12-06-2012

Katherine Soniat

Refraction

Little was said as we lay there our bodies close. 
That was how we started in a room that held space 
for daybreak and the few late stars.

But I rose, and it was not from dream. Wrapping 
myself in woolens, I wished you a long, slow sleep.

I wished the clocks would stop, the birds fall silent in the trees. Moving 
from room to room, I turned each photograph flat, placed a close, warm 
breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background 
disappear.


Cosmos

The valley's pale with cicadas under the moon as sleepless
I toss my leg over a pillow. 
                                      The deserted villa up the road 
pointed to this. All afternoon, I trespassed, one step after another 
up the drive of dying cypress, the garden wild with hollyhock 
and cosmos.

A concrete saint rose through the trees, arms skyward, expectant, 
head crumbling. And in the dirt was a child's garden of marked graves-
a cat, two dogs, and the plot for turtles. Someone's wish-fraught endings.

When I was young, cicadas pulsed at vespers outside the church like a cult 
of loony believers. Here's the church, there's the steeple; open the door, 
and see all the run-away people. 

                                   In such dimness I heard organ pipes as the throat 
I would have speak to me as a mother. I tried to conjure her out of that sing-
song light, tried to make her come home.

The tiffany window filled with sun on that mansion staircase: rosy girls dropped 
flowers, a cow licked its calf. And behind the house, off in the pines, the keyhole 
to the stone tower continued to rot. 
                                                    That's where I put my nose today.
Bottom of a well. The earth's bottom I breathed, creature restless for the season 
to be done, grasshopper fidgeting on a saint's broken neck.

I needed mystery more than a mother. What I could not have comes to lie down 
beside me-blue pillow I rock with under the moon. 

Deep muscular affliction, sundown.

Slow dissolve of the road I rushed down to get past understanding there was only 
so much to make of space, and her brief landing.


Camouflage

It's Ravel now who's crazy according to the news-only a damaged brain capable of Bolero's rolling cadences in this place where caution's never lacking. The blue light's steady on the 911 phone at the edge of campus. Quaint hue near the napping cattle, the big sycamore reaching up as far as summer let it. Sheep wade through clouds in the stream. Some bucolic trick, I think, animals at peace this close to slaughter. 

Now there's movement in the trees as the barkbrown-and-squirrelgrays march on me, like the massed woods of Birnam. On command, these Cadets fall down to play war on their bellies. Four hold me in their rifle sights. Another, bored, stacks twigs in the grass. He smiles then tips his camouflage cap, courtly gesture inches from the ground. I stand as close as I ever will to a firing squad-Goya perhaps the next accused, his mind hung out to dry after trying to equate the carnage. Hacked trees. His war-torn stumps of soldiers.

-from A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge

BIO: Katherine Soniat's sixth collection of poems, A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge, will released by Dream Horse Press in Fall, 2012. Other publications include The Swing Girls, The Fire Setters (on-line Chapbook Series, WebDelSol), Alluvial (Bucknell UP). A Shared Life(Iowa UP) won the Iowa Prize and a Virginia Prize for Poetry, selected by Mary Oliver;Cracking Eggs (University Presses of Florida). Notes of Departure received the Camden Poetry Prize (Walt Whitman Center for the Arts and Humanities) and was selected by Sonia Sanchez. A chapbook, Winter Toys, was published by Green Tower Press.

She is the recipient of two Virginia Commission for the Arts Grants, a William Faulkner Award, a Jane Kenyon Award, Anne Stanford Award, and Fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her work has been published in such journals as TriQuarterly, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, Georgia Review, and The Southern Review.

Originally from New Orleans, she has taught at the University of New Orleans, Hollins University, and for twenty years was on the faculty at Virginia Tech. The sense of place is central to her work and she travels widely to immerse herself in various cultures so that they become transformative filters for more personal contexts. Crete, the Andes, the Bavarian Alps, and the Grand Canyon are a few of these regions she has included in her writing. Expanding the focus of poetry in such a way allows threads of art, myth, history, geography, and geology to inform her collections, shaping sequences of poems that resonate across a broad but personal spectrum.

