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.

Guest Post, Caroline Knox: Two Middle-aged Springer Spaniels

I recently wrote a poem without thinking much about it, which seems to be one good way to write a poem. If it’s there, and coming into being, why think about it? Just get it down. I thought about it afterward, though.

Springer Spaniel

 

 Two Middle-aged Springer Spaniels

Two middle-aged springer spaniels,
black and white, with distinguished black freckles on the muzzle, and
one puppy, barely ambulatory, brown and white, slithered through the open screen door
when no one was looking, and charged into the living room. This room was in St. Louis, Missouri,
birthplace of T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, and it was large and full of comfortable
furniture. There were some nice-looking worn rugs on the floor, and the two elder dogs
ran around and around on the rugs, crumpling them up. They didn’t bark one bark,
but hurled themselves faster and faster in a circle around the room,
messing up the rugs completely and disassociating them from their rug pads. The dogs were
shedding all the while. Then they went over to the fireplace and upended the woodbox and the
kindling basket. They knocked down all the fire irons on the granite hearth with horrible noise.
The smallest was absorbing all the methods of the elder dogs, who seemed to
know this. They knocked over one of those fancy matchboxes with long matches
that people sometimes give you for visiting presents. Fortunately these didn’t ignite.
Then all three dogs were exhausted, so they crawled under the coffee table
and slept. This happened at my Aunt Deirdre and Uncle Leonard’s house in St. Louis,
and I know because I was there, too, and the thing I liked best about the whole performance
was that Aunt Deirdre and Uncle Leonard sat on the sofa and laughed and laughed the whole time,
and they didn’t tell the dogs to stop or call them bad dog or smack them,
and pretty soon the dogs went outdoors again and ran off into the bushes and down to the garage.

 

 

I have neither an Aunt Deirdre nor an Uncle Leonard, and I’ve never been to St. Louis. But I had an aunt and uncle who were similar to them, and they were lovely, forgiving people who knew what their dogs were like, and who loved their animals’ happiness more than a swept and garnished house.

My aunt was able to understand dog values and dog time. She knew that the importance of dog life lay in the chase, and in the curves of the arcs described around the living room, dining room, pantry, kitchen, back storeroom, were important parts of her dogs’ communication with the world and with each other. My aunt knew that the outdoors had a corresponding resonance for her dogs. The dog drama was to cover the ground in a ritual pattern, day and night, and to lead other dogs in the pattern.

My uncle came from a family who thought it was pretentious and hypocritical to have fancy boxes of fireplace matches with pictures of Piazza San Marco on them. I liked to go and stay with them by myself when I was a teenager, because they never seemed to be annoyed with me, unlike some. Could they possibly be in sympathy with people, as well as with dogs? Could they be sensible grownups who didn’t mind who or what you were, but who liked and/or loved you anyway? Would this show me how to laugh at things instead of be randomly angry? I was trying to find out who I was and what to do with my life. My aunt and uncle didn’t seem to mind if I stayed with them sometimes while I figured this out. I think I was lucky to have them.

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.

Guest Blog Post, Caroline Knox: On her Poem “Singing in Yoghurt”

Singing in Yoghurt Caroline Knox

Singing in yoghurt – chanter en yaourt
An ignocent pretends to get you through this:
Oh, it’s Pas de lieu Rhône connu
It’s Paddle your own canoe.
Pas de lieu Rhône connu?
No place known in Rhône? WHAT?

“There was a hypoon, and the ship went underboard.”
So I go “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.
You need an ignocent.
Yoghurt on the macaroni.
Or macaroni on the yoghurt.

From Flemish, copyright 2013 by Caroline Knox. Reprinted with permission of Wave Books and the author (http://www.wavepoetry.com/products/flemish)

“Singing in Yoghurt” is a short poem about the use of language; it also acts as and sounds like a song. Recently when I read it I got this audience question: How did you put the poem together? The answer is that the five ingredients in the poem are examples of the sort of activity that I try to put into poetry. They all belong together. The poem got written fast. It tries to remind us that we don’t always know just what we’re writing about or singing about, and that this may not be a bad thing. Here are the ingredients.

1. I had been reading a wonderful book, The Secret Life of Words, by Henry Hitchings (New York, 2008, 337). Hitchings describes a global trend and practice of poets and songwriters called singing in yoghurt – chanter en yaourt. Poets compose in their own languages, but they include words from other languages, even though they may not know exactly what the words mean. They don’t care, they like it. It sounds beautiful, cool, sophisticated, original. This seems to me endearing and healthy.

2. A friend of mine was asked to be a museum docent. She did all her homework, but she left some things out and got some facts wrong. She declared herself an ignocent.

3. My middle-school French teacher wrote this on the board:

Pas de lieu Rhône connu

and she made the whole class say it very fast. It sounded stupid and it was – it’s nonsense in French, but it’s just fine in English: Paddle your own canoe!

4. I was driving a carpool of little kids. The girl next to me in the front seat (she had never seen the ocean) was telling me the plot of a Disney movie. She said, “There was a hypoon, and the ship went underboard.” Marvelous girl! Two brand new words – hypoon and underboard – full of drama and fear.

5. Up to here I’ve been praising new, ingenious, and nutty uses of language. I conclude the poem with Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. The speaker is saying this, but as all typesetters and graphics people know, the phrase is a scumbled piece of written Latin which has come to mean “This is where the content in our text will go, as soon as we get it. Please be patient.” It’s a practical, charming, and generous work custom – I wish all professions could be so thoughtful! And finally, macaroni is combined with yoghurt because macaronic poetry is a form which uses two languages.