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02-26-2012

Sophie Cabot Black

The Mountain

Three men gather. To honor another who has died, 
To set a stone in his favorite meadow. 
They walk into mountains until coming to a field 
Where one man decides to sit awhile. Two men 
Continue up the watershed, speaking 
Of women and hay and how it has been too long 
Since the rains, even the elk have come down. 
When they get to the next clearing, the second man 
Climbs into a tree and falls asleep. He is tired 
And does not want to be with the other. 
Into the cold evening the third man rises, and the owl waits 
Until she can no longer. He holds his hands 
Over a fire he has built in the treeless North. 
He is thinking of the descent, all of it.

 

The Lake

 

Day and night, the lake dreams of sky. 

A privacy as old as the mountains 

And her up there, stuck among peaks. The whole eye 

 

Fastened on hawk, gatherings of cloud or stars, 

So little trespass. An airplane once 

Crossed her brow; she searched but could not find 

 

A face. Having lived with such strict beauty 

She comes to know how the sun is nothing 

But itself and the path it throws; the moon 

 

A riddled stone. If only a hand 

Would tremble along her cheek, would disturb. Even the elk 

Pass by, drawn to the spill of creeks below— 

 

How she cannot help abundance, even as it leaves 

Her, as it sings all the way down the mountain. 

       -from The Descent 

BIO: Raised on a small New England farm, poet Sophie Cabot Black received a BA from Marlboro College and an MFA from Columbia University. Black’s collections of poetry include The Misunderstanding of Nature (1994), which won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and The Descent (2004), which won the Connecticut Book Award. Black’s lyrical poems are both revelatory and elusive, exploring a landscape sharpened with grief and devotion. As a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review noted, “Sophie Cabot Black . . . is absolutely direct and absolutely removed—a strange confluence of tones that is both intellectually provocative and deeply moving."

Black’s poetry has been anthologized in Best American Poetry and Never Before: Poems About First Experiences (2005). Her essays have been included in Wanting a Child (1998). Her honors include the Grolier Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s John Masefield Memorial Award, as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College. She lives in New York City and Wilton, Connecticut.

A Review of The Descent by Bob Williams, The Compulsive Reader

Some poetry is easy to assess and classify and some is not and the difference has little to do with relative quality. It would be well in this context to state right off that this poetry is exceptionally good. It proceeds by indirections and pursues different perceptions simultaneously with a sound emotional or intellectual resolution achieved in the last lines. The book is divided into three parts. A rough description would describe the parts as respectively a hymn to nature, love poems and religious poems. Such a rough description would be inadequate and partly misleading but provides enough so long as it is not taken too seriously.

Much of the headlong rhythm that governs these poems results from the generous use of run-on lines. ‘Cougar’ is an excellent example of her effective use of run-ons and the way in which she finds resolutions.

In this narrow passage I must appear as large
As possible, arms uplifted into what might

Be thought of as God and the ideas of how
To get past even this without being killed,

Taken away, for somewhere in the act of want
Is being wanted, and we move

Over the frozen ground in the presumption
One of us will suffer and only one of us will be

Exact enough, which is why I came alone,
Following a creek back up its last place

To see how far I could go, with the raven
Who will not end his circle, the wind as it

Turns through a gnarl of bristlecone. We were
Never meant to be this close and to survive.


In this, as in many of her poems, the run-ons pivot on slightly unexpected meanings so that the reader is in a constant state of surprise. She also writes with an insistent but unobtrusive music. Her sounds are right and rightly placed. 

The astute reader will have noticed that Black draws on experiences – such as encounters with cougars – that are not likely to occur on Columbia campus. Many if not most of the poems are based on what seem experiences of desolate or desert places. 

Towards the end of each section there is a rise in intensity, the more telling poems although not necessarily the best ones thus occupying a prominent position. A poem, ‘The Offering,’ from the third section depicts spiritual desolation tellingly.

Up to the point of no return
Was climbed. Dominion came
Apart when you asked for whatever last

I could give. All along I thought it me
Who wanted to finish this
And that I would know you

By how you finally came. But here at the end,
Borders do not hold, actually
Never existed. I made myself a stranger

To find you. I leaned
Into the wrong sacred, brought
Everything with me. And now the binding

(The difficult act of how much to love)
Loosens itself until only the gift remains
Intact, spared, unwanted.


In every great poem there is that small but essential twist of phrase that is a wake-up call. In this poem it is “I leaned into the wrong sacred.” This is very exciting work and its creator deserves to be better known.