poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
It doesn’t matter
a tree falls
or doesn’t on this hillside.
I am here
in this buoyant silence
lifting from snow cover.
There is no story to tell
about cause and effect,
no one to pull
the stiff sheet of grammar
over a scattered pattern
of bark and branches
broken on the snow.
I turn sideways
and the wind slips among us,
so many vertical,
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Box Canyon: on the map,
a finger branching
from the eastern side of Chaco,
contour markings on the inner edge
like cilia. Caught in ink-on-paper stasis, they
are poised at the verge
of motion, ready, I think,
to stroke and keep
the lives within the canyon walls.
Just ahead, at the rincon’s eastern tip, a lip
of stone holds ready
for runoff, washed
and glossed by water, waiting always
for another rain.
As a child one summer, in Maine,
I leaned above a tidepool, watched
the miniature fish and shellfish trapped
there, unaware, it seemed
of their captivity. I stood on the kelp-slick rocks,
the seaweed beneath me matted and tangled,
while, in the water, each plant danced.
If somehow I
could scale these cliff walls, stand
above the canyon’s rim, look down
and count the quick
lives (broad-tailed hummingbird, many-
lined skink, harvest mouse)
and the rooted (cliff
rose, Indian paintbrush, yellow larkspur),
watch them all sustained by each one’s presence,
how would my shadow look below?
Like a patch of shade cast by the rock?
The first hint of a cloud bank moving in?
Or like a hole punched in the protective sky?
II. THREATENING ROCK
Pueblo Bonito represents the highest development of
Anasazi architecture. The huge, broken stones are what
remain of Threatening Rock, a vertical slab of rock which
once stood separated from the cliff behind the pueblo by a
wide crack. The people used posts, mud, and stone
masonry in an attempt to shore up the rock, and placed
behind it prayersticks— peeled and carved willow wands
painted and decorated with feathers. Why they built so
close to such potential danger is not clear.
-National Park Service Brochure
The Navaho called it, “place
where the cliff is propped up.”
Pueblo Bonito, pretty village,
a curved rear wall of stone veneer,
a double plaza, kivas,
doorways and rafters
and plaster—some left, centuries after—
On the morning of the winter solstice
the sun enters this window, strikes
exactly the opposite corner where wall
meets wall, form
an extension of content, this window,
this corner I’m
touching, this moment
while earth hurtles its own course through time.
1941, a cold January day (the month looking forward
and back), at last the great cleft of cliff
came down. Today, standing puny atop
one chunk of fallen rock, sun
overhead pooling my shadow
at my feet, a puddle or mirage, I feel
I could disappear here,
sink into the earth, nothing
but minerals and water (form is
never more than—)
and nothing would alter.
Silence. Not the boum of Malabar Caves, Caves,
not, just now, even wind.
And yet the Anasazi built here, knowing
the cliff was fissured, surely would fall.
It didn’t, not for centuries. Was that their doing?
We see their careful measures: prayersticks, and a masonry wall.
Greasewood, four-wing saltbush,
sage, occasional cactus,
sand, footstep, dust,
collared lizard, beetle, skink,
rock wren, cliff, receding
shade. This is
what we came for: reduction
to the catalogue of all we see
and carry, rhythm of walking, water,
map, sunlight, edge
of shadow, not-me, me,
the car left solitary in the trailhead’s gravel lot.
At six the daylight pulled us
from our tent, and now we follow
those old wagon ruts, cliff swallows darting
overhead, wind touching
cottonwoods along the wash.
The red cliffs lift against the sunlight, infinitely
the inverted bowls of bird nests, lichen,
and pictures pecked into rock.
Angular figures, familiar
from postcard photographs:
a man, a woman bearing children,
a mountain sheep, a snake, a spiral.
But what stops me longer
is more recent: one panel, shoulder-height, carved
with names and dates, 1903, 1911, and,
in almost flowing, careful script,
Jean, I cannot get no feed.
I cannot wait for you.
Was Jean a wife? A lover?
What next, when she had come this far?
And here the trail leaves
the cliff’s edge, and its shadow;
moves through the day’s heat
across the arroyo,
to the canyon’s other wall, West Mesa.
This is the center of the world,
the canyon’s expanse enclosed
by cliffs, the horizon encircling all
there is, and we
are here, alive.
Above our heads, the ubiquitous
swallows carry insects to their nested
young, as they have
forever, and the nestlings call insistently
for food, falling silent only when the parent
Painted on the rock directly
a hand, a crescent moon,
a giant star. And if it does depict
imagine the artist, in 1054, choosing this
location—sheltered from weather, smooth—
balancing atop a wooden ladder, working
to show us
This great star appeared
with the crescent moon, bright enough
to shine in daylight.
