Many people seem to believe that, because I wrote The Book of Forms, I am some sort of rigid curmudgeon. Jack Foley doesn’t think so, though he thinks I am weird because, in his opinion, I like any and all forms. On the other hand, I think Jack is weird because he seems to like any and all poems by whatever poets exist.
Jack may be right about me. I do seem to like forms of any kind, as long as the poems written in those forms are well-done. My motto is, “Something said well is something well said, but something said superbly is a poem,” no matter what form it’s written in, or what mode, either prose or verse.
Case in point: Ruth F. Harrison is a vastly overlooked and underappreciated poet, as her latest book, West of 101 (Turnstone Books of Oregon, 2013), clearly shows. This first poem in the volume is, I think, magnificent:
I had forgotten silence, here
where the sea-voice, omni and present, surges,
dims, clatters, rumbles, is
first principle, the given of this assignment.
Crying, even by gulls, seems useless in
the presence of so much that is
water and salt, so much white sound.
Newborns hear that, before the mother’s voice:
what the world sounds like is compose of sea,
first sea, always sea, and over that
small tempered coos, the creak of chair, and step
of foot against this arrhythmic amnios of sound.
But I remember how, in the shadow
of some outcrop in the redrock, my ears
grew tall in that silence, swiveled
to pick op the sift and whisper of dust,
a minute tac-tac of lizard feet,
a sage-leaf’s slither, its fall. Far overhead
circled three turkey-buzzards in air so still
I heard the whisk of their wings.
Perhaps eternity speaks to
the roll and clash of surf, but
I think when the ocean has dried and gone
whatever ear remains will hear
under light wind the shift and settle of sand.
This poem is written in what many people call “free verse,” but what I call prose, because this is unmetered language (no one is counting syllables in any way), and that is the definition of prose. That it is not metered, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t rhythmic. Harrison’s ear is accustomed to the rhythms of the Pacific Ocean, and she writes her phrases and clauses in the counterpoint of the combers, tides, breakers and winds. None of these is perfectly regular, but there is an underlying regularity in the poet’s long lines. The language is beautiful, but not flowery.
A few pages farther along this poem exists in equilibrium with “Having Ears”:
A CERTAIN WEATHER
Morning brings rain and a leaden sky
and the feel of life-run-down-a-drain.
Nothing will change. Just, from on high,
morning brings rain.
Don’t tell her summer will come again.
Don’t warm her cold hands or catch her eye.
She is enwrapt in her pleasant pain.
She sits looking out, while heaters sigh.
Water oozes down her window-pane.
Her ears don’t hear what the seagulls cry –
morning brings rain.
This poem is written in verse, in a standard form, the eleven-line roundel. The refrain, which appears three times: in the first half of the first line, and as the last line of stanzas one and three. The long lines are iambic tetrameter, and the short lines are dimeter. But if one compares the meters of this poem with the rhythms of “Having Ears,” one will not find much difference because English prose is comprised of iambs (-/) and anapests (--/) primarily, and the roundel here is made up of iambs and trochees (/-) which, when they come together, can sound like this: “morning brings rain” (/- -/), which sounds and acts like an anapest in the second foot, in other words, like “the presence of so” (-/- -/) as in line six of “Having ears.”
But what do we say of this poem? What do we call it? We might call it a “calligramme” or “picture poem,” but what is it a picture of?
... but the one word: be ...
Sliding down crystal planes come single
to build a frame (not cage) to house the
for those who "spiritless against economy"
(Set in this frame: a howl of wind, a charcoal
Ivory black sweep
now sk of sea
lightning flattened in a
-- white breaker low, seeking
far out. be. gale
Close in, a lone gull
white-green making no
seethe, a curl headof phthalo green
of phthalo green tilt and
Under it all swerve-:
the question fanfold--
how to hang a dome of light above
deep pression, cession, cessation, and recession
where thieves leave thank-you notes and poor give waybread
to farers crying over the stone-dark sea.
Despite the shape of this poem, which suggests that it is a calligramme or “picture poem,” the major effect it has, at least on this reader, is suggestive rather than assertive, subjective rather than objective. It even has its humorous side in the wordplay “deep-pression,” and the ensuing sonic effects of the surf-hissing words “cession, cessation, and recession” spilling over each-other. Like R. S. Gwynne’s poem “Chang Eng,” about the famous Siamese twins, Ruth Harrison has invented a nonce form to express all that she has to say about her subject, which is Being, in the environment of the coastal sea. This form combines in unique equilibrium a “box” (perhaps the self?) containing the verb “be,” surrounded by sounds and scenes that outline the abode of the self and the landscape surrounding it.
If we take just these three poems, in a book full of poems just as fine, just as complexly simple, what can we deduce from them? First, that Ms. Harrison has talent. She was born with that, it cannot be gained. But skill can be inculcated, and it is perfectly clear that the poet here has studied and practiced a long time to be as capable of doing with the language pretty nearly anything she wishes to do. The third thing she has is intelligence, the ability to sense and absorb the world about here and to express it in forms that help her to do what she wants to do, whether those forms be traditional or invented, given or nonce. Perhaps this poem will illustrate how Ms. Harrison combines the old with the new; the traditional with a bit of her own invention. This piece turns on only two rhymes; it has one refrain that begins as the first line and works its way down the page to end the poem as well. In fiction we would call this a circle-back ending:
COME, COME, SPRING
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow
high in a pot the shadows take.
It may be May. You’d never know.
Winter persists. We had a fake
couple of days of summer’s bake.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow:
Some tender leaves I watched her make
are small and bronze as if in snow.
Where are her buds, her urge to grow?
Her vines, instead of trailing, ache.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow…
might as well move to Great Bear Lake.
Hang up the hose and garden rake;
brisk snow is falling. Vertigo
takes over as we watch each flake.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow
I open Harrison’s second book, How Singular and Fine,(CreateSpace, 2012)to the first section, sonnets, finish one and say to myself, “What a beautiful poem!” And I read the next one — beautiful again! And again, and again…. Then I run across a poem that uses the word “infundibulum,” which I have to look up — an organ shaped like a funnel…it works! And I’ve learned a new word besides. Then I run across “despoilation” and I think, “Hah! I’ve got her now! It should be ‘despoliation’! But her spelling is right, too, according to Babylon, though not to my other dictionaries. I can’t believe it.
In the next section I read a poem titled, “Playing Ping-Pong with Donald Justice” which, it turns out, is a rewriting in verse of my prose memoir about playing ping-pong with Donald Justice at Iowa half a century ago. Ruth Harrison is a wonderful writer who is ever inventive, often as full of song as a skylark, and always interesting.
This poet’s third book, Among the Cat Tales (Turnstone Books of Oregon, 2014), will be a delight to cat lovers everywhere, of whom I am one. When I received this slim volume of poetry and cracked it open, the first item I ran into was, "What Does a Catamount To?" I never saw a pun I didn’t like. Eight of the nine lines that make up this catalog begin with a word with the prefix "cat": catastrophe, cataclysm, catatonic, catapult, caterwauling, catalog, caterpillar, and category, and the author manages to slip in catnip as well. By the time one has reached the end of the volume all these items and more have been explored and amplified in tuneful songs purrfectly illustrated with drawings by Anita Sue Andrews.
I think we ought to add a third element to Ruth F. Harrison’s back of equipment. She has talent, skill, intelligence – and a great sense of humor.
-- Lewis Turco