i have, as the dixie chicks say, been a long time gone (from the blog).
and so i am a little rusty. i'll work my way back into it after a bit; it must be like riding a bicycle, right? pedal, pedal, pedal. . .
and so: i was reading this poem the other day, found in a collection that a dear friend gave me for my birthday, and my heart just about stopped. and so it must be posted here -- not because i want your heart to stop, but because i think you'll be just as stunned as i am by the gorgeousness (that can't be a word) of the language, the sheer glimmer of it, the shine and dark of it.
and while i don't know this poet's writing process, it seems to me that she's taken the subject of the poem (or maybe just the word referring to the subject -- "housefire") and teased out and shaken out all of the sounds from that word -- and then she tracks those sounds all the way through the poem, and the repetition not only adds to cohesion, but also to tension, to the drama of the poem, as the readers wait to hear what comes next, what sound will unleash us from the housefire, what sounds will keep each stanza trapped in it. this is exactly what richard hugo recommends to poets in his book, The Triggering Town; he claims that poems that follow sound rather than meaning tend to make for better poems -- the sounds lead to the unexpected leaps, the associations, that might not have appeared if the poet were faithful to the "project" of the poem rather than the "possibility" of the poem.
the sounds in this poem don't take the subject matter on any kind of wild ride, but they do increase the experience and strength of the images for me, and following sound in this controlled way makes the poem extraordinarily vivid. the sounds, it seems to me, leap up in poem much like flames would -- a base of hissing "S" sounds; the leaps and flickers of "Ls"; the richer, warmer "Rs" that keep adding contrast to the colder "Ss"; the long mournful "O" sounds that make the poem sadder ("mortification," "broken," "swollen") and also more frightening because they're so quiet and lulling ("stroke," "smoke," "smolder").
the miracle to me about this poem is that, quite often, alliteration can become a joke, a commercial jingle, reminiscent of a tongue-twister from the fourth grade. but here, even with the string of S sounds in the first stanza, that sound neither interrupts meaning nor does it show off and upstage the meaning, but instead it reinforces the "subject matter" (much too clinical a term for this, but you get the idea), and bolsters the experience of the poem. in the way the poem is written, in the hush and push of the sounds of the words, i'm suddenly also inside the house, inside that sleeping silence, waiting for the spark to catch.
(the sounds are catching, too, hey? i can't stop with the alliteration/consonance now. . . so before i go over the edge into S-ville, here's the poem).
~ Miranda Field
The spark struck in secret under the stairs in dust
in the cellar smolders the way a face does, and the life
inside it, after a slap. A mortification, stains
on the floor of a caged thing's cage. In dust
in the cellar where our bicycles lean
broken-antlered in the dark. Among molds
in the cellar where the cat swollen with poison
curls in the damp to extinguish herself. It's dark outside;
inside the dark becomes particles a little like rain
stilled. Behind chicken-wired glass the garden
shakes a few leaves down. Most of winter's work is done,
the pond lidded, the ruts of the bicycles' wheels
cast in iron. The fire begins by itself, a breathing-life-into,
a kindling: cells of our skin, soil from the garden;
tinder for the fire's insistence. The fire has been impatient
to begin all along. The house is its accomplice.
Roots of the black walnut hold tight the foundations,
hence nothing grows here, nothing flourishes.
But flames brush the root hairs, make them stand on end.
Like a story's ending, not quite to wake us is the fire's
intention. To stroke us with smoke, our sleeping faces.
(published in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, eds. Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2006.)