Saturday, May 24, 2014
Poetry in America in the second decade of the twenty-first century is the oddest and most paradoxical art form of any. There is an enormous amount of money floating around and reserved for poets – in the form of prizes and grants and residencies and professorships and organizational endorsements – while at the same time the fraction of Americans who buy (or borrow) and actually read new books of poetry for pleasure has never been smaller. This already-well-known situation was brought home to me freshly just now when I could not find anywhere on the internet a reasonable-quality image of the cover of the great Sarah Lindsay's new book from Copper Canyon Press, Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower. The outstanding cover art is called Petri Dish Painting by Klari Reis. Yet to obtain even the so-so approximation above I had to do my own not-very-competent best at scanning the front of the library copy I have been reading with terrible laughter and wonder and shouts of joy over the past few days. To deepen the irony of unmerited obscurity there is the fact that publication of this particular book was directly supported by the ultra-rich Lannan Foundation, following up on a well-deserved Lannan fellowship bestowed in 2009. Over the past several years I have reprinted half a dozen superb pieces of Sarah Lindsay's work on this site, yet I can't say that even now I know a single person who recognizes her name unless I go into my prompting speech – 'oh, you know, that poet I like so much? who always is picking up bits of natural history? and then presto-change-o? you know the one I mean? the magic one?'
Know all by these presents that I the undersigned,
being of sound mind, bad belly, and crumbling infrastructure,
do hereby distribute my dubious treasures as follows:
The papers in my filing cabinets, and stacked on the shelves by the desk,
and piled on the desk, and on the chairs,
and on the study floor, I leave to you, paper wasps.
You won't have to scrape my windowsill any longer
for paltry helpings of cellulose. Chew
decades of pages down to nested hexagons
of symmetry and spit, so the ink at last
forms satisfactory patterns.
The books on the other shelves in the study,
in the bedrooms, kitchen, living room, and attic,
under the tables, beside the bed, on the washing machine,
behind the doors, on the dressers,
and boxed above the water heater,
I leave to you, dainty silverfish,
and you, generations of mold and mildew.
I fended you off as long as I could,
yet you've never borrowed a book and failed to return it,
never poured contempt on my favorites,
never used lay for lie. Here,
fall to, have them, cover to cover.
My jewelry – beads and chains and one true diamond –
and baubles such as the silver llama, glass elephant,
and pansy cup, the marbles and smooth stones,
I leave to you, bowerbirds. Choose what you wish
for your fantasy castles, designed to attract
the most appreciative mates. But don't dither too long
or the crows, the shrunken dragons of our time,
will beat you to it and refuse to share.
The toys, gimcracks, and souvenirs,
from the tin windmill to Phineas the rubber poodle –
individual delights, but together
a prickly haystack oppressive to the spirit –
they should be heaped in an old red wagon
and trundled all over town.
Let the trundler sow them along the sidewalks
without looking back.
To the calcium and salts of my bone and nerve cells,
thanks I suppose are in order, though I won't miss
the five kinds of back pain they did so well.
I release them to do something easier –
be seashells, perhaps. Or the sea.
As for the sparks in my fingers, brain stem,
untied cardiac shoestrings – they have to go somewhere.
Don't they? Into a paramecium's twirl,
a little kind heat on someone's skin?
A violet would be sappy, the glow of a bobtail squid . . .
wait. This part isn't up to me, is it?
None of it is. Perhaps I should practice:
Take what you like, whoever you are,
and do with it what you please.
I won't say a word.