Rod Jellema




Pattiann Rogers: Two Readings of her Poems
       
There are many things we can name as the “greatest grandeur,” says Pattiann Rogers,
But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that voice which one is free to fill
with . . .

and then she is off, characteristically, into a catalogue of torchmen, blue horses, teapots, blasphemies, tangerine custards, polkas. . . .  But hold: notice that it is not just the tumble and ricochet of things in their variety that she celebrates. It’s “the dark emptiness contained / in every next moment.” The glory is to see and hear, to connect, but mostly to image forth, to make what can fill the emptiness of that next moment.

I.  Writing Toward Every Next Moment

There is always a lot of biology and astrophysics in Rogers’ poetry. Exactness stirs wonder alive, and then she gives wonder a body—especially the wonder of what we do not understand. She tells us in “Good Heavens,” for example, that the garden snail cannot watch the night sky or count or make lists; “It has never called / its slither the soft finger of night / nor its wound shell a frozen / galactic spin.” There are present in the snail vast emptinesses where language has not reached. And yet— 
Yet its boneless, thumb-sized head is filled and totally deaf
with exactly the same tone and timbre as the sky.

There’s the grandeur. There’s what we humans can write about. How what is here and earthy can be related to what is “out there.” Later in the same poem we again encounter the magnificence of what we don’t “know”:
To imagine the stars and flaming
dust wheeling inside the gut
of a blind, transparent fish
swimming out-of-sight in the black
waters of a cave a thousand years ago
is to suggest that the perfect
mystery of time, motion and light
remains perfect.

For all its dazzle in fusing scientific data with poetry, this is not a case of poetry being humble in the service of science. This is poetry still affirming its ancient claim as a way of knowing. Her poems are not how the intellect perceives; they are how the whole human mind knows.

Rogers’ fascination with such reach, from high celestial motion down to snail-guts, could tempt her into making too many of her exuberant catalogues. An early poem, called “In Addition to Faith, Hope, and Charity,” goes far beyond its catalogue of
            . . . clam shrimp,
marsh treader, bobcat, the clover-coveting
honeybee, diving teal, the thousand­eyed
bot fly . . . .

But her business is with every syllable and sound of her clustering words. It’s fun to notice how often the catalogues intertwine what can be seen or named with what can be heard. Without the self-conscious and strained pyrotechnics of, say, Vachel Lindsay or the lock-step drumming of the rappers, she catches in sound and scene the incessant drumbeats of the earth,
. . . the thump,
thump and slide of waves
on a stretched hide of beach,
the rising beat and slap
of their crests against the shore
baffles, the rapping of otters
cracking mollusks with stones,
woodpeckers beak-banging, the beaver’s
whack of his tail-paddle, the ape
playing the bam of his own chest,
the million tickering rolls
of rain off the flat-leaves
and the razor-rims of the forest. 
Not many of her lists are this directly about sound, of course. This one tips us off. She plays these lines with more than street parade drumming; she is hitting the whole jazz drummer’s layout. Yet the cadences are integral and organic, not exhibitionist. The old pioneer jazz New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds said to me one night in 1948, “drums should be felt, not heard.” In this poem we get to feel the brushes as well as drumsticks, the rim-shots and wood blocks as well as the high-hat cymbal. With little effort we are hearing African village chiefs calling to each other long ago. The rhythms are primal, a rough spondaic jamming together of the sounds of stones, woodpeckers beak-banging, the beaver’s / whack of his tail-paddle.

Even whimsy is part of what fills that black emptiness at the great “next moment.” Here’s a poem in which a happy imagination plays its way into a scene never found on land or sea. Start with its title: “The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris.” Read it again. Ridiculous. The poem begins by daring to wonder if you can tell them apart, the whale and the field of iris:
They would be difficult to tell apart except                 
That one of them sails as a single body of flowing           
Grey-violet and purple-brown flashes of sun, in and out
Across the shady sky. And one of them brushes
Its ruffled flukes and wrinkled sepals constantly
Against the salt-smooth skin of the other as it swims past,
And one of them possesses a radiant indigo moment
Deep beneath its leaded crux . . . .

