The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Marianne Boruch
In this issue we take A Closer Look at the poetry of Marianne Boruch. She has shared with us a generous selection from both her Poems: New and Selected (Oberlin College Press, 2004) and her recently published sixth collection, Grace, Fallen from (Wesleyan University Press, 2008).
Attention is a beautiful thing, and much in demand. Probably more of us want it than know how to give it. Marianne Boruch's recent Poems: New and Selected has the wonderful, commanding power of true attention: She sees and considers with intensity. Her poems often give fresh examples of how rare and thrilling it can be to notice. . . . Trusting observation, having the ideas and feelings emerge as continuations of that action of noticing—where others might force a sentiment or a bit of philosophizing onto things—may be a mark of genuine poetry.
Thus did former poet laureate Robert Pinsky call our attention to the work of Marianne Boruch in his Washington Post "Poet's Choice" column on April 24, 2005. I offer his words as a means of alerting those readers not familiar with her work to be alert as they engage the poems themselves below. Marianne Boruch's sensibility draws us into closer contact with this time and place we inhabit through those nuances of perception granted to the genuine poet and, beyond sometimes, into the strangenesses that lurk within our times and places and ourselves. Her poems reward the reader open to experiencing the particular world created by each poem.
As the poet Barbara Ras has recently observed about Grace, Fallen from, "Marianne Boruch attends to mystery, to absence, to our all-too-human frailty and folly. Yet in reckoning with what we lack, she floods her poems with intelligence, ripples them with humor, and instills in them a musical, sensuous abundance."
Marianne Boruch is a Professor in the Department of English at Purdue University and founded its MA/MFA program in creative writing. She has taught at Purdue since 1987 as well as in the Warren Wilson College MFA program. Over the past two decades she has published a series of rich, distinctive collections of poetry:
Grace, Fallen from, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
Ghost and Oar, Red Dragonfly Press (chapbook), 2007
Poems: New and Selected, Oberlin College Press, 2004
A Stick that Breaks and Breaks, Oberlin College Press, 1997
Moss Burning, Oberlin College Press, 1993
Descendant, Wesleyan University Press, 1989
View from the Gazebo, Wesleyan University Press, 1985
She has also published two illuminating collections of essays:
In the Blue Pharmacy: Essays on Poetry and Other Transformations,
Trinity University Press, 2005
Poetry's Old Air, "Poets on Poetry" Series, University of Michigan Press,
Marianne's poems appear widely in such journals as The New Yorker, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, The Antioch Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Partisan Review, The Yale Review, and The Paris Review.
I. from Poems: New and Selected (Oberlin, 2004)
He was halfway through the grackle
when I got home. From the kitchen I saw
blood, the black feathers scattered
on snow. How the bird bent
to each skein of flesh, his muscles
tacking to the strain and tear.
The fierceness of it, the nonchalance.
Silence took the yard, so usually
restless with every call or quarrel,
titmouse, chickadee, drab
and gorgeous finch, and the sparrow haunted
by her small complete surrender
to a fear of anything. I didn't know
how to look at it. How to stand
or take a breath in the hawk's bite
and pull, his pleasure
so efficient, so of course, of course,
the throat triumphant,
rising up. Not
the violence, poor grackle. But the
sparrow, high above us, who
Before the basil blackened. Before plates
slept in their cupboard. Before the streets
were snow. Before the song started in the throat
or crept sideways into the hands that hold the cello
or the moon spilled to nonsense all
over the floor. Before color composed itself
to twenty names for blue, or was it green or was it
red? Before seeds entered the ground
to transform themselves. Before cake was eaten, before
the icing bubbled up and crystallized. Before
all that sugar. Before shells
when things were moving in them and the sea
made a noise. Before our son grew so eye
to eye. Before worms made their fiefdom
in the compost. Before sleep refused the night
and the clock kept ticking. Before the hospital
took the soul from the body, dark
from dark, and the long drive home. Before the dog
stopped mid-bark to bark and the cat rose
from her stretch, unblinking. Before every moth
in the flour stilled its wings. Before the stain,
before its memory in the wood
grew wider. Before the garden gave everything
to weeds. Remember that, O charm
to forget, to go back, to vanish? Before
the dead appeared at the edge of my vision. Before
the grace to be broken was broken.
I drag this big bed to the window
which takes years probably
as garden spills, as birds darken,
the tree outside
slips into her farthest ring, heave
of new bark, water, wood air.
I think she listens so
near the window, pressing
her strange light. I sing
o ragged quilt over the whole world,
meaning to say: such is my simple grief,
this great dim street
glistening with boys.
How their mothers thin them down,
calling them home,
quiet baseballs, a few
blue stones. What secrets
in a boy, pitching the last gladness
high into evening: curve,
cut, I hear it fallen
at the window, crying to be let in.
MY SON AND I GO SEE HORSES
Always shade in the cool dry barns
and flies in little hanging patches like glistening fruitcake.
