Saturday, December 10, 2011


The whisper of tiny-winged solitude

I've just recently read All Graced in Green, a book of poems by Scott King, published this year by Thistlewords Press, an imprint of Red Dragonfly Press. (Scott King is the publisher of Red Dragonfly Press; he has used the imprint Thistlewords Press to publish a few books of his own work.) This is the largest and most varied collection of Scott's poems that I've seen: richly layered poems of nature and the life of the earth, poems of quiet warmth and friendship and intimacy with the people in his life.

I first met Scott in the early 1990's, and we've become friends in the years since. (By way of disclosure, Red Dragonfly Press has published three of my books of poems, and will be publishing another of mine in the near future.) I took great pleasure in reading All Graced in Green. If you're not familiar with Scott King's poetry, this book makes a good introduction to his work.

One of the qualities that I found running through many of the poems is a quiet patience, a careful listening, in observing the details of the living world. In addition to writing poetry and publishing it (by handset letterpress printing as well as computer typesetting), Scott has also studied environmental sciences, and has spent time doing scientific fieldwork, particularly around lakes and wetlands and other freshwater places. The steady attention that this scientific work requires makes itself evident in his poems.

Among the poems in the book are several series of related poems. Here's an excerpt from the poem "Lunar Eclipse," dated "Sayner, Wisconson, August 16, 1989," from a series of poems titled "Twelve Poems for Trout Lake Station":

Here knowledge began to make sense --
it was not the theory of a frog we held in our hands.
Unpredictable events occurred daily. We
witnessed the deadly wink of the sundew,
its sticky eyelashes decorating fallen logs;
touched the tiny chemist scales of the twinflower
peacefully balancing thought and body
in pine woods penumbra, the almost shadow. [...]

[...] The moon dawned before us.
We tested our intuition against a theory of roadmaps,
finding our way to a fish dinner and a beer.
Gradually it changed, casting unearthly colors
onto the sides of buildings, onto the hoods of cars.
The moon entered the earth's shadow and changed,
like a lens being changed on a microscope.
We stood in the parking lot and looked up,
elated by our shadows, by the magnificent
umbra nibbling at the edge of the moon.
We brightened as our faces dimmed,
beer in hand, carefree of careers.

" was not the theory of a frog we held in our hands." I'd like to post that line, at least, on the wall in the departmental office of every MFA creative writing program in the United States, and would encourage every student to spend some time thinking about its implications for writing poems. It would be a bad idea for every member of Congress and every state legislator to spend some time thinking on it as well.

Another series of poems in the book is titled "Physiologus," and is made up of poems that describe and explore various plant and animal (mostly insect) species. Here again the detailed observation, not straining, finding the poetry that life can sometimes make of itself without exhaustive effort. From the poem "Northern Paper Wasp" (a species with the scientific name Polistes fuscatus):

Now comes the release
of a mid-winter thaw,
then, more surprising still,
a Co-op of wasps found
scattered on a sidewalk
like a handful of small caliber
rifle bullets. They are hibernating
northern paper wasps
knocked down from the roofline
by birds or a collapse of roof-ice,
the pale sun on red brick
not nearly enough to wake them.
I pick one up gently,
carefully hold it in my fingertips.
This warm-blooded grip stirs
the sleeping queen
to stretch out a yellow leg
as though it were spring.

Back home, I take up the book,
flip forward through unread pages --
sure enough -- the wasp
is waiting there as well,
the name and pronunciation:
po-LIST-eez fuss-CATE-us.
I say it over and over --
the Greek meaning
founder of a city, the Latin
black, for its smoke-colored wings.

One of the things I find Scott King's poems leading me to is the knowledge, a gentle (and urgent) reminder, that we human beings are, after all, creatures on this earth among all other creatures. We are not separate from this place. This has profound implications for us in our relations with each other. A wound to the earth is a wound to all of the life on the earth, including ourselves. I'm not dogmatically against any kind of technology; even the first fire built by a human being, in the most ancient times, had an impact on the environment. But we've gone far beyond that first fire, and we need to think consciously about the decisions we make, and the consequences they'll; we need to pay attention to the footprints we leave.

Like bells, these stones ring.
Rock outcroppings warm our bare feet.
In our hands we weigh
plain, dry stones, blue-gray.
They are worn down, dull
discs fallen from the spine
of an upright age.

Here is gooseberry and yellow tansy,
its aroma strong as railroad ties,
creeping bell flower
a blue sword in the stone.

Adapting to strange needs,
I wonder if it was your wish for me
to fashion an odd vision into words,
as it was mine to lead you here,
this love of waves breaking at my feet?

Our fingers, stained red, touch,
not blood, but a communion
of kisses and laughter,
the red the color of a cabin set deep
in dusky woods, intimate,
windows lit with mystery.

(From the poem "Brighton Beach -- July 29, 2001," in a poem sequence titled "Lake Superior Journal.")