So which is which? Sly, playful, mischievous, this exhilarating absurdity of a poem leaves us far beyond being bewildered. It speeds us into the infinity of possibilities we can make in our quest for the truth of things. And the shocking truth of things, its beautiful confusion, is caught not first of all by science. It is caught first of all, and most fully, by the searching imagination. Imagination, that is, conforming to the rush of pleasing sounds; conforming to dream, to the leaping energies of the varieties of words, and even to ancient memory—and even to the revelations of science.

Song of the World Becoming, published sixteen years ago, is 494 pages chock full of the creations that fill that dark emptiness of every next moment. The rush to explore what needs to be experienced humanly is enormous and delightful. How significant or important are Rogers’ revelations?

II.  Like its Universe, the Mind Expands

When I first noticed that her second large collection, Firekeeper: Selected Poems, was published only four years after Song of the World Becoming, and was 248 pages shorter, I worried. Was she taking back some of her assertions about finding the “out there” in her examinations of multitudes of various things in the here and now?

Scholars and critics far more patient and disciplined than I are surely at work comparing these two books. They will pay special attention to which poems from the first book have been excluded for the second, and theorize about why. Bless them all. Even while impatient for their conclusions, I mean to proceed on the assumption that each of the two books will continue to stand on its own creativity.

Let’s begin with a poem which introduces us to the firekeeper. The poem, “The All-Encompassing,” is Rogers’ re-creation in words of a famous painting by Rembrandt, a painting titled “Philosopher in Meditation.” The philosopher is an old man, dozing and perhaps asleep near a sunlit window, his large book in his lap. Reaching into the large fireplace is the firekeeper, apparently a servant. But how is the philosopher related to the mystically named “firekeeper” who provides the title for Rogers’ next large collection of her poems? Is the firekeeper an object of the old man’s meditation? A subject in a dream he is having? Rogers sees another possibility.
But the philosopher could be
the bent firekeeper by the wall
behind the stairs. He stirs, rouses
the coals, studies the combustion.
He’s hunched and crotchety there,
concentrating obviously as he constructs
his viable conflagration.

Rembrandt’s painting is almost overwhelmed by a huge spiral staircase. It is probably an engineering impossibility, yet it strongly suggests the human journey from the temporal to the eternal. Jungian psychologists would call it an archetype that rises out of the collective unconscious, connecting earth and heaven, body and soul, the physical and the spiritual. The staircase,
curving down the middle of the room,
could be the philosophy, each step leading
naturally and logically to the next.
It’s the physical form of ordered thought
reaching a grand staircase conclusion.

Once we notice a misty, diaphanous, hard to make out figure at the top of those stairs, we are ready for the final two stanzas, where the bearded old man “sleeps in the light of the known” that streams in from sun and fireplace. Strangely, the poem’s meditation is entirely of physical things, not spiritual transcendence; and the shrouded figure at the top of the stairs, not a mystical apparition, could be the noisy, ever busy housewife whom Rogers releases into the scene. And if it is the housewife, says the poem—well, I’ll give you the joy of reading the ending. If the almost invisible apparition is really the housewife, waiting in the wings to storm into the scene,
O philosopher’s meditation, don’t you understand,
even the baskets and barrels and pots
and smoke of this hovel that split
and bang and cling, and the firekeeper
cracking his throat and the bucket
of ashes and clinkers on the hearth,
and each separate meditation in its place
and time, all these must take their positions
in the rhetoric of the system?


If I hear the ancient housewife rattling
and creaking now down the curve of the stairs
(old gene, spiral of conception, old twist),
dogs scrambling at her heels, broom
and dustpan knocking, if she enters here
with her raucous retinue, cursing and barking,
jolts the sleeper, sweeping under the old man’s
stool, cuffs the firekeeper, sets the pans
and spoons swinging, then all previous
suppositions fail, and we must begin again.