Something in the world has changed.
What will it mean?
-from Like Memory, Caverns
BIO: Elizabeth Dodd is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University. She earned an MFA and PhD, both from Indiana University. Her latest book, In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World, appeared from University of Nebraska Press in September, 2008. She's also the author of Prospect: Journeys & Landscapes, which appeared in 2003 from University of Utah Press and was winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Best Nonfiction Book Award; two collections of poetry, Like Memory, Caverns, which won the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award from New York University Press in 1992, and Archetypal Light, published by the University of Nevada Press in 2001; and the critical book The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Gluck (University of Missouri Press, 1992).
Dodd publishes frequently in the field of ecocriticism, with essays on James Wright, Terry Tempest Williams, Michael S. Harper, as well as other topics. She is on the editorial board of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Dodd has twice won the Stamey Award for outstanding teaching from KSU's College of Arts and Sciences, and she has twice won the Kansas Arts Council's Fellowship in Poetry.
The Landscape, the Ruins, and the Aesthetic: An Interview with Elizabeth Dodd by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I think I chose these two poems in particular from your first book, Like Memory, Caverns because I’m impressed by how equally I hold them in my mind, even though one is so much shorter than the other. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the long versus short poem.
Elizabeth Dodd: Well, I’m going to talk about the long and short lyric poem—I think of these poems as being basically lyric in impulse, not drawing on the long tradition of epic or narrative. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, I’d like to make a comparison to track and field. Years ago, I ran intervals around the track as part of my training, but I didn’t compete in shorter distance races; I was a mid-distance and long-distance runner. (I was a mediocre runner, too, never in first place, but I loved it.) I think the short poem is like the sprint: all out, intense burst of presence. All the attention and sensation come to bear now. The long poem, I think, allows for shifts in rhythm, shifts in attention and perception. You can establish a pattern, then move to a different pattern; you find a pace, then shift it; you allow for repetition with variation. Of course, this is an inexact analogy, since poetry is not a competitive sport…
AMK: What can a long poem do that a short poem cannot, and vise versa?
ED: A long poem allows you wide horizons in which to move. This means the possibility of change in pitch or key (musical analogy) or time (chronology) or, or, or. When I was in graduate school, I thought a good bit about long poems with subsections like movements in a longer musical composition. And I wrote “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” shortly after that time, so I suppose I was still very much caught up in the question of such movements… And canyon country in the American Southwest is riddled and stippled with side-canyons, alcoves, lateral movement along the vertical drop of erosion-formed place. So the material itself, the actual landscape through which I moved and from which the poem emerged, suggested that kind of prolonged sequence. What interests me about sequenced poems is that maybe they can actually do what short poems do—the vice versa of your question might not necessarily apply. You can have the intensity, the brevity, even the mystery, if that’s what you’re after, as well as the sustained attention.
AMK: Do you think it’s important to have a mix of long and short poems in a collection of poetry? Or does it depend on the book itself?
ED: Oh, I’m sure it depends on the book. There’s no essential need for that kind of formal mix.
AMK: Was this one of your considerations as you put this book together?
ED: Well, that was years ago, now. It’s a little hard to remember. But yes, I think it was. I wanted to have some formal variety, a sense of scope. And a sense of variation in timing, in the temporal demands a poem makes on a reader.
AMK: Personally, I’m a big fan of poems that come at you in sections. I like how it gives you not only a break but a space in which to think about the lines you’re reading…a compartmentalization that a large, sprawling poem often lacks. Was this poem ever without these sections, or the idea of sections?
ED: I love the way you just phrased this. That’s it, exactly. I just now poked around in some old files to see whether I have any actual drafts of this particular poem, but I don’t. So all that I’m going to say now is a little suspect, my attempts to remember, which may be quite faulty. This poem grew out of my first trip to Chaco Canyon, when I was in my late 20s. It was all new to me—the landscape, the ruins, the aesthetic pull of that Southwestern light on stone, the way late-day shade and shadow are so different in the arid air, such suddenly cool respite. The few days we were camped there, I walked around in a state of high exhilaration, crusted over with early summer sweat. Back home, working on the poem, I don’t believe I consciously set out to Write a Multi-Sectional Poem, Following the Cliff Walls that Frame the Canyon, though now I recognize that’s the formal result. But the time that the poem didn’t exist as a multi-sectional piece was very early, before I had any lines down. But I’d been thinking about and working in other (some unpublished) sectional poems, and it quite quickly became the right feel for the piece. Accretional. Sustained, but with breathing space, while we all turn around and look at the next cliff side canyon.
