seize-the-moment sort of poet, writing at any time of day or evening, mostly at home, but also on airplanes, hiking, driving, and once, on a ski lift. Mostly, I write in a white heat, writing the first draft and immediately going on to further drafts until the poem is good enough that I’m not embarrassed by it (my first drafts are mostly awful).
I keep a notebook where I record poems written while traveling, and scraps and ideas that might become poems, colloquialisms (like “numb as a pounded thumb”), and anything else that intrigues me enough that I want to remember it. It’s a wildly random collection, including a bunch of “definitions” (“The wind is like the air, only pushier.”) by 5th and 6th graders that someone once emailed me. I love the challenge of working those oddments into poems.
“Epergne,” one of the poems in my book, Anxious Music, happened that way. I spent a morning reading two of Mark Doty’s books, My Alexandria and Atlantis, and when I stopped to look up “epergne” in the dictionary, I got caught by a several other words I found en route: “ensorcell,” “ensphere” and “ensoul.” They are such great words, and I was so astounded to learn that the word “ensoul” existed, that I challenged myself to write a poem using all four words.
The poem owes some of its inspiration to the two books, but also to Wallace Stevens’ poem "Sunday Morning" (one of my all-time favorites), because so much in those beautiful books (which deal largely with grieving the slow and painful death of a lover with AIDS) brought Stevens’ line, “Death is the mother of beauty,” so vividly (and cruelly) to life.