04 August 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/32

Cooling Card for August

Think now of cool persimmon trees
And the gardens of the Hesperides,
Wet sandpipers by a wet sea,
Of imperturbability,
Fragonard ladies, and vert-de-gris.

Think now of green, of willow and jade,
Of a green thought in a green shade,
A life of sloth, and fronds of palm,
Of estimating the world with calm,
Any lyric, and any psalm.

Or think of hoarfrost, rime, dark, blight,
Of the eighteenth-century Mr. White
Of Selborne, brooding one summer's night,
Nipped to the bone; of his small, chill note.
"One little starveling wasp," he wrote.

Helen Bevington

Here's one for the sultry days of August. This poem seems typical of what I've read of Bevington's work, displaying literary erudition elegantly worn and a preference for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors. She provides a series of striking, distracting images and clear running rhythms and rhyme to create a mental alternative to the late days of summer, when the heat is breaking down the world around us (I feel this particularly this year, since California is experiencing a severe drought, and the earth looks parched and the plants singed). The title suggests that this is sort of a card (which I take to mean postcard) to help cool us down: like a postcard, it contains striking images, and some brief, swift lines meant to convey, in the classic postcard line, wish you were here.

First she directs us to think of "cool persimmon trees" whose pulpy fruit ripens in the fall. It's an easy mental leap from the beautiful orange globes of the persimmon tree to the gardens of the Hesperides, the lovely gardens of Greek myth which feature, among other things, the tree (or trees) that bear the golden apples of immortality. On the dust jacket of the book from which I took this poem (see below) Bevington mentions her admiration for the poet Robert Herrick, whose 1648 collection of lyrics was called Hesperides, so there may be a glancing tribute to him in this reference as well.

Next in the series of images is "wet sandpipers by a wet sea." It's easy enough to be transported by these words to a deserted beach, where the shore birds, sprayed by the incoming waves, skip over the sodden sand, and I'm assuming if the birds are comfortable there, the beach is empty of people: a vision of summer more palatable than the sweaty crowded reality. But why does she mention a "wet sea," since the sea is, by definition, wet? She is creating a world for us out of words, freely mixing natural history, mythology, and poetry. Repetition brings emphasis: these suggested thoughts are to create a mental vision for us; we are directed to think wet, and its use as a modifier for each noun in the line creates an emphatic sense of cooling water around us.

Next we are to think of imperturbability, the word illustrating itself by coolly taking up most of its line, and then, speaking of imperturbability, Fragonard ladies: you remember the pink-and-golden ladies of the French rococo painter, ladies who never broke a sweat in their charmed and charming lives, shepherdesses whose frocks were never torn, daintily swinging or strolling away the summer's day in some sheltering bower. And the stanza ends with an evocation of another antique shade, vert-de-gris (also known as verdigris) the pale green patina that time creates on weathered copper or bronze. Each line has ended with an -ees (trees and Hesperides) or -ee sound (sea, imperturbability, gris), like a sighing breeze or the hiss of waves breaking on sand.

The vert-de-gris brings us to green thoughts against summer's dryness: willows, a tree that usually grows by rivers, and the cool jade stone. Then she moves to a green thought in a green shade, a quotation from seventeenth-century British poet Andrew Marvell's poem The Garden. The stanza from which this famous line is taken depicts, as this poem does, the mind's ability to create its own inner and alternate reality: "Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less / Withdraws into its happiness: / The mind, that ocean where each kind / Does straight its own resemblance find, / Yet it creates, transcending these, / Far other worlds, and other seas, / Annihilating all that's made / To a green thought in a green shade." (There used to be a theory that the ocean contained an equivalent of all land animals – hence such animal names as sea lion, sea horse, elephant seal, and so forth – so he's saying that the mind not only tends to perceive outside reality according to its pre-existing mental categories, but also that through its faculties of memory and imagination it can create vivid, new, and otherwise non-existent worlds.)

She moves from there to more greenness: the implied jungle of the "fronds of palm" and the relaxing life of sloth (which brings to mind the life of a sloth, as well, reinforcing the rain forest feel). Then, balancing the first stanza's "Of imperturbability" we have "Of estimating the world with calm," and then "any lyric, and any psalm" – this is poetry as a way of drawing us into mental reality, any lyric (presumably light, personal, swift) and any psalm (often a hymn of praise to God or His creation). In the first stanza all the rhymes are quite close, but in this one the first two lines are distinct: jade and shade, and then palm, calm, and psalm.

Then, having preceded by easy degrees to remove ourselves from the physical realities of late summer, we're pulled into the dead of winter: hoarfrost, rime, dark, blight. (Do we really want to be here, among these extreme conditions? Perhaps we should be a little more grateful for summer's warmth.) Hoar means to make white or grey through age or frost; hoarfrost is a type of crystalline frost, and rime (is a pun on rhyme intended here? is the poem pushing us too far away from summer, and is this a witty warning of danger ahead?) is a type of frost formed on cold objects by the rapid freezing of the surrounding fog. Dark and blight are the end results. Mr White of Selborne is Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century clergyman and proto-ecologist whose close study of the natural world in his locale was published in 1789 as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a deeply influential book that is still available and admired. In this last stanza the sense of winter, created by the first line and by words and phrases like "brooding," "nipped to the bone" and "small, chill note," is so strong that it's almost a surprise when she slips in a reminder that she's still talking about summer, that the naturalist is brooding "one summer's night." "Nipped to the bone" usually means cold to us, but it can mean pinched or squeezed, as by a hungry wasp. In this stanza, the three lines that rhyme (blight, White, night) come first and the two lines that rhyme (note and wrote) follow. This is a reversal of the rhyme pattern in the earlier stanzas. The poem itself seems to reverse as well in this last stanza: from an attempt to summon up a mental alternative to the dog days we come to an intense evocation of the cold and blight and hunger (the starveling wasp) of winter – of the kind of days that make us dream of summer's heat. Remembering the inevitable natural cycle is another way of helping us cool down in August. And it's all been summoned up by the careful arrangement of images, and of words that create the images.

I took this poem from 19 Million Elephants and Other Poems by Helen Bevington. I was in Cleveland years ago for the wedding of some friends and was browsing in a used bookstore (because I cannot pass a bookstore without going in) when, attracted by the mention of elephants in the title, I picked up the book and noticed that it had been inscribed by the author. That was enough to sell me on it. It's out of print but you can find used copies on the unfailing Internet.

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