Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Jean Connor, Poet Extraordinaire

I want here to celebrate one of Vermont’s literary treasures, Jean Connor, a poet who, after a long career as a librarian in upstate New York, now lives at Wake Robin, a retirement community in Shelburne.  I offer such celebration for no especial reason save that I’ve lately been rereading her 2005 collection, “A Cartography of Peace.” The book is beautifully produced by Passager Press, whose savvy editors specialize in the work of older writers.

I’m not sure I can improve on the jacket comment of my friend and former Vermont College colleague, poet Robin Behn, who notes that “only some art knows how to teach us how to live, and in a way that we are ... ardently willing to be taught.” Ms. Behn quite rightly puts Jean Connor at the head of this rare class.

Though W.H. Auden once advised us that “poetry makes nothing happen,” I feel things happening in myself at every turn in “A Cartography of Peace.” Ms. Connor, given her wonderful modesty, will likely balk at hearing me say so, but hers is a poetry of moral instruction. It is that very modesty, in fact, that allows such instruction. The poet’s lessons on how to live both a practical and a spiritual life are far from hectoring; they’re offered obliquely, and her work therefore demands particularly close attention. One can too easily miss its thematic forest for the trees of its keen observations, particularly of nature.

Consider, for one of myriad examples, Ms. Connor’s response to a natural harbinger in “Late August”:

            Then, not as an intruder,
            but as one accustomed to the place,
            the hour, a cricket began to sing,
            steady, sure, and as he sang

            the world slowed to meet
            his pace, found itself webbed
            about in peace. The grasses
            sleep-heavy, wet with dew.

As I say, one can easily –and profitably– dwell on the sureness of notice here, but as we meditate on these passages (and these poems demand just that, meditation)– as we meditate on these words and many others in her opus, we understand that the beauty and clarity of her language is itself the product of a meditative soul. Here the cricket is a perfect stand-in for the writer, who has the same capacity to induce peace. No, she is not an intruder but part of a composed scene.

There is simply no physical context, nor, so far as I can see, any season that escapes this fine author’s contemplative and ultimately redemptive response. In “Now, in March,” for instance, she speaks of a month that most upper New Englanders might consider the year’s least redeemable.

            Outside, drifts of brazen snow
            and the bitter hour glass of cold.

            Inside, pressed against the pane,
            pots of green and the first white
            geranium, tenuous, unfolding.

            and hidden deep within, the stubborn
            candle of my will, ablaze,
            steady, before that duality,
            death, a February thing, and life,
            which reaches out to April
            and on occasion sings.

What quiet brilliance here! If we recall that at the publication of this, her very first book, the author was 86 years old (at 96, she continues to write beautifully), one might suppose that the poet herself would be the “bitter” one, the sands in her personal hour glass falling apace. One might also consider her very urge to write a “brazen” impulse.  But no, those attributes belong to the apparently inauspicious landscape. Ms. Connor is subtly “stubborn,” not brazen; she willed herself in 2005, as she has done ever since, to sing about those things that can sustain us no matter where or when we look on ... if we allow them to.

Again, however, my object is less literary criticism than appreciation. The poet’s own words always seem sufficiently convincing on their own, as is manifest in another short poem, quoted here in its entirety:


            The day, of no great merit,
            ended– a dandelion gone to seed,
            minutes squandered, hours spent,
            no bright gold. Yet in the ledgered

            plainness of the day, overcast, common,
            some subtle brush of meaning
            held me. Was it those unexpected
            words of thanks, or the single lilac

            plunged in a paper cup,
            there on a stranger’s desk?
            Something, a fragrance,
            lingered well past dusk.

When I consider much contemporary poetry, which is premised on highfalutin intellectual theory, and which glories in wordplay for its own sake, I wonder if its authors, let alone its readers (such as they are) can possibly be moved by what is presented on the page? As Maxine Kumin once remarked to me in conversation, “If you aren’t moved by what you write, why do you bother?” Jean Connor’s poems move me greatly, in part because, although her intelligence is clearly profound, she wears it lightly, rightly implying that intellect on its own is not, as Wallace Stevens said, “what will suffice.” Here is a poet who believes that words not only have meaning but also consequence.

I’ll close with an observation, based in part on the passages below and many others in Ms. Connor’s work. Some may consider it quaint, even sexist, but so be it. I say what I do only because I believe it: Jean Connor’s verse is feminine. Mind you, I use that adjective in no way but honorifically: I mean that her poetry is short on ego, astoundingly attentive to eloquent detail– and long on charity, in the sense that Paul describes it in Christian scripture. She manifests a love so deep that the mere word “love” can’t describe it. To my mind, charity is what makes the world go round, and Ms. Connor herself mounts no effort to describe it. She simply enacts it.

In a poem aptly entitled “The Women,” she notes, among other things that

            ...there are more women than you might imagine who
            take care of old men who have forgotten
            the names of the women
            and the names of the sons and the daughters .
            These are the men who are not sure
            of a spoon. Sometimes they can be told
            how to hold and lift it.

I urge any reader of this blog likewise to read “A Cartography of Peace” for her- or himself, because I reduce its value by suggesting a single overarching moral gesture. Be that as it may, one sure thing we learn from this woman’s personal and artistic example is the virtue, not of resignation, but of acceptance, two very different matters. We learn that what is immediately before us, no matter what it be, is the thing that should demand our participation.
            Nothing here should surprise us.
            More women than you imagine
            teach themselves to live
            in that slim space between now and tomorrow.

Jean Connor is one of the women who have taught themselves to occupy that space, and having done so, she can teach us all.

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