Poetry Prose and Other Words
by Ken Ingham
Song of the World Becoming: New and collected poems 1981-2001
This is a complete collection of Pattiann Rogers’ poems, several hundred including 40 new ones not previously published. From the title one might expect a theme of evolution but its really more a celebration of existence, the kind that comes to a poet who has closely observed, studied and marveled over the natural world and the universe in which it spins. Such a life has given her copious amounts of material to work with, an elaborate vocabulary of everything from the subatomic to the supergalactic and all between. This coupled with an amazing imagination and a flair for the erotic leads to some very interesting stuff.
Pattiann is a master of the “list poem” - she must have the longest life list of any poet. Many of her poems are literally littered with images of nature, animate and inanimate, daisy chains of sights sounds smells, fragrance and stink, both real and imagined. But has she really seen first hand all of those different species, stood that close to notice the halo around the thrasher’s eye, the tongue of the digger bee, dust pillars teetering on the pistils of the coneflowers, the dormouse fang, the titmouse toe, the bog turtle’s breath filled with the odor of worms? Or does she simply possess a wall full of Field Guides from which to enrich her poems. Doesn’t matter. Here the dropping of names, in arpeggio, is elevated to an art form.
Relentlessly evoking a cosmic perspective, Pattiann can gently jerk you around and hang you upside down as in The Stars Beneath my Feet I mean those actual stars filling the skies below me and in Verges where she refers to the blue bottomless canyon of the sky. But then, if you visualize your self clinging to earth and looking out into the void, whose to say what’s up or down? Ask those Naked Boys On Naked Ponies galloping across the prairie . . . hair and tails and manes dragging in the dusky glow of the starry nebula. Its this facility with shifting scales that gives her poetry such depth, such extra dimensionality. I swear, sometimes she writes as if living organisms were mere collections of fundamental particles!
After a month of intense engagement with this book, I found myself at Bethany Beach and it was there that the child-like characters Felicia, Albert, Gordon, Sonia, Cecil and Kioka came alive. They surfaced in numerous poems, most frequently in the collections entitled “Legendary Performance” and “Tattooed Lady in the Garden”. Their precocious thoughts and opinions, their beliefs and doubts, their compassion for the blind and deaf beggars were as refreshing as the ocean breeze. In A Seasonal Tradition, Felicia’s music teacher gives a violin concert for Felicia and her insane uncle. The last piece is played in a register too high to be heard. In successive stanzas, Felicia and her friends offer touching interpretations of what that piece means to them, sometimes invoking rich images from nature, wind among the black strings of the icy willows . . . bog lemmings buried in the winter marsh. In The Mystery of Union, these same characters together with the oldest blind beggar take up the recurring theme of naked boys and ponies, asking whether anyone has ever seen one without the other, whether its even possible - Cecil, while painting, cannot execute on canvas a definite line dividing the pressure of knees from the trembling of withers. In The Effort to Eliminate Ignorance: Birdwatching, Sonia is compiling a catalog of birds in which she defines the willet as the first thought of wind against the brow . . . whereas Cecil believes that the nature of dreams might be revealed by studying the way the buteo hawk soars . . . and so on - get the picture? The clever use of these fantastical characters alters voice and adds texture to a disciplined style that might otherwise grow monotonous.
In the back of the book there is an alphabetical list of Pattiann’s titles, an interesting browse in its own right but not too useful as an index because the titles often fail to adequately connote content. An exception and one of her best poems, shorter than average at only 29 lines, was The Fear of Falling, about how it originates in the slip of ancestral fingers from ancient limbs, the tree apes . . . how each must have clawed, grabbing before breathing, its mother’s hairy knee, the slip of her rump . . . how many times in the jerk of sleep has the last hand-hold been seen disappearing upward like a small bird sucked into space? This was followed by Capturing the Scene about an artist who elucidates with pen and ink each board of the covered bridge, each shingle of the roof . . . filling in the blank with the pause of the dragon fly, the scratch of the myrtle weed, and that artist understood from the beginning where he must never look . . . into the dark . . . where he knows there is that which he must draw blindfolded or not at all. In Fossil Texts on Canyon Walls, one of my favorites from the title collection, we imagine becoming our own fossil - a myth of sun buried . . to rise again on earth as a parable spoken in stone on the canyon wall. As Even Ever is an offering to the sun, how it burns and blinds and roils wildly . . . like boiling lava . . . above the serene siestas of the quiet trees, the calm dozing of the dogs . . . and gives equally to each its own shadow, thus establishing a model for justice. Speaking of Evolution : Luminosity, also from the title collection, is a tribute to ancestors who minded the punk log day and night . . . cradled coals in clay cups through windy mountain journeys . . . spun wood against wood . . . fanned and coddled and spoke to the warm light coming. This is poetry. This is what I love at the beach!
this review first appeared in the July
2001 issue of