Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #23

This week's poem, stunning in its simplicity and originality, comes from the contemporary American poet Paul Mariani (one of my personal favorites). It is the kind of poem that makes me shake my head slowly in wonder, amazed at the fascinating connections that poets are able to make between concepts or occurences that appear on the surface to have no connection whatsoever.

All real poets seem to have an innate sense of metaphor. Aristotle said as much a long, long time ago in his Poetics, and I think it has always been the case. If a poem were to be judged on the strength of its chosen metaphor alone (not that one should be), this one would be hard to beat in my opinion. To me, the image of the lonely spacecraft drifting out into cold and empty space, beyond the reach of any machine or technology we possess to communicate with it and into a fate completely unknown to us, is a jaw-dropping metaphor for the death of a loved one. I vividly remember following the discoveries and trajectories of the two Voyager spacecrafts in grade school in the late 70's/early 80's, and I also have a faint recollection of a news story I heard one day saying that the first Voyager craft had "drifted out of range forever." Even as a kid I remember thinking to myself, "I wonder what's going to happen to it now," and feeling a strange sense of sadness about it. I'm not making this up. I always wondered what might have happened to those things. Are they still out there, drifting? (More intriguingly, are they still sending signals back home, even though the party at the other end of the line dropped off a long time ago???)

So when, years later as an adult, I read this poem, I felt the emptiness and utter loneliness that Mariani is trying to convey acutely, even though I had not lost my mother or anyone truly close to me (with the exception of some of my grandparents). I love the haunting way in which Mariani weaves the strands of humanity and technology together, writing of machines anthropomorphically ("to bend her shattered wings across her breast for warmth"), and of human beings as if they were machines ("just how many years ago she logged off"). And on that last chilling line, we are left to wonder, Did she log off before or after she had died? And was it willingly, or unwillingly? Mariani doesn't make these things clear, and it adds to the already-profound sadness of the poem.

This poem is Mariani at his very best: deeply personal, inherently spiritual, and profoundly human. Despite its somewhat despairing tone, it awakens in me a vivid appreciation of how precise and powerful a tool poetry can be in our efforts to sort out the tangled mess of our inner lives.



Beyond the moon, beyond planet blue
and planet red, each day further
from the sun she floats out toward

the empty dark of X. Having done
what she was sent out years before
to do, she gave up sending even

the faintest signals back to earth,
to bend instead her shattered wings
across her breast for warmth. It is

late, he knows, and knows it will only
go on getting later. He shifts alone
in the late November light before

her grave, as so often he has done
these past five years, to try
and finish what he knows to be

unfinished business and must remain
that way: this one-way dialogue
between the self, and--in her absence--

the mother in himself. Epilogue, perhaps,
to what one man might do to heal
the shaken ghost which must at last admit

just how many years ago she logged off
on her journey. So that now, as darkness
drops about him like some discarded coat,

old but useful, such as his mother used
to wear, he takes it to him, much as
she did, to ward against the cold.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

The hits just keep on coming with this poetry series. I look forward to them, because they are always completely different from the previous selection, and you never know just what kind of gem Duke's gonna turn up next. Obviously Paul Mariani had no poetry ideas going on night late while he was watching the original 'Star Trek' movie and was inspired to write a poem about Voyager. Just kidding. (If you're unfamiliar with the plot, the Enterprise crew is chasing after something mysterious that whole flick, way past the end of the galaxy, and in the end it turns out to be the "lost" Voyager. If i'm giving that way away for anyone, hey man, you've had like 40 years to see that flick....)

No seriously, Duke is right about the poet's ability to select thoroughly interesting and illuminating metaphors, and this is why they do what they do. It's a great tribute in a melancholy way to his lost mother, it is not sentimental, but it acknowledges and gives the proper weight to her loss, even after what seems to be the passage of a significant amount of time.