Poet Special: Works by Kelly Cherry (May 2016 / 16.5)
Picasso, oil on canvas, 1937.
A communiqué, a newspaper perhaps.
The beauty of the mural mandates close
attention to detail. It is not God
who’s in these details (wounded horse, panicked
bull, dead child and mourning mother, bare bulb
of the interrogator’s arsenal,
the severed arm, the bloody mess in black
and white and tacit red all over. Red
all over. Blood red. All over. All red.)
Of existential terrors, I think the most
terrifying has to be the absence
of oneself from almost every moment in
the infinite series of moments that is time.
You were not there for Plato’s lectures nor
in Mexico with Trotsky, and the poems
of Li Po were written without your help.
Nor did the world await the advent of you.
How long before the boiling oceans cooled,
before the funky trilobite could crawl
and bright skies darkened, the atmosphere roiled
by pterodactyls’ proto-wings? Time is
a form of vertigo, as if we looked
downward from an insensible height into
a well without a bottom. Then our own
wee bit, or brief newsbite, of time arrives
and in less of it than an eye-blink takes
leaves, and with it, our generation departs
(already some have left) and we shall be
a long time gone, a long time without time.
To face infinity is to stand in a strong wind
that cannot distinguish between you and a tree
or rock or blade of grass or roof or brick
or fence or phone pole or snapped branch or stick.
To face infinity is to be cut down
to size, the infinitesimal speck of dust
that is yourself, indistinguishable
from any other speck of musty dust.
Lake Rosseau (Canada) Times Three
When we arrived—three children and their mom,
The father, in Ithaca, teaching violin,
As he would every summer of his career
Because the pay was pitiful—we found
The kitchen mobbed by squirrels: in the sink,
Squirrels; on the stove, squirrels; the open,
Unplugged, fridge and oven: more squirrels.
Squirrels in the cabinet, squirrels on the sills,
Squirrels running between our legs. I think
My mother must have wanted to cry; instead
She smiled and made a game of chasing the squirrels
Outside and we joined in. Who knew she’d grow
To hate the North, the somber-faced pinheads
Who took themselves too seriously, the early
Dark, the wintry weather, the endless laundry
She scrubbed by hand on a rack in the tub.
Our mother used a wide aluminum tub
To lug outside the wash she scrubbed by hand
And hang it on the clothesline in the sun.
With laundry on the line and tub thus empty
We girls took turns getting in it, stretching
Our arms and legs in four directions, like
The man within da Vinci’s wheel of life.
Sideways we turned the tub and down the hill
We went—only one at a time, of course.
I now can see it’s possible how far
We rolled wasn’t far at all, was barely
A meter, maybe barely an American foot.
We thought ourselves daring and brave, un-
Aware the world would shrink as we grew up.
On both sides of a creek were branches bending
Across the water, bearing blooms of snow,
If not for long, for it was May. A child
In Canada—a summer only—I had
A toy canoe made of birchbark. I loved
The woody odor. Everything smelled good
That summer: pine cones and the dry pine needles
I liked to lie in; laundry blowing on the line;
My brother’s red hair wet from his dives off
A cliff; the sunning grass; and pansies picked
By my younger sister for her favorite doll,
The one with yellow pigtails. All this I had
Forgot until those snow-spattered birches,
Bending to form a bridge, brought it back.
Somehow like tulips, but solider than tulips,
The roofs of Paris compose blocks of color
As they do in paintings by Maurice de Vlaminck,
Resulting in a tender, cheerful skyscape
All angles and angels and gargoyles and belltowers.
In bistros, les chefs suavely serve pommes frites.
In boutiques, les femmes chic test-spray scents
By Cacherel, Chanel, Dior, Fragonard
On neatly turned wrists, and in Les Halles
Working men carry and carve and push and pull
And lift and throw down. An aerial view
Of the city of light discovers a circus of shadows,
Corners of darkness breaking the city into planes
That ask an artist to reassemble the whole.
Pizza in Pompeii
The walls and floors depicted Roman gods
And just plain people fornicating in
Every possible position, and
Why not, considering that their lives were short
As May flies’ (excepting Cicero and
Other such)? People were proud pagans
And many celebrated the phallus whether
As work of art or the real, actual thing
Although at orgies Romans preferred the real,
Actual thing, the hot and palpable penis.
Then I spotted pizza ovens and toured them.
A plethora of pizza ovens! Bounty
Of pizza ovens! Clearly, all that sex,
That raunchy, nonstop sex, stimulated
Pagan appetites. Stomachs rumbled.
And so until Mount Vesuvius blew,
The people ate pizza with garlic and anchovies.
* * *
Author’s commentary: “Arriving,” “The Tub, and “Birches” are linked to make one poem because each is about the summer we (our mother and the three of us kids) stayed in a cabin in Canada. Our father had gone ahead to Ithaca College to teach summer school. He taught violin and theory, and at that time he took over the position a well-known composer had occupied. I can’t remember the name of the well-known composer but perhaps he left because he wanted to get out of there. It wasn’t long before Dad wanted to get out of there. We had come up from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the winters eventually defeated us.
Meanwhile, we had that summer in Canada because Dad was to be looking for a place to live. The cabin was small and crowded (often with squirrels and chipmunks) but my mother was young, beautiful, and energetic and the three of us kids loved being outdoors. My sister turned three that summer; our brother was twelve or thirteen, and he shot up like a rocket though we were as yet unaware of rockets, and I was five.
Our parents had played in the New Orleans Symphony, and Dad gave solo concerts as well. They had also established a string quartet, which was now reestablished as The Ithaca String Quartet. And of course, they had to practice. The result was that most of the time we didn’t see them (our parents were heard but not seen), but in Canada, we had our mother. She stopped wearing a bra, wore pleated shorts and tee-shirts, and went barefoot.
My brother, as I say in one of the poems, dived from cliffs. My sister and I, though we’d been anxious wrecks, loved to roll down the hill and loved the smell of pines and began to grow up. I would enter the first grade before my next birthday, and Ann and I were able to play together before sibling rivalry took over. I still remember that summer vividly and sensually.
I wrote “Guernica” for a book that will come out in February, 2017. The book is about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and some comment was required, I felt, regarding the Spanish Civil War, because Oppenheimer knew that his wife’s second marriage had been to a fighter named Joe Dallet, who was killed in combat in 1937.
“Absence” came about because I was thinking about how little we know. And for such a short time.
“Skyscape” was just a matter of pleasure. It is so wonderful to start out with a couple of words and wind up with a sonnet. The word that triggered the sonnet was Vlaminck. What a wonderful name!
With “Pizza in Pompeii,” I knew from the start that I wanted a poem about Pompeii. Only later did I remember all the pizza ovens, and when I remembered them, they took over the poem.
Kelly Cherry is the author of twenty books of fiction (novels, short stories), poetry, and nonfiction (memoir, essay, criticism), eight chapbooks, and translations of two classical plays. Her most recently published titles are The Woman Who, a collection of short fiction, The Retreats of Thought: Poems, and Girl in a Library: On Women Writers and the Writing Life. Her short fiction has been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South, and has won three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards. In 2000 her collection The Society of Friends: Stories, received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for the best volume of short stories published in 1999. She was the first recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize given by the Fellowship of Southern Writers for a body of work. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships and two New Work awards, an Arts America Speaker Award (The Philippines), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. In 2010 she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Comment on Poet Feature, Spring 2016.