Guest Post, Caroline Knox: Sound Mode

My heart and my brain are currently colluding to make me write poems in which sound is a main factor.  In the past few years, I’d made poems on a precise subject on purpose – a sculpture, an aromatic herb, a waterfall, a kimono, a collapsed shed.  But then I began to swerve away from choosing subjects beforehand, and toward writing poems where sound is foregrounded and seems a subject in itself.  I instance three poems, and wonder about why.  The first is called “Poem.”

 

Poem

 

The aoudad, a North

African sheep, doesn’t

eat the fruit of the

baobab tree, a South

African native.

“Chaos” and

“inchoate” sound

like words related

to one another,

but of course they

aren’t.  Totally

different roots.

American Heritage

says “inchoate” is

from Latin for “not

yet harnessed.”  It

says “chaos” is from

Latin (and Greek) for

“empty space.”  Well,

both words are lovely

noises to dramatize

confusion.  So are

ukes of koa wood,

a fine-textured

Hawaiian tree.

In Maori, the

particle noa means

all these words or

phrases:  only,

just, nearly, quite,

until, at random,

idly, fruitlessly,

in vain, and as soon as.

Noa sounds like

an adverb to me.

What is it with

O and A – alpha

and omega?

I logged onto

AOL to see.

Aonia is where

the Muses live,

in Helicon.  In

Italy, Aosta was

St. Anselm’s home

town.  The lifting

organ, the aorta,

carries blood for the heart.

 

gothic text A and OI’d always thought the words “chaos” and “inchoate” were weird and wonderful (and not very useful).  One day, digging around, I kept coming on other words in which O and A figured.  Who has heard of the aoudad sheep?  How many people know the versatility of the particle noa?  The items on my list clung together, together with the grand concept of A and O, alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  It seemed good in a poem to have small things brought into a relation with higher things.  And there’s nothing small about the aorta or about what its job is.

 

Saints Partying

 

On the Santa Ana winds this elevated group

soars, and at night by the light of St. Elmo’s fire

they drift as far as San Domingo and beyond.  You should

see them gyrating to “The St. Louis Blues”

and “The St. James Infirmary”!  The opposite of St. Bernards.

 

On breaks, this one reads Four Saints in Three Acts, by Stein;

that one is reading Saint Joan, by Shaw.  A third is

reading MontSaintMichel and Chartres, by Henry James.  They are all

reading about themselves in The Lives of the Saints

in St.-Tropez or St.-Moritz, watering-places of glamour.

 

The saints make frequent use of the antidepressant and antioxidant St. John’s wort.

Settling in with cases of St.-Émilion, one of them retells

the riddle of “As I was going to St. Ives.”  Another recites

“The Eve of St. Agnes.”  One is immersed in Rumer Godden’s

lovely novel A Candle for St. Jude.  They dine on coquilles St.-Jacques.

 

And they think this is lots of fun, but extreme hedonism and extravagance

and cultural overload catch up with every one of them.  So they go on the

historic pilgrimage – mountain and valley, desert and plain and swamp – to Santiago de Campostela.

 

The use of the word “saint” in this poem is distant from that of the historical figures revered by churches.  Many uses here refer to geographical places named for saints; some to literature, to music, to an herb; to a wine, to a stately dog breed. The situation is slightly absurd.  It’s not that saints have attached themselves to the secular world; rather, the secular world has attached itself to them.

I chose this poem-making method:  I ransacked reference works to get names of saints; I collected these names and tried to unite them on a page in some sort of relationship dictated by the repeated use of the names.  It didn’t make logical sense, and I didn’t expect it to.  It was an “artificial” method.  But when I had finished, I thought it had become a poem.  Repeating the word “saint” throughout the poem makes it seem like a litany.  Is it a secular one?  Or not?  The saints in this poem seem to be living in the midst of joy and energy, peaceable, the way we’re supposed to be.

 

 

The third and final poem is a ghazal.  The form has the built-in sound repetition of the compulsory end words, repetitive whether you like it or not!  (I’ve only written one ghazal before.)  As I wrote, I heard the long O’s and short O’s make themselves known.  I thought they helped make the poem both unified and ridiculous (the latter especially, in that the poet thinks she would be any good at playing a horn).  “Bone Ghazal” praises “distinguished figures” with sonorous names – the Aldas, Marilynne Robinson, Goya.  (The Bonapartes are of course distinguished for warfare.)  All three poems were calling to me to pay careful attention to the aural presence.

 

Bone Ghazal

 

There is a handsome wildflower/weed, eupatorium perfoliatum, bone-

set, which I worked my fingers to the bone

 

trying to transplant, without success.  It bears white umbels –

umbrellas, really – and its blossom is the color of bone.

 

Alan Alda, they say, told a Columbia Physicians and Surgeons

commencement that “The headbone is connected to the heartbone.”

 

The brother of Napoleon, seated on the throne of Spain,

was painted by Francisco Goya:  this was Joseph Bon-

 

aparte, they say.  Glamour and privilege; in those circles

they dined on the delicate veal sauce and marrow-bone

 

flavor of osso bucco.  You wouldn’t find this dish in the

town of Robinson’s masterpiece, Housekeeping, Fingerbone,

 

Idaho.  Boneset was used in home remedies, teas to assuage

pain of ague, flu and colds, indigestion in the elderly, bone

 

fractures.  (Boneset tea!  Catlap!)  Alan and Arlene Alda gave so much

to help the world of poetry, I think there isn’t a mean bone

 

in the body of either one.  Goya painted masterpieces

galore, despite a tumor on the legbone.

 

This ghazal celebrates distinguished figures

whom I wish I had the musical talent to praise with the trombone.

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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