LIBERTY LITERALLY REIFIEDby Scott Hightower
Easy | Marie Ponsot (Knopf, 2009)
We all have those poets on whom we lean heavily, poets with whom we need to walk on a frequent basis. I do not remember exactly how it was that Marie Ponsot’s Admit Impediment made its first appearance onto my quick-reach shelf; I only recall that it was in the mid 1980s. My beloved and heavily dog-eared copy of Admit Impediment was eventually joined by Ponsot’s first book, True Minds, her later book, The Green Dark, and, later springs by The Bird Catcher and Springing. I have found that good books of poetry often attract other books. A supplemental stack of titles migrated to the shelf to join Ponsot’s poetry: books by Hesiod, Virgil, Shakespeare, Marvell, Blake, and H.D. Even non-poetry books made their appearance: books on language, myth, gender dominance, birds, and gardens. Simply put: Reading Ponsot’s poetry makes me hungry to read more.
In looking for a lineage in the landscape of American poetry, one considers Emily Dickinson. And moving into the next century one has the poetry of Hilda Doolittle. Adrienne Rich’s first book was published in 1951. H.D. was working until 1961. Anne Sexton was gone by 1974; Elizabeth Bishop by 1979. Muriel Rukeyser died in 1980; Djuna Barnes in 1982. Gwendolyn Brooks, was alive and writing until 2000. Mona Van duy, until 2004. At present, in addition to Rich and Ponsot, we have the voices of Carolyn Kizer and Jean Valentine. There are points where one could posit at least a note of contemporaneousness, if not a note of influence or affinity. For direct influence, the poems of Dickinson, H.D., and Djuna Barnes make a lot of sense. As might Shakespeare, John Donne, John Keats, William Blake, John Clare, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. As might the fables of Montaigne, the critical work of Northrop Frye, and the philosophical work of Susanne Langer.
Easy, Ponsot’s newest book is divided into three sections. Despite its packaging, the book is not so much an ensemble of three separates as it is a seamless garment, a collection of fine poems that moves in waves and rhythms. The poet quickly embarks from the kitchen counter and the low hum of a five-petaled electric fan to poems of Blakian transport:
In the longing of silence
the longing of sound for
makes waves, Are the winds
of outer space
or simply the rush of change
(“If Live, Stones Hear”)
The poems push to the deepest elemental source of the experience of each poem. In one, the reverie begins with clouds:
I do love the drift of clouds. Cloud-love is irresistible,
This dawns on me: no cloud is measureable....
Make mine cloud.
Make mind cloud.
The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering....
Late at night when my outdoors is
indoors, I picture clouds again:
Come to mind, cloud.
Come to cloud, mind.
(“This Bridge, Like Poetry, is Vertigo”)
The unfolding of each poem—as the collection title promises—is proposed with artistic ease. Ponsot, like the clouds the poet contemplates, is not willing; is not unwilling. Without anxiety, the poet extends into time and radical energy. Like clouds or reaching green vines, the desire of the poet easily embraces experience by shaping it into human intelligence.
Creation releases desire, and so provides the real form of desire, which is desire for freedom, equality, love and innocence. Creation puts reason to work, and so provides the real form of reason, the constructive and unified shape of human intelligence...Only the effort of a mind in which intelligence and love are equally awake is a mind in the creative state that Blake calls imagination (Northrop Frye).
At the edge of vision just short of sight
pond air shimmers pearly
unbroken ungated . . .
when I turn
and look into it
I want birds.
(“Alongside the Pond”)
The human genius searches beyond worldly fragmentations for some glimpse of an inspired moment, for some genuine outward circumference of energy. Real desire—not need—is looking in the external world for something to gratify it. As earthly creatures we have facility for inspired invention and community, facility of annihilation. We have a multiplicity of function, definition, purpose, preference, and perspective. We have desire for sharing without sacrificing our desire for freedom, equality, love, and innocence.
Daily, men and women—often surrounded by uncontrollable violence and clamorous disorder—take walks, engage in gardens, rear children, maintain tone for societies, visit museums, build and maintain splendid cities, make art, are all creatively engaged—on old foundations—in giving nature the form of civilized human intelligence. Like Virgil or Blake before her, Ponsot is one of the great poets of time and radical energy. Exercising one’s genius can be fundamental and easy—it need not be the work of a wielded will. (Ponsot is careful with notions of nobility and force.) We are reminded—even in what later may be smoothed over as a status quo—the unearthed residue of long passed violations of extreme means (harsh essentialisms) may make their appearance. In the process of bringing innate human genius to bear on the world, other antithetical energies may also be defined: tyranny, class distinctions, economic injustices, and discriminations of race, creed, preference, and gender.
In her poetry and her instruction, Marie Ponsot has been diligent in her authority and generous in cultivating that of others. She teaches us to think carefully about the dynamics of concrete and abstract imagery in lyric poetry and other forms of expression, to be suspicious and subversive to willed literary mechanisms of power and, most importantly, to make hospitable and ample room in our lives for the muse. In one poem, a speaker walks home from a museum visit ruminating on a Paradise panel of radiant palm toting saviors. The ideal of the panel is not rejected, but probed as an outer measure of the fundamental situation of the poet. A down-to-earth revelation about the essence of the language of poetry is made as an imaginative, intelligent song:
I lack leaves and their air-exchanging grace.
I lack gold leaf and your burin skill. Here I walk
east and west of death, toward their lute-led talk,
its pure sound spilt from song. In their words’ embrace
strangers partner. Their redeeming speech spans
time and tune. Solo, they also move as a throng
conversing, hand lifted to open hand,
their speech sung as if not split from song.
(“Walking Home from the Museum”)