Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Poem on the Floor

I found the piece of paper on the floor of the third floor, where the English Department offices were stationed.  It was bent and slightly trampled, though I don't remember it as having any of those sneaker tracks you'd expect to find on paper that had been left that way.  When I picked it up I saw it was a poem typed on an old Smith Corolla, mimeographed into that faded purple type.  We were first year M. A. students, and even though computers labs were being set up in the basement courtesy of Apple, we hadn't yet given up the old ways.   The poem had a title ("The Letter") and body, but no author name. It could have been written by someone in one of my workshops.  It could have been a poem re-typed from a published collection. 

If I remember right, his first letter.
Found where? My side-plate, perhaps,
or propped on the heavy brown tea-pot?

To me these opening lines were revelatory, because of their difference, what some might at first call their simplicity, and that tone, at once direct and restrained. They shook a little something.  At the time, I was writing what I was studying, so I was attempting to structure a tension and relieve a tension, to create ironic contrast, ambivalence, a pristine work that had some rhythm and metaphor, and a kind of internal locking system that created the perfect urn of integrity.  I hadn't yet come to absorb the groundbreaking poets who would teach me so much, and any attempt to write a list of those influences is going to be laughable.  We are influenced by everything.

But to get back to this sheet of paper, this marvel. It had voice and technique, and I was moved by the narrative, by meaning, and by the reflection of  the very real world (despite the "heresy of paraphrase" I had been warned against by the New Critics; now is perhaps not the time to delve into my theory that New Criticism made poetry an enemy to casual readers of poetry).  I was moved by the story and the telling, both (to quote Stevens) "the subject of the poem and the poetry of the subject."

To summarize the poem's setting: During WWII, a girl gets a love letter, and runs up the hill to read it.  She is engrossed in the letter, shares a bit of its intensity:

Now I am hardly breathing, gripping 
the thin paper and reading Write to me.
Write to me please. I miss you. My angel.

Both the speaker in the poem and the reader of the poem are completely absorbed by the letter writer's plea, by this afternoon on the green hill. So much so—and this was one of the poem's dazzling strengths—that neither the speaker nor the reader notices what's coming, the element in every good poem, the turn: here, the way (to quote Ruth Padel) violent death will intrude on the  pastoral moment, "panning out from individual vulnerability to wide-angle shots of the whole human landscape."

Almost shocked, but repeating him line 
by line, watching the words jitter 
under the pale spidery shadow of leaves.
How else did I leave the plane unheard
so long? But suddenly there it was—
A Messerschmidt low at the wood's edge.

The speaker recalls in flashback, "What I see today is the window open / the pilot's unguarded face somehow/ closer than possible.../...and his eyes/ fixed on my own...," goes on to imagine the German pilot now still on the ground, having parachuted out of the sky to his death. "I still /  imagine him there exactly" writes the speaker:

                                             His face pressed
close to the sweet-smelling grass. His legs
splayed wide in a candid unshameable V.

It was perhaps the "V" that shocked me the most. You may or may not recognize the poem, but you probably do if you read contemporary English poetry. Because this was before Internet, the author would remain a mystery to me for a long time. I carried the paper around.  When I got an office as a teaching assistant, I taped it to my door, and asked anyone who came to visit if they could identify the author. I saw it every day as I opened my door; I thought of its rhythms, of the way it built toward that cinematic vision without sentiment, apprehended depth without soppiness, with something that offered the words new grace. It's not the only poem I love, but it had dropped into my world on its own, and it looked so different from the poems I admired; why did it force its old ways on me? I felt I should study it for the lessons it might tell me, in addition to the mystery of its origin.  I, who never keep anything, still have that sheet of paper in my file downstairs.  

It was years before Andrew Motion became Poet Laureate in 1999.  In the coverage, of course, I read a mention of his poem "The Letter," and cracked that mystery.  But the real mystery is how a sheet of paper can fall on a floor in a building in southeast Ohio and open doors to rooms in your head that you didn't know were there. 

Banner image via Flickr Creative Commons

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