Photography, use of archetypal imagery and dream work are also special areas of interests in both teaching and in her own writing. She now lives on a beautiful ravine with one frequently-noted bear (The Kenilworth Bear) in Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches in the Great Smokies Writers' Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

A "Mini-Review" of Katherine Soniat's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz  

Reading Katherine Soniat for the first time makes me wonder how it’s possible that this is the first time I am reading her. Being poorly read doesn’t seem like a viable excuse, since these are poems that ought to be everywhere. She is an immensely gifted poet whose poems reflect a serious dedication to her craft and an exacting precision with words that ought to be the aspiration of every poet. Though “Refraction,” “Cosmos,” and “Camouflage,” are all distinct from one another in a formal sense, they all share several admirable qualities.

First among these is a strong, evocative sense of place. At no point in the reading of any of these poems did I question anything in the poem. Everything was in its right place, and perfectly described, with all the crucial details and no extraneous adjectives, rich scenes so starkly rendered that even those readers who have a hard time visualizing language would have no trouble imagining what she describes. In “Refraction,” it’s “a room that held space / for daybreak and the few late stars.” In “Cosmos,” it’s the valley “pale with cicadas under the moon,” and “the deserted villa up the road,” “the drive of dying cypress, the garden with wild hollyhock / and cosmos.” In “Camouflage,” we’re at “the edge of campus. Quaint hue near the napping cattle, the big sycamore / reaching up as far as summer let it.”

Those lines from “Camouflage,” aren’t just excellent at evoking a place, they’re also examples of how that strong sense of place is heightened by the exact language and clear vision that Soniat displays in each of this week’s poems. It isn’t hard to see the influence of photography in some of these poems, and that she has a photographer’s eye as well as a poet’s. Consider in “Refraction,” not just the title, or the presence of a photograph in a poem, but the photo-esque described images like the one that ends the poem:

 

…Moving
from room to room, I turned each photograph flat, place a close, warm
breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background
disappear.
 
From “Cosmos,” comes another perfect still moment, captured as clearly and crisply as any photograph could do: "A concrete saint rose through the trees, arms skyward, expectant, / head crumbling. And in the dirt was a child’s garden of marked graves— / a cat, two dogs, and the plot for turtles…"

It’s not just that the choice of images is particularly compelling in each of these cases—though certainly, they all have a certain beautiful or sometimes haunting quality that makes the images themselves seem like the poems strength. But in fact, these images and settings are fully realized, and achieve a kind of clarity only possible through an equally precise attention to the language used to describe them.

In addition to clear, robust images, a strong sense of place, and exact language, these poems also share another quality that makes me admire them greatly: strong last lines. These poems carry their momentum and beauty all the way through their respective ends. In “Refraction,” it’s the gut-punch, emergency-break of a single word for the final line that follows the penultimate line in a way that perfectly reflects (pardon my pun) the quickness with which breath breathed on a mirror would vanish, and also echoes with rhyme: "breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background / disappear."

Building to that final single word line with a long sentence creates the momentum that is then arrested by the final line break. In “Camouflage,” Soniat again makes use of contrast to punctuate the poem’s end, though in the case of this prose poem, she does it by varying sentences rather than line length: "…I stand as close as I ever will to a firing squad—Goya perhaps the next accused, his mind hung out to dry after trying to equate the carnage. Hacked trees. His war-torn stumps of soldiers."

 
Again, the control of lines and sentences is impeccable. This control is on display once more at the end of “Cosmos:”Slow dissolve of the road I rushed down to get past understanding there was only / so much to make of space, and her brief landing."

The way that the line breaks is perfect: the first line is longer, unbroken by punctuation, and reads quickly into the final line. The pause of the break after the penultimate line and the pause created by the comma leave the reader considering the many layers of meaning in those final phrases.

Katherine Soniat’s poems are pretty damn sublime. They’ve got cicadas and birds and stars and napping cattle; Bolero and Goya and a tiffany window; a church during vespers and the bottom of a well. All of it is real. These aren’t devices used by a poet trying to weigh them down with clichéd symbolism. They are the world that this poet has travelled all over and seen. These are intimate moments with the world captured lovingly and precisely and held up for our examination. Her website proclaims: “A poet travels.” I’m going to try and heed that advice, but when I can’t, I’ll be reading her poems, because they are the next best thing.