Monday, February 15, 2010


Pure and waiting silence

Last year at the AWP conference in Chicago, one of the books I came away with was Breach by Anne Haines, published 2008 by Finishing Line Press. I read it shortly after I got back, and have wanted for some time to talk about it. I was quite moved by many of the poems in the book.

These are mostly quiet poems, poems in which the poet (or poet voice) is sifting and sorting through the complications of life, coming to terms with relationships and encounters with people, seeking the underlying mysteries of the hidden worlds around us. From the poem "Fog, Provincetown":
Everyone I've loved, I've walked with once in fog.
That's literal truth, no poetry.
Yesterday I envied painters their necessity of light.
But I can love these nights and mornings,
the blank windows across the way
that ask almost nothing of me.
Closing in like this, the world is both conscribed and limitless:
intimate as sleeping breath, and pure blank distance.
This gray, this heartbreak day.
And then: almost imperceptible: a brightness.

Almost imperceptible brightness, and then a bike rattles by.
This world, it's all rhythm and noise:
a boat departing harbor (long, short short short),
the bang that woke me as construction
shook the house, the bed, me from fogged-in dreams,
the putter-chuff of a starting car.
All rhythm, noise, and dancing past the confines,
past this conscripted world.
Running through many of Haines's poems is a thoughtful self-awareness, a kind of active or engaging contemplation with the surfaces where the self meets whatever is "other." Always a trace of humor, the corner of a fleeting grin, even coming to grips with real pain.
One morning I wake with a stiff neck.
Nothing helps, not heat, not stretching.
All day I stumble clumsily, trying not
to turn my head, gasping with pain
at any sudden movement.
Feeding the cats, I lower myself
slowly to the bowls; folding laundry,
I am careful not to jostle.
And I think, how we arrange
our lives around our pain,
the care we take.

I step out into stars and snow,
but stiff and sore, I can't look up.
I take the evening star on faith,
its steady light slipping westward.
I don't need faith for the ice underfoot,
the crunch of the snow's crust,
the cold that numbs my feet.

The taste of my own blood
warms me. My breath
rises like the end
of a question,
like a story I'd tell.
(From the poem "Telling Stories, The Evening Star.")

What does it mean to walk with oneself in a room, to seek the being within oneself? Who is it we talk to when we think to ourselves? Anne Haines's poems often feel like conversations the poet is having with a part of herself, emerging and taking shape, passing through darkness and light. How many footsteps in a lifetime?
Bird crash into windows
mistaking them for sky
fall to the ground
and wander off stunned.

Windows can open like wings.
In the spring I raise them all
too early, I crave the clean
chill, the smell of snow.

Walking in the evening
I peer into every home.
Windows frame a still life dinner,
the blue glow of TV light.

We speak of exposures,
northern or southern.
At night our faces reflect
like ghosts floating on glass

until we draw the curtains,
erase dark ghosts from memory.
(From the poem "Windows.")

These are poems of finely worked discovery, alive in the surprise of moments of sudden perception. Life begins with bursting from the close calm of water into the stunned wonder of light. For most of us, the experience of this happens before we have learned to shape words, before we have any other experience for comparison, and the memory eludes us: but we carry it with us through our lives, however deeply buried or tremblingly close to the surface. Anne Haines writes of this wonder with a steady clarity, a brightness of being, that lingers on a living shore.
That moment of pure and waiting silence
knowing she was near, then O!
the breach, explosion into air, so close
I felt it in my bones like a great drum

struck. Then struck again. The dark
curve of her body toward us
as she crashed back into sea, mountain
of a whale, the mammalian world of her

all I knew just then, all I could take in.
I don't know if I breathed
until she breached again, and yet again,
great muscular mountain of a whale, sonic

boom of a whale, whole planet of a whale,
wrenching breath from us as we stood
gasping on the drifting boat.
And then the holy stillness.
(From the poem "O.")

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