Poet’s Corner: An unexpected music

But it is not always quiet here.
Things go on while we sleep the sleep of soldiers.
Ancient branches crack and splinter into dust. Large wings snap open in spring
like carpets splayed out over the railing.
Granite splits apart at the seams
and great animals cleave roads through woods.
Daily, in the density, there is life
on the edge of the knife that cuts the world into hemispheres of sense and death.
Trees are born and die, bones turn to humus, glaciers to meadowland. It is time
to turn yourself loose, like new leaves,
like big lakes on which swim enormous birds
at a distance deeper in breadth than the water’s depth.
Their shadows pull you to the shore.
Their size fills your lungs with sky. It is time
to heave aside the boulders and the dams,
to come back out like a bear after the thaw, to be ready for the forest, for the forage, for the full
and waning moons. You will get soaked in wet grass, feel the insects pierce your skin. You will learn
to balance between gravity and light. There will be hot and sticky nights, sharp songs at dawn,
long and bright ineffable days.
This is your chance to crash your way
through underbrush unlocking like so many doors.
— Alice B. Fogel

This poem first appeared in New Hampshire poet laureate the book Strange Terrain, by from 2014-2019. Her collections Alice B. Fogel. Fogel was the include A Doubtful House, Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” which won the Schaffner Award for Music in Literature & the 2016 NH Literary Award, & “Be That Empty.” Strange Terrain is her guide to appreciating poetry without necessarily “getting” it. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her poems have appeared in many publications, including “Best American Poetry,” “Spillway,” “Hotel Amerika,” “The Inflectionist” and “DIAGRAM.” She works one-on-one with students with learning differences at Landmark College in Putney, Vt.

“Unlocking” is one of those poems you could explore forever. It is hardly about one thing, not that any poem ever is. It makes me think of Archibald MacLeish’s words “A poem should not mean but be” from his exquisite “Ars Poetica,” well worth reading. “Unlocking” is a poem that truly knows how to just “be,” very well, with its vibrant stanzas, each like its own poem, replete with nature’s richness.
I once read that the language of poetry is much more like that of music than it is of prose. It moves outside of logical and linear thinking. Poetry’s language is spiraling and circling and transporting. Poetry is never just the sum of its parts; it is the creation of worlds within worlds through images, and a good poem never ends — it just sends the reader back into itself over and over.

Fogel’s poem is full of such music and multiple worlds. Images of turmoil live along side those of spring pushing through, and of new life arriving through the weight of so many earthly things. But it is hard to feel that at first. We really aren’t quite sure where we are or what is happening. This is a spring that requires much patience; around us indeed is a world that feels as if it might “split apart at the seams.”

Even with imminent spring, there is the presence of death in certain images and in the sounds the words make. Again — that music, even in death and destruction. “Branches crack and splinter….Granite splits apart ….Trees are born and die, bones turn to humus, glaciers to meadowland.” The first half of the poem is full of such heavy-laden words with their hard consonant sounds, many ending firmly and quickly as “crack” and “granite” and “apart.” These abrupt endings stop the breath. There is no arguing with them. The words “cleave” and “cuts the world” create a world with edges, of sudden change and breakage. We all know too well these days, such a world.

But the latter half of the poem feels decidedly different. I feel my breathing slowing; Ahhh … I relax a bit. “Shadows pull you to shore … their size fills your lungs with sky…” and the lines keep going with those soft s and double ll sounds. We are in a very different place now, and it has much to do with sound and texture of the natural world. “You will get soaked in wet grass.” I start to feel I am falling, full and ready for that forest foraging, for the waning moons, the long bright days. I am reminded how very powerful sound is — how words and their vibrations really do alter our mindset, even our physiology.
And there is something else — that beautiful stanza in the very center of the poem. For me, this is where the real transition begins: “To turn yourself loose, like new leaves…” We feel and hear the shift in those soft word sounds, and even more in the tone. Here is an offering, a gift. Yes, all that cracking and splitting and cleaving occurred, but there is this too. In “like big lakes on which swim enormous birds…” we might even feel those expansive wings, that imminent flight. And there is the strange, unexpected wording of “a distance deeper in breadth than the water’s depth.” We could talk about what that might mean, but it would pale every time to a much deeper well of meaning that can only happen from the feeling it creates in each reader.
So I would ask, what does that line feel like to you, or any of the poem’s lines? Your response is as valid as any because poetry is at heart about feeling and emotion. Let the words fall over you, soak into you, bring you to your own experience of the poem, and so closer to that of your life. And don’t discount their power to guide, to uplift, and even transform, especially when we need it most.
Susan Jefts is from Ripton, Vt., and the Adirondacks of New York. She publishes her work in journals both nationally and locally, and runs workshops using poetry as a means for exploring our connections to ourselves and the natural world. Learn more about her workshops at ManyRiversLifeGuidance.com.


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