Guest Post, Caroline Knox: Samples

I’ve always thought that the most powerful poems were those that included in style and content the very highest and most important matter, right along with the most ordinary and insignificant. Such a combination can bring about surprise and evenhandedness, as if everything might be susceptible of comedy and respect. I think this because of reading Dickinson, Stevens, Moore, Auden, Plath, and Ashbery, among many others.

“Objects,” a long poem, tries to situate high and low style and content together. It collects anecdotes, reading notes, and overheard conversation; five stanzas appear below, and then a few thoughts about making each of these five. (Other stanzas include a translation, a speculation about music composition, and a comment on landscape design.)

From “Objects”

“I only owe the University three hundred

dollars, and if I can’t get it I

can’t graduate with the class.”

Karen said this to Sarah, and

went out to read bulletin boards.

POETRY READING CONTEST

THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS

FIRST PRIZE. Karen registered

and got up on the stage and read

“Sunday Morning,” won, and graduated.

“You never forget a beautiful

thing you have made,” said Chef

Bugnard of the Cordon Bleu

to Julia Child, “even after you

eat it – it stays with you always.”

******

These are the words

of Robert Darvin,

a Haitian refugee

evicted from a

tent camp, of his

new and flimsy

home: “It is made

of cheap concrete.

If you think too

much about it,

you lose your mind.”

Samuel Sewall wrote:

“Sabbath: This day

so cold that the

Sacramental Bread

is frozen pretty hard

and rattles sadly

as broken into plates.”

******

“The research highlighted

that one critical component

to building the capacity

of strategic execution is

the establishment of a

value attitude.” This

sentence has so much

wrong with it that you

hardly know where to

start. At least it doesn’t

have topic drift, or does it.

******

A salad: chopped

cucumbers, chopped

romaine, blueberries,

mint, feta cheese, FRESH

MINT, scallions;

for dressing: oil

and vinegar, and a

little honey. In a

bowl, stainless steel

rimmed with beading,

making clunks of noise

with serving tools, on

a cloth, a blue cotton,

on a table, maybe,

maple, maybe,

refinished by Alan

Marbury, an

accomplished

woodworker.

******

Flora Thompson wrote, “The

hamlet looked down at

the village as ‘stuck up’;

while the village looked

down on ‘that gipsy lot’

at the hamlet.” And Angela

Thirkell wrote of

a child’s thoughts:

“No one quite under-

stood what [the boy]

meant and by the time

he had spoken, what he

said appeared to

him to be meaningless.

We have all had that

experience.” And

finally – clear-eyed

and incisive – Laurie

Capps wrote, “We are

all/ issued white

coats; we are

forever/ taking

samples of the world.”

“I only owe the University” – Karen the serendipitous has managed not only to read the right bulletin board, earn the prize, pay her bill, and graduate, but also to accomplish all this by high-quality performance art. Her story stands in an interesting complementary relation to Chef Bugnard’s words about the transcendent quality of great cuisine and the permanence of its memory.

“These are the words” – Darvin expresses the privation and bleakness of the Haitian hurricane in extreme brevity and ellipsis, rather than lengthy mourning. But his brevity also shows his courage to survive. His view is mirrored in Sewall’s, as the austerity of the season in 17thc New England is made real in the harsh sounds of altar bread crumbled, it’s that cold. These speakers belong in the same stanza, they don’t need to explain further.

“The research highlighted” – It’s always a joy to find truly fresh language that works with precision, and it’s also a joy to find language that’s appallingly bad, like this.

“A Salad” – A recipe invented by my gifted neighbor, Kay Lisle, full of surprise ingredients, great taste and texture. But the stanza is also full of unsought and useless information: why do we need to know a) that Alan Marbury refinished the table? And b) that he is a fine craftsman? Because the poem’s voice insists on it, insists that minor and local information be brought into some relation with the very original salad from Kay.

“Flora Thompson …” – The speakers in the first quote here use very vernacular language — “stuck up” and “that gipsy lot” — to dish out their two-way social (and economic) snobbery! Casual style, ugly content of principles, in small-town England. Then, in Thirkell’s quote, the child who speaks is immediately consumed with self-doubt, and Thirkell sympathetically writes, “We have all had that experience.” (It’s both ridiculous and poignant.) Finally, the prophetic view that seals both the project and the poem comes from the eloquent Laurie Capps; her vision comprehends everyone: “We are all … taking samples of the world.”

Note: Julia Child, Life in France, Anchor, 2007, 65; Robert Darvin, Quotation of the Day, New York Times, April 24, 2011, A3; Samuel Sewall, Diary, I, 94; Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford, Godine, 2010, 37; Angela Thirkell, Love at All Ages, Knopf, 1959, 203; Laurie Capps, Denver Quarterly 45/3, 2010, 10.

Caroline Knox

Caroline Knox's ninth poetry collection, To Drink Boiled Snow, appeared from Wave Books in Fall 2015. She has new work in A Public Space, Denver Quarterly, The Common, and Tin House.

Image Credit: David Greenfield

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