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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Surviving Strangeness

                   My bachelor uncle, actually my mother's uncle, owned a farm, on which I spent every  moment I could from childhood into late adolescence. It has now, alas, been devoured by the great plastic octopus that goes by the name, incongruous to me, of development. Back then, though, it had the woods and fields and critters I craved and still do. 

I was fascinated by the ample cellar under the old man's old house, and especially by an odd sound (an archaic water pump, I now suspect), which emanated from far back in an unlit corner. I was at once scared and intrigued by that noise, and recently decided, some six decades and more later, to recall, as best I can, some of the feelings that came upon me not only on hearing the strange report from Whatever-It-Was but also on doing some of the earliest reading I can recall. 


Some oddities can settle forever
Within a mind– like that noise from within
My bachelor uncle’s cellar,
The unimaginable, deepest part
Where gravel gave way to dirt:

First, an almost inaudible whining,
And then that awful, protracted wheeze,
As of some strange animal fighting
In the gloom to muster its own air.
I’d make myself stand right there

By the steps to listen, every visit.
Not that I ever dared to walk  
Toward that recess, hidden
And dark. No, darker than any dark.
My little flashlight’s arc

Played over the mouth of what seemed a cavern,
The beast inside now a wolverine,
Now something vaguely like a lion
Or a scaly dragon from picture books
That stood by my bed in their nook.

Today I can make my own grim cave
In thought, where hordes of monsters crouch
That could carry my family off.
My ears have tinnitus, constant ringing,
Which almost recalls the breathing

Of the dreadful thing. That gruesome sound.
I can all but see the tight-coiled snake
That waits for someone alone
Like me. The bird flu, SARS, ebola–
All can be bears or bulls or

Outsized scorpions, jackals in packs.
And I doubt I’ll ever fathom why
One Little Golden Book
About a clan of peaceful gorillas
Should with each reading have thrilled me

And frightened me so, above all the mother
Ape’s last words to her infants at evening.
Some oddities live forever.
“Sleep,” she told them. “Don’t suck your thumbs,”
Which meant night was coming on.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Grandiosity and guilt

Am I alone in occasionally finding a spurious link between my own errors of omission and commission and major events, often tragic? I know at least that Norman Mailer (in whose company I'd quite happily NOT be seen) shared this surmise, connecting the assassination of one of the Kennedys to an illicit sexual foray on his part. Please. 

I'm aware that such thinking is at best narcissistic, and as a rule I dismiss it in a timely fashion. But my absence from home when my wife, yanked off her feet by a squirrel-chasing dog, broke her collarbone in a nasty way late in October, momentarily dipped me into such an idiot trough. The advent of the New Year, with its conventional impulse to resolutions, combined with that grandiose feeling of guilt to produce the following.

       I Should Have

Our dog was not used to a leash.
I should have been holding the dog.
The squirrel was used to leashed dogs.

The dog chased the squirrel to the end of the leash.
The squirrel seemed pretty blasé.
The dog is a strong yellow Lab.

She pulled my wife off her feet.
My wife broke her collarbone.
It was our granddaughter’s birthday.

I should have been at the party.
The whole family was there at the park.
I was in North Dakota.

I should have been holding the dog.
My bones are more tough than my wife’s.
Next day her little dog died.

Not the one that caused the trouble.
Rather, the poor old–blind–deaf spaniel.
He was my love’s special pet.

Our son drove here from his house.
Then he took his mom and her dog to the vet.
I should have been holding the dog.

Our son had just bought the house.
He and his wife were excited.
It was very unselfish to do what he did.

Our son dearly loves his mother.
I love her too beyond words.
It should have been I who drove her.

A man shot eight people soon after.
That mess was way out in Alberta.
I can be grandiose.

I can dream up phony connections.
I can think all bad things are my fault.
I should still have been holding the dog.

Such killings don’t happen up there.
But this was the second last year.
Such things should not happen anywhere.

Two of the dead were young children.
Then the man turned the gun on himself.
“This is awful for us,” said the chief of police.

The weapon was a 9 mill Glock.
It was stolen eight years ago.
But the murders went down in 2014.

So did those other bad things
Meanwhile I stood there or sat.
I paced. I slept. I did nothing.

What could I have done?
It’s five a.m. on New Year’s.
I should have found something to do.

I’ve been thinking of choices I’ve made.
I can think they have big consequences.
I should have been holding the dog.

More consequences than they do.
Oh I’m often so grandiose.
I think of a James Wright poem.

I think, “I have wasted my life.”
My reasons for thinking that differ from his.
In the grand scheme my choices mean nothing.

I accept that. I have no choice.
My wife once hung up a magnet.
Let go or be dragged, it said.

I’m physically stronger than she is.
I’m not so otherwise.
I should have been holding the dog.