Some of the poems in All Graced in Green touch more explicitly on the world of human action, offering quiet commentaries on the political and economic events that surround us and how they touch us. From the poem "McGrath, Ritsos -- Autumn, 1990" (written in remembrance of Communist poets Thomas McGrath and Yannis Ritsos):

After they departed, we saw starlight
for what it had always been
and marveled at each silken fiber,
like seed dispersed in the dark night.

Ritsos in a black boat
followed the moon across the Aegean,
while the sound of statues limping
through the hollow night was heard
In the neighborhoods of Greece.
McGrath stepped out a door
leaving footprints in the snow
as he followed the Red River north. [...]

[...] Red banners bleed in the blue sky.
The words thalassa and ouranos
take on a tinge of purple
like the color of the Scots thistle
picked to adorn a worker's table,
a reminder of hard times lived through,
the sugar ants rummaging
the sticky blooms into seed.

The Red River mentioned in the poem is the river the forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota; it's one of a small number of rivers in the world that flows to the north. The lines in the last stanza about the Scots thistle are a reference to the long poem "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle" by Communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

Among the poems in All Graced in Green is an excerpt from "Wynnere and Wastoure," a fourteenth-century alliterative Middle English poem by an unknown author; three passages from the poem are rendered into more or less modern English by Scott King. The original poem (or at any rate the surviving text of it) is divided into several sections, or "fitts" (as they're called in the old text). Here are some lines from Scott's rendering of "Wastoure's Feast, from Fitt the Second":

And then a third course    I count beyond reason --
I who want no more than Martinmass meats myself
cooked with simple herbs, I who do without wild fowl
(but for the one hen the house was owed) --
but he, he must have birds    all sorts braised upon a spit
barnacle geese, bitterns,    long-billed snipe;
larks and linnets,    ladled with sugary glaze,
woodcock and woodpecker simmering and hot,
teal, titmice, terns    to take what they like,
rabbit stews,    sweet custards
decadent meat pies,    pastries aplenty,
diced meat with almond milk to stuff their stomachs
that cost more than a mark for every two men --
a cost that must surely sting    and stab at the guts.
Resounding so loudly, your trumpets anger me,
all the men in the streets must hear that blaring:
and then say to themselves, as they ride off together,
even Heaven's king's of no help to you.
Thus you are scorned. Thus you are disgraced.
You who fritter away on a feast    a ransom of silver.
As once I heard    off a herdsman's tongue:
"Better many a meal,    than one merrry night."

In the economic firestorm of these years, in the thump and rattle of foreign policy that grows out of the barrel of a gun (or the software of a drone aircraft), amid the blaring of the trumpets of imperial conquest, and the rampant excesses of financial schemers (who "fritter away on a feast a ransom of silver) -- can there be any question of the relevance of the above lines, even coming to us from several hundred years ago and across the sea?

(I found online a Middle English text of the poem, with a side-by-side glossary of the more difficult or unfamiliar words, here. I don't have sufficient knowledge of Middle English literature to comment on the accuracy of the text at the above link; the webpage appears to be part of a college or university library, though a link to a main menu page gave a "page not found" error mesage. But the above link to the specific webpage works, at least at the time of writing this; including the link here for anyone who's curious. I found other information about the original poem by Googling the phrase "wynnere and wastoure" with quote marks included.)

These are poems that can help to remind us of the limits of ambition, that there are other (and more useful) ethical values than seeking after the most recent version of the latest iGadget, that there are languages older than the ones that will fit in the space of a text message or a twitter. (Birds have in fact been twittering for some time, and they don't appear to feel the need to limit themselves to 140 syllables or whatever the current count is.) Some things that are worth saying take time to say, and in All Graced in Green Scott King has taken the time to say some of them. We should take time to listen.

I'll finish here with some lines from the poem "Belle Creek":

After a day's labor, thoughts
still spool in the short term
memory of the hours I stood working.
I hurry to shuck shoes
and hitch hip boots, fit
the full length of the fly rod
and wade the long grass and yellow clover
to the edge of Belle Creek.

I know there may be no worse
trout stream in the state.
But sometimes there's hope
in neglect. And I'm here
and nowhere else.
As I wade upstream, the carp
get smaller, more trout-like.
Silted, slow, the stockyards and fields
burden these waters.
Chasing rumors of rumors of fish,
I'll settle for the whisper
of tiny-winged solitude
and the midges building clouds
over sweet grass.

Among his various other projects, Scott King has for some time been translating poems by Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Some of his translations are posted in his blog website HINTS: The Poetry of Yannis Ritsos. Other of Scott's published books are listed in the Red Dragonfly Press website, here. One I've read and found fascinating is Rice County Odonata Journal, in which he gives an unhurried account of an ongoing project to find and identify species of dragonflies and related insects in Minnesota. ("Odonata" is a scientific classification that includes dragonflies, damselflies, and the like.)

The main page for Red Dragonfly Press is here.

Thanks for these insights. Great post.

Being a sucker for insect poems (don't ask why), I am totally taken with these lines . . .

This warm-blooded grip stirs
the sleeping queen
to stretch out a yellow leg
as though it were spring.


Chasing rumors of rumors of fish,
I'll settle for the whisper
of tiny-winged solitude
and the midges building clouds
over sweet grass.
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