poetry

Two poems and an explanation

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

(James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”)


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” trans. Stephen Mitchell)


Last week I received a mysterious call from Pine Island, MN. After listening to the voicemail, my confusion cleared. It was the basement waterproofers calling to confirm the dates of the work crew coming. But the mention of Pine Island on my phone’s caller ID made me think of the poem by Wright, which in turn made me think of its cousin, the poem by Rilke. Both poems turn on their last line and go big. Definitely ending with a bang and not a whimper. One a pronouncement of regret, the other a call to arms. It’s the kind of trick a poet can only pull off once; to try it again would be to negate its effect. I almost feel that putting them side by side like this does the same thing, canceling each other out. So why put them together? Their differences are interesting. One is an encounter with nature, the other with art. In one, the viewer is ignored by the surroundings; in the other, the viewer cannot escape the gaze of the sculpture. In the first, the speaker despairs; in the latter the speaker compels the listener to transform.

While I like these two poems very much, the bold pronouncements they end with don’t appeal to me as much as they did when I was younger. It’s not that I’m immune to the warning of wasting my life and the exhortation to change, it’s just that I’m more likely to listen to a quieter voice now. Does this mean that I’ve grown complacent, settling into middle age? I don’t like to think so, but it’s hard to rule out. Now I’m a homeowner who has to call specialists to help us keep water out of our basement.

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