AMK: Why did you choose to sectionalize “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” the way you have here, with numbered and titled sections? And how long did it take for you to come to this form?
ED: I guess I’ve anticipated some of this question in trying to answer your previous one. But more specifically, some sectional poems have Arabic numerals instead of Roman numerals to separate the sections; some have asterisks. Some are subtitled, some are not. To my mind, Roman numerals are more formal, present a kind of classicism, a stateliness, and I think that’s suggested (at least to me) by the ruins in the canyon. A thousand years old, beautiful stone buildings, in various states of entropic collapse. One, Pueblo Bonito, still has walls standing four stories high, with neat, square windows and doors connecting rooms far within the interior—it consists of 700 rooms or so, a monumental structure. I wanted that formality to cast its shadow on the cataloguing of the poem, the sequential phenomena that being present yields up. I don’t know how long it took to come to this specific layout and sequence, but I remember writing the poem, early mornings as the summer opened up, in the weeks after our trip. Certainly over a series of many days, maybe a couple of weeks, before I had a passable draft.
AMK: Did you ever try working that epigraph in the second section, “Threatening Rock” into the poem itself? If so, why did it end up as an epigraph rather than as lines in the poem itself?
ED: You caught me here. There is no specific quotation in a park brochure that exactly corresponds to this epigraph. I deliberately excerpted and edited and combined phrases from several places throughout the official pamphlet on Pueblo Bonito, but there is no sentence “Why they built so close to potential danger is not clear.” I had a great deal of difficulty working what I considered to be important information into the poem—basic context a reader would need in order to feel as I felt, see what I saw. The voice kept coming out wrong, very awkward and rhetorical, which frustrated me. So I created this “introduction,” for which the formal, informational, even rhetorical voice seemed appropriate. It did all that background work so I could just enter the place and think my thoughts, which were both aesthetic (relationship between form and content) and ecological. I hoped it would open a window for a reader, for, to my mind, Pueblo Bonito is a building dedicated to windows, many with their original stone or wood lintels in place. At the time I was working on this poem, I hadn’t yet begun to think about global climate change in any serious way, but the ozone hole was much on my mind. The stark sunlight, my own sunburn, the roofless ruins offering no shelter from the sky—these phenomena insisted on an undercurrent of thought and feeling that I wanted to explore in the poem along with the aesthetic issues. The aesthetic issues kept hauling modernist quotations into the poem—Eliot, E.M. Forster, Charles Olson—and the layering of petroglyphs in the canyon, ancient images and 20th century stuff, the latter often destroying or defacing the former, made me think about empire, its beauty and potential violence. So “threat” as I felt it isn’t just the literal rock that tumbled from the cliff, it has global proportions related to human destruction of the atmosphere. Love and loss so often do live side-by-side, or arrive in swift sequence.
AMK: When we spoke last, you said you were going back to the Chaco Canyon. What is it about this area of the world that fascinates you so? The ancient culture? The landscape? The inspiration?
ED: Yes, yes, yes. All of these. I’ve been very fortunate to experience the place in a variety of seasons now—twice in December, once in March, as well as in May and June. (I want to see it in autumn!) It’s pretty clear that the Canyon was a great center of culture; part of what archaeologist Stephen Lekson has called “the Chaco Meridian,” stretching along a nearly perfect north-south line from near the Colorado border south to northern Mexico. Hundreds of miles. Empire, maybe. And it had its dark side as well as its glory, pretty clearly. I think many people who are drawn to the places in the Four Corners region where the Anasazi lived for centuries are drawn both to landscape, and to the idea of a culture that had such a successful course of inhabitation. Anglo-American society has been spectacularly poor at successful inhabitation—adapting culture to the ecology of a particular place, rather than imposing ourselves on it—and so I think for some of us the beauty of Anasazi culture is in part its longevity, finally giving way to the contemporary Puebloan peoples who still live deeply in that place.
AMK: This poem strikes me as fairly unique. Do you mind discussing others’ poems that may have helped you write this one?
