Dedicated “For my students, then and now,” Kelly Cherry’s new collection, the 2013 L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award winner, The Life and Death of Poetry, is indeed in the lofty tradition of Ars Poetica, The Art of Poetry, or The Nature of Poetry, instructions and reflections from a master of the art. Cherry writes with authority, and her deep philosophical involvement in the subject saturates the pages. The reader feels from her tone that her audience of students (all of us) is squarely in mind.
This elegant collection consists of three parts, the first, “Learning the Language,” a sequence of meditations on poetry, the language, the rhythm, the speech, the voice, the sounds that precede the speech and the thought that comes before the voice. Without being didactic Cherry conveys her thoughts on the origins of poetry in human consciousness and how it ennobles human existence. Indeed, she begins at the very beginning. Take the second poem of the collection, a sonnet entitled “A Sunday in Scotland.”
I found a path that led me through the wood,
past fallen stone — a Roman wall in ruin —
and some felled trees, to where two horses stood
at pasture, and the nearest, a graceful road,
drew close, and backed away again, and then
came partway back, and then decided to get on
with his own life in that field next to a fen.
I found a stump nearby — something to sit on
while catching my breath. Just to my right, a field
of poppies, post-impressionistically
spattered. The sky was gray. The church bells pealed,
and I was thinking how it would be, to be
on earth as a horse or dog or cat or bird
or tree or flower, self-consciousness deferred.
I love that “poppies post-impressionistically spattered,” but the point is that poetry is human, a self-conscious creation. The rest of “Creation,” or “Nature” is simply “the thing itself.” A sequence of poems involving animals in a field follows, with wonderful imagery that places them in speech and writing (from “Field Notes”: A shrew “with a tail as long as a tirade”; from “Seen but Not Heard”: “and trapped things pray/sotto voce.” From “A Blue Jay in the Snow”: “A blue jay in the snow/is a text/that cannot be read/out of the context...”). And this entire poem:
On a couch —
baby mice stillborn,
clutching each other
as if either
could save his brother.
The size of thumbs,
tails still curled.
Spelling it twice.
Eventually we get to the poem, “The First Word” (“Someone said it. Maybe/a child calling for his mother.”) and “Learning the Language” (“Before he had a word for it/he must have apprehended the thing itself.”). And so the next fourteen poems in the section move us even deeper into the realms of language and its opposite, silence, including poems entitled “Mute,” “Language,” Ars Poetica,” “Fiction,” “Poetic Justice,” all written in Cherry’s spare, vivid style but ever so subtly enlarging on the theme. An image I just love from the poem “Mute”: “A dark red throw lay on the couch/as if recovering from a cold.” But Cherry’s pure artfulness cannot be emphasized too strongly. There is no lecturing here, simply vivid images in stark, colorful language.
The second section of the collection, a sequence entitled “Welsh Table Talk,” set in a sparse island landscape that matches Cherry’s spare poetic style (Bardsey Island, for the record, a couple of miles off the Welsh coast), allusively tells the story of a woman who is trying to fit into the family of a man and his daughter but ultimately fails (from “The Sheep-Fly”: “I had failed your test./All kinds of possibilities were dying like flies.”), for there is a speaker but no narrator; a story suggests itself but nobody tells it.
These are lovely poems that capture the feeling of isolation and beauty on a remote island in the North Atlantic. The progress (or lack of it) in insinuating herself into the fabric of the family is depicted throughout the sequence in spare references to the daughter (from “The Conversation”: “I think she is sweet,/Wonder if she’s my step-daughter-to-be,’ followed by a poem called “Dream Daughter,” and next from “The Spring”: “I drowned a penny in spring water,/Wishing for a daughter.” And from the penultimate poem in the sequence, “The Last Night”: “And nestling choughs and shearwaters/Will cry, as I for my lost daughters.” In deft lines like strokes in a watercolor Cherry adroitly presents the island; in a sonnet entitled “The Manx Shearwater,” for instance, she shows us the seabird (also known as an Atlantic Puffin) peculiar to those parts while at the same time developing the theme of not being able to break into the “nest,” as it were, of the family on the island. “Learning to Live with Stone” closes the sequence, a title that needs no commentary.
Cherry is at her most authoritative in the final section of the collection, “What the Poet Wishes to Say,” three long poems (each one four or five pages), in which she meditates “On Translation” enlarges upon “What the Poet Wishes to Say” and in the final poem, reviews “The Life and Death of Poetry.” This final poem, from which the collection as a whole takes its title, was the least satisfying to me personally, for the Christ images and Biblical references (Noah’s dove, e.g.) and its abstraction (“The poem must die/To the poet, it must be dead/To the poet’s ego, go out/Of the poet’s self....”), but what a lovely voice Cherry has; it makes you want to sit in a classroom listening to her. And her sly wit is on display nowhere so winningly as at the start of “On Translation”:
Be warned, I tell my students,
A writer with nothing to write
is in danger of falling into
one or more of four
pitfalls: drink, drugs,
adultery, and translation.
Drink will sink you. Drugs
don’t even deserve discussion.
Adultery is too expensive
for the young, and when you are old
it is too exhausting.
This leaves translation.
In the tradition of Ars Poetica, The Life and Death of Poetry instructs at the same time that it delightfully entertains. Steeped in poetic tradition, Kelly Cherry’s poems are nevertheless fresh and unique, bursting off the page.