When Charles Simic declined a second year as US Poet Laureate, he said his choice was to spend time writing poetry. This year he brings out two volumes -- a collection of his own new work, and a complex and deep set of translations. More about those another time ... but thinking about Simic's choices has brought my nose repeatedly to the glass of translation, seeing how it can provoke hungry roots to digest even stone, to nourish the stem, the stalk, the trunk, the branch.
So in reading and re-reading Jane Mead's 2008 volume THE USABLE FIELD, I brought this inner nudge. Well, we all do, don't we? But this one, at least, I recognized in advance. The tongue and its entanglements, the brain's predisposition to speech, the growth of a second soul along with a second language: Mead's poems take words and phrases and rattle them together until they translate the outer world into an inner one. How can you say what "bird" really means? And how can you name the wings-breast-tail-throat such that you speak the song?
Mead crafts a short-line form reminiscent of the pantoum, or of a meditative chant, repeating and interweaving lines to thread the stones of the poem together. Sometimes there is a sequence that appears to explain, as in "Three Candles and a Bowerbird," which opens with:
I do not know why
the three candles must sit
before this oval mirror,
but they must.--
I do not know much
about beauty, though
are clearly great -- even
to the animals:
And it is the word-unfettered minds of trees, grasses, and animals that rattle the chants of this collection. For Mead writes in "The Part -- and the Whole" that "Stocking the globe is not / my issue, taking stock / is my issue." Later, she offers a sequence of this inventory: "the integrated lives of ants / and geese, the upturned / feet of dead rodents: corrupt // parade -- as in this labor / leads to blood in the heart." Or, in another poem, "the bird / with the blue feathers, the brown bird -- / the same white breasts." And later, "oak, manzanita and bunchgrass."
The creatures and earth-sprouts offer back an echo of grief, loss, and letting go, becoming the song of this poet: "streaked sky waits -- as if for / a flickering-of-wings which it cannot / contain. As if for the flinch // in your voice. -- Which it can."
One poem whose repeating fragments I especially enjoyed is "The Habit of Resistance," which asserts, "Each fall / a new beginning. // The wings in the trees / are black. The buildings / crumble, the asphalt / cracks. Every spring / we count the dead." And as the wings in the trees wheel back again, a rare direct statement follows: "We carry / our grief whole, / we carry our lives. Swayed // by the under-self, / it's how we love."
In her care, her enumeration, her turning of the image and object and creature and line, over and over again, Mead crafts a worry stone for the mind and heart. My thumb is still rubbing one set of lines from "The Woman Whose Specialty Is Light":
And if she gives this bruise-light
back, if she neglects the working
night, neglects the cattails,
swamp or fog -- she will lose them
for now and always, back into
the house of maps.