ED: Sure. I suppose Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is formative for many American poets working in the longer lyric tradition. It is a marvel, how that poem grows and comes together. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he says, and there you have it: the 19th century, pre-quark sense of elemental identity, the atom, which blurs individuality. The singular unit and the larger whole. The numbered section and the longer poem. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a single spear of summer grass.” Only much later, in sections that have traveled metaphysical distance, do the observations come into focus: “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” !! I love the way what the eye falls on early in the poem gets caught in attention, rolled over on the tongue, and reappears later in different light. At the time I was working on many of the poems in Like Memory, Caverns, Louise Glück’s fabulous poems in Descending Figure captivated me, made me think about the possibility of sustained lyric utterance. Again, she moves from titled section to titled section, accumulating significance as she goes. I find in those poems that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
Those two, for sure. I know I was also first reading Charles Wright at that time, and his power of looking both outward, at landscape, and inward, at artistic or aesthetic context and response, is something I continue to value enormously in his work.
AMK: “Lyric” is a beautiful poem. I love how the short, indented lines move so quietly on the page and how the o-sounds in words like doesn’t, on, buoyant, no story to, and among create the “buoyant silence / lifting from snow cover” that is at the center of the poem. What, do you think, is a lyric poem?
ED: Thank you for your nice words!
It’s hard to beat Wordsworth’s definition, don’t you think? Powerful feeling recollected in tranquility, with the sense of spontaneity somehow caught in the tenor of the language. (Okay, I didn’t quote him quite right.) For me, a lyric poem is still a connection to some of the assumptions of the Romantics, even though we’ve traveled so far in our cultural expectations in these two centuries. Despite our post-structural recognitions of language’s failures, shortcomings, even perhaps subterfuges, the lyric allows us to feel the power of language, rather than gaze at it sadly from a safe distance. Our hardwiring lets us feel that power, value that power. Lyric poetry speaks to that hardwiring, I think.
AMK: While, technically, there isn’t a narrative in this poem, there’s sort of an “innate” instance within “Lyric” that, as a reader, I feel I have a pretty good sense of. In short: there’s a person out in nature somewhere who is struck by it so deeply that she/he feels the need to express it.
I’m wondering why you chose not to include a narrative in this poem. Did it “come out” this way? Did you at one time have a narrative that, as you revised, you realized wasn’t necessary? Should we be paying closer attention to the lines, “There is no story to tell / about cause and effect”?
ED: The lyric impulse, I think, is so important to human beings, regardless of cultural tradition. Yet insistence on story at the expense of lyric utterance is all around us, everywhere in contemporary American culture—and, at the time I wrote this poem, very active in a graduate writing workshop I was taking! This particular poem I wrote as if “Against Narrative” (so no, there was never a particular narrative that was later removed).
I find it interesting that both the poems you’ve chosen for us to talk about involve the disappearance of the self, even the deliberate effacement of the self. In “Lyric,” the disappearance takes place in the silencing of language and the visual image of forms—indistinguishable, whether human or trees. In “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico,” the disappearance is a form of longing, what is deeply desired—to sink down into landscape, perhaps, to rise up fundamentally changed. In either case, autobiography is expendable.
AMK: There’s an interesting statement made in the poem about the absence of “no one to pull / the stiff sheet of grammar / over a scattered pattern / of bark and branches.” This instantly makes me think of creative writing workshops, but I think that’s just me. This seems to be more a statement about language and how it works in moments like these on a more spiritual level than a linguistic one. It also strikes me as one of those lines that the poet her/his self might not fully “understand,” one that simply strikes the proper chord…
Without “telling” us what this line is exactly supposed to mean (or not), I’m wondering what your thoughts are on lines like these that have a certain ambiguity to them. Are they a risk? Are they a necessity?
ED: Well, sure, I guess they are a risk, in that you’re not fully in control: either of your own “statement,” as you say, or anyone’s interpretation. That feels psychologically risky. But that’s part of the feeling of poetry, far more often than not: as you say, “the proper chord” sounds within you (writer, reader) and it may function on the level of the subconscious rather than the intellect. And even though our nation seems increasingly to be an anti-intellectual culture (in any arena—politics, entertainment, you name it), the reduction of literature to its intellectual value is a skill well polished in classrooms or book groups. I mean, I can’t believe how aesthetically impoverished some of the poems are that I see being read and championed just because they hoist an Idea high on their lineation’s scaffold, high enough that the reader has only to glance up as at a billboard and say, ah, yes, look, there’s that particular theme! We can check that one off. Now, quick, let’s move on and find another. There! Got that one, too. With the price of gas, we need to get them all on this one outing.
The risk for the writer, I think, is that you have to trust that what sounds the chord in you will similarly sound in others…and any poet knows that’s often not the case. But look at the alternative: the billboard, the freeway.
AMK: Thank you.
ED: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed thinking with you.