December 20, 2009

USA: The Wonder Years

. NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Sunday Book Review / December 20, 2009 By Stephen Burt Next April, Marie Ponsot will turn 89 years old. The best work in “Easy,” her sixth collection, responds — with cheer and tolerance, with terse good humor — to her accumulated years. “Old’s our game,” says the woman (not the poet) who speaks in the sonnet “We Own the Alternative”: “Mere failure to be young is not interesting.” What interests Ponsot instead is the set of perspectives that old age creates for her — calm, tolerant and often delighted. Ponsot published her first book in 1957 but gained national attention in 1998 with “The Bird Catcher,” her fourth. That book, like this one, could imply that accumulated experience (motherhood, travel, long acquaintance with friends, long residence in New York City) made possible the confidence her style shows. Lines and sentences zig and zag as they please, go on unpredictably or stop short. Her inventions are quirky nonce forms, almost stunts — the ode whose first four lines all end in “cloud,” the lines in “Head Turkey Muses: A Soliloquy” whose boasts mimic gobbles: “I am sentinel to / hens. I do them all. Not you. I do.” Marie Ponsot. Photo: Michael Lionstar “Peter Rabbit’s Middle Sister” revels in more intricate phonic play: “fast in the thorned clutch / of your hedge-hemmed root-safe bedtime-tale hutch.” (It is not the only place where Ponsot echoes Marianne Moore.) Buttressed by years, Ponsot can give advice worth pondering: “Go to a funeral / as to a wedding: / marry the loss. / Go to a coming / as to a going: / unhurrying.” Age yields, sometimes, reasons for new delight: it is like touring Europe without a guide or a list of must-see locales, “stopping & starting, off-season, / off-peak, on time, on our own.” Unintimidated by strangers’ opinions, Ponsot can sound enthused or merely precious, sincerely awestruck or simply na├»ve. She can also permit herself frank comments about other people’s lives: in a sonnet about a rich old man and his second wife, “he / does look awkward, playing young, playing lord. / She’s bored. He’s scared. She’s scared. He’s bored.” ==================================== EASY Poems By Marie Ponsot 82 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26 ===================================== Ponsot’s best work finds her down-to-earth, either mordant or lighthearted; when she reaches for the sky, she can trip herself up. Too often her poems inform us that language sparkles, that poetry refreshes, that clouds, plants or poems are miraculously wonderful: “words become us / we come alive lightly / saying Oh / at the wordstream of sentences”; “the delicious tongue we speak with speaks us.” Of art in general, she decides, “we live by the replay that gratifies / the thirst it rectifies,” as if art could gratify every thirst it presents. On Easter Saturday — the day after crucifixion, before Resurrection — the poet’s breath becomes “a strong pulse / of everywhere hooray.” Durable poetry certainly can say hooray — Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Ponsot’s heroes, wrote a beautiful sonnet called “Hurrahing in Harvest” — but it cannot often congratulate itself. In interviews, Ponsot has mentioned her Catholic faith, and she pays homage to the Catholic Hopkins, who endeavored (as she does) to see in each plant, each animal, each sort of weather, a unique instance of Providence: “Loft him Halo him / Prize him high, pen in hand,” she tells Hopkins (“him” is God). But Hopkins was also a poet of anger and terror, frustration, mundanity, even despair: “No worst, there is none,” he wrote. “Pitched past pitch of grief.” No poet must feel such anguish just to write well; but Ponsot’s own writing, like Ponsot’s version of Hopkins, can seem so self-consciously affirmative, so determined to look on the bright side, as to miss a great deal of what other people see. “Walking Home From the Museum” sets Ponsot’s own fallen language, her own imperfect faith, against a “Paradise panel” of confident angels, “the vivid repose of each breathless face,” “their speech sung as if not split from song.” The very admission on which that sonnet turns — that our speech is not their song, that our Earth is not Heaven — makes it stand out amid its more sanguine peers. Ponsot’s strongest lines admit both satisfaction and futility, pleasure and pain, without allowing either to conquer the other. “What Speaks Out” admires a Bronze Age lute, “harplike, huge,” even though it was found in an ancient tomb beside “the dust of the three skulls / of three young women / whose heads it crushed.” “Orphaned Old” begins with a memorable understatement: “I feel less lucky since my parents died.” For all its insistence on exuberance, there is something brittle, like china, about Ponsot’s style. Other poets who use, as she does, short lines, a conversational pace and frequent enjambments can feel rushed or wild. Ponsot instead tends to tread slowly, as if careful not to damage the copious beauties she finds on the streets of Manhattan, in its museums, in clouds, in air. In the last and longest poem here, “Dancing Day II,” gratitude and apprehension, strength and fragility mingle in a direct portrayal of old age. The poem’s coming event is at once the end of a life and the sociable delight of another night out: We’re running out of time, so we’re hurrying home to practice to gether for the general dance. We’re past get-ready, almost at get-set. Such attitudes — tender, alert, self-ironized and finally unillusioned — propel all of Marie Ponsot’s best poems. [rc] Stephen Burt, an associate professor of English at Harvard, is the author of “Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry.” Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company