Our suppositions for centuries have been, of course, that step-by-step philosophical discourse or otherwise meditation and contemplation are the way to truth. W.B. Yeats, near the end of his life, broke with that tradition. The truths he reached started, he says, not from what’s in his book A Vision; it all began with “Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut / who keeps the till.” Pattiann Rogers is showing us likewise that the spiritual world is not Karl Barth’s “wholly other.” The soul or spirit of nature is already and always within all things. Reality is an indwelling of spirit in the things of this world. And so her attention is to how every physical thing is made real to observation and the imagination because that is the spirit that infuses it. The spirit embraces everything—every thing.

Over twenty-six centuries we have had a parallel. The Book of Job. When Yahweh, God, “answers” Job’s questions and complaints about suffering, speaking through a Voice out of the Whirlwind, he thunders out poetic catalogues of directions that tell Job only to open his eyes to the natural world around him. Look at clouds, proud horses, the sea, plants, Job is told. Never mind for now bending your knee and looking up. Just follow your nose.

Job wants to understand divine justice; he doesn’t get a direct answer to his question at all. There’s a good deal of divine absurdity in what he gets instead:
Have you considered the Hippopotamus?
It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
. . . The lotus trees cover it for shade;
the willows of the wadi surround it.
Though Jordan rushes against its mouth,
it is confident. 

Again and again the Voice points the god-seeker to what is eye-level: 
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
              
Have you entered into the treasures of the snow?

The function of all Rogers’ rich, tumbling catalogues of what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls thisness is to show all of us Jobs that the spiritual world is inherent, enfleshed, incarnate in every single thing that exists. Only the beholder is wanting, says Hopkins. We do not have to strain and strive to find it in the Great Elsewhere. We find the Creator’s divine fingerprint in things in themselves, dingen an sich.

The human mind, like the universe, expands. Not just by way of intellectual, philosophical enquiry, or by way of mystical or meditative exercise. It expands beyond these narrow components of itself simply by imaginatively noticing, looking at, studying, being fascinated; finally by re-creating, as art or music or poetry, things in themselves. The business of mind is fullness.

It is in the total natural environment she finds manifestations of the spirit’s influence, its in-flow. Look, using language as your spectacles; you find it in cloud and breath as well as in cow and crocodile.  Here is the last stanza of “How the Scene Influences Occasions”:
We know how the quality of night snow
Lightens the lullaby, does not interrupt
The prayer, demures to the blessing,
How it enhances the bonfire set
Beside the frozen lake. The speech of the dullard then
Must be improved by thunder rattling
The casements, by rain in profusion on the glass.

Here again, an in-flowing: The marsh wren
exists exactly as if he were a product
of the pond and the sky and the blades of light
among the reeds and grasses, as if he were
deliberately willed into being by the empty
spaces he eventually inhabits. 

For Rogers, the body is not the prison-house from which the soul tries to escape. Asian monist thought and Western romanticism have given us enough of that. She conceives of the body as a window—and a window never exists as
anything but pure continuum, forever empty,
its frame is only filled by the everlasting beyond
of inside and outside.

The implications of Pattiann Rogers’ work are enormous. In a scientific age in which popular culture confuses brainwork and intellect with that bigger miracle called mind, she reminds us that the mind expands what we know by use of its other components: Imagination, the quest for harmony, dream, mythic patterning, reason, rhythm, aesthetic response to color and shape. And yes, the probing intellect. An amazing intellect is hard at work in these poems. But it knows it is too narrow by itself. The intellect cannot feel affection or grief, it insulates itself against what rises from beneath consciousness, it ignores the undercurrent that moves under words, it cannot see the third side of the page. What the poems of Pattiann Rogers open us to is the whole and expandable human mind.



Rod Jellema, long associated with the University of Maryland and with The Writers Center (Bethesda, MD), won the Towson University Prize for Literature for A Slender Grace. His most recent book, Incarnality: The Collected Poems (Eerdmans, 2010), includes a CD of his readings of many of them. Rod Jellema was the subject of our Closer Look in Innisfree 12.








                                    

 

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A CLOSER LOOK: Pattiann Rogers

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