Friday, September 29, 2006

Poetry Class!

In acknowlegement of the fact that a) some of my readers are also popular young roaring-boy poets and b) my own poetic tastes run to Tennyson and Longfellow and don't extend much further than Robert Service, I'll periodically include a poem here at Stevereads.

These won't be poems like "The Song of Hiawatha," where I already KNOW that it's a great work of art. These will be poems that struck some kind of note inside me - and I'll be inviting you-all to write in and TEACH me about them, for good or ill.

My first example comes from this week's New Yorker. It's by somebody named Deborah Digges, and it's called 'The Birthing':

Call out the names in the procession of the loved.
Call from the blood the ancestors here to bear witness
to the day he stopped the car,
we on our way to a great banquet in his honor.
In a field a cow groaned lowing, trying to give birth,
what he called front leg presentation,
the calf come out nose first, one front leg dangling from his mother.
A fatal sign he said while rolling up the sleeves
of his dress shirt, and climbed the fence.
I watched him thrust his arm entire
into the yet-to-be, where I imagined holy sparrows scattering
in the hall of souls for his big mortal hands just to make way.
With his whole weight he pushed the calf back in the mother
and grasped the other leg tucked up like a closed wing
against the new one's shoulder.
And found a way in the warm dark to bring both legs out
into the world together.
Then heaved and pulled, the cow arching her back,
until a bull calf, in a whoosh of blood and water,
came falling whole and still onto the meadow.
We rubbed his blackness, bloodying our hands.
The mother licked the newborn, of us oblivious,
until he moved a little, struggled.
I ran to get our coats, mine a green velvet cloak,
and his tuxedo jacket, and worked to rub the new one dry
while he set out to find the farmer.
When it was over, the new calf suckling his mother,
the farmer soon to lead them to the barn,
leaving our coats just where they lay
we huddled in the car.
And then made love toward eternity,
without a word drove slowly home. And loved some more.

I can see some faults in this thing right away (the willfully erroneous grammar and punctuation, to sound all 'poety,' and of course that 'of us oblivious'), but I kind of like this.

What does everybody else think? Not just the poets, either - did anybody else like this?


John said...

Where to start? First off, I thought the vaginal drippings of livestock were the intellectual property of Ted Hughes. It’s a good thing he’s not around to see it. Secondly, I’m going to start to use ‘the yet-to-be’ as a canny snatch of slang. Kind of the same way the Elizabethans used ‘nothing.’ Very wink-and-a-nod.

To me, the poem makes the gestures of taking risks without actually taking any. We all know ‘birth is a miracle’, even the birth of a calf. So while it may not be the sort of thing you want to read over your breakfast, its not really breaking new ground, either. Also, it seems to me washed in those Merchant Ivory sepia tones that denote an experience sentimentalized through only one kind of lens (the pathetic gesture of the mutant calf to one side—isn’t nature cruel in her mystery?)

Also why are the line breaks where they are? Also why couldn’t this have been written as prose? Is it because the last lines would have seemed foolish and out of place?

More later. Let me think for a bit about why you may have liked it...

Sam Sacks said...

I (a nonpoet) liked it a little because it's cheery and excited in its portentousness, where most poetic portents are grim wet blankets. But I have to say that the livestock breech birth has somehow become, for big city East Coast rags, the official SYMBOL of literary angst in the American West. If a story takes place in Montana there are heavy odds you're going to get a calving mishap, which will trouble the mendicant soul of the adolescent female narrator, or of the whisky-swilling widower.

steve said...

I can guess at some of the reasons why I might have liked it - farm imagery, plus an actual story, it's actually about something.

But is it GOOD? Is it a good poem?

Meg said...

>But is it GOOD? Is it a good poem?

It's a wonderful poem. I blogged about it today, all these issues after it was published.