One sad huge horse
follows us with her eye. She shakes
her great head, picks up one leg and puts it down
as if she suddenly dismissed the journey.
My son is in heaven, and these
the gods he wants to father
so they will save him. He demands I
lift him up. He strokes the old filly's long face
and sings something that goes like butter
rounding the hard skillet, like some doctor
who loves his patients more
than science. He believes the horse
will love him, not eventually,
right now. He peers into the enormous eye
and says solemnly, I know you. And the horse
will not startle nor look away,
this horse the color of thick velvet drapes,
years and years of them behind the opera,
backdrop to ruin and treachery, all
innocence and its slow
doomed unwinding of rapture.
Near the exquisite vulgarity of the chickens,
delphinium casts passion
inward, until it purples
into rich targets. This one is lame, splinted up
with a split rod, quickly
like someone lit a fuse and stepped back.
All day the wind's been low static
and near the house the sound
of men fixing the chain saw. Delphinium
could care. About this, or rain,
or the chickens busy complaining, outraged
about everything, and dropping themselves
fitfully into mounds of dust. They'd bury themselves
if they could, eyeing the woods
through their little ball bearings.
The delphinium never angers.
It learns quietly, by rote: stars
are stars. Better to keep grass down, forestalling
violence. The pine is a brother, sardonic
and plain. Genius deepens, a deep
blue thing, too rapid
to see completely. I am this blue, the delphinium knows
vaguely, I am
poisonous. The delphinium loves
the sound of that: poisonous, like the true gift
Long afternoons in bed, we loved
to talk about the woman
on the EL, remote
as a rabbit and that intense,
who froze at every stop
until the train
leapt up and knocked us back.
lunge forward in her seat,
pedal in a fury
we never biked with, even uphill
or after dark, while the thing wheezed
and clanked and roared on
to the next station.
She'd ease as the speed let up,
sucking air like a swimmer, shrinking down
to her curious deadpan.
Our room floated then, nearly
out its window
at anything so strange, your arm relaxed,
cool across my belly.
We'd think of her—that woman
wild again, that
whole train back, rattling off
its here and here
and henceforth: Lincoln Avenue, Armitage,
Oak Street's dazzling deadend beach.
Not ours, of course.
Of course, hers. Or so
she thought, glaring ingrates at us once
in some station's high-dive calm,
for the next great surge.
An unmade bed for days, that bed,
dusk settling like sugar turning a water glass
sweet and murky. We thought of her
a lot, the way we wondered
everything: not love exactly, not that, more
what that woman say, say
when released, she
looked down at her kingdom—
sure those obvious streets, but such alleys,
glittering and twisting . . . .
Its disguise was ugliness, and ants
in cheap parade, up and across,
and electric wires cut
right through at a heartless angle
to keep Walter Cronkite on at the neighbors'
so proud of their TV.
Thick, thick as too much
of too many summers is thick,
three and a half kids to get human arms
In the dark, it rose up
like the drawing of a tree a girl might make
to scare her mother.
I was there. I was almost asleep
but the moon—or was it a porch light
left on all night?
What I didn't know
is what I still don't know,
that one loves
ugliness as one loves beauty,
which is to say, how the dead love
because they've given up on love: the ants?
okay, really—broken branches? fine, fine . . . .
II. from Grace, Fallen from (Wesleyan, 2008)
(copyright 2008 by Marianne Boruch and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.)
Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass
of wine, set down mid-sip—
don't drink it, someone said, it's for
the painting. And the rabbit skull—
whose idea was that? There had been
a pistol but someone was told, no,
put that away, into the box with a key
though the key had been
misplaced now for a year. The artist
wanted light too, for the shadows.
So the table had to be moved. Somewhere
I dreamt the diary entry
on this, reading the impossible
Dutch quite well, thank you, and I can
translate it here, someone writing
it is spring, after all, and Herr Muller
wants a window of it in the painting, almost
a line of poetry, I thought even then,
in the dream, impressed
with that "spring after all," that
"window of it" especially, how sweet
and to the point it came over
into English with no effort at all
as I slept through the night. It was heavy,
that table. Two workers were called
from the east meadow to lift
and grunt and carry it
across the room, just those
few yards. Of course one of them
exaggerated the pain in his shoulder.
Not the older, the younger man.
No good reason
to cry out like that. But this
was art. And he did, something
sharp and in the air that
one time. All of them turning then,
however slightly. And there he was,
eyes closed, not much
more than a boy, before
the talk of beauty
started up again.
A MUSICAL IDEA
At the second light, you turn, the boy tells me.
I turn. A musical idea. Turn then,
when a light in any house goes on.
Dark end of the day on the street. Dark
late afternoon in November.
In any kitchen—revealed: the hum
starts in the freezer, down
the lower shelves, takes the stove back
to its fire. The sink is an absence:
one tea-stained cup left to seed.
I live somewhere. But to walk away
is a musical idea. Because a corner means
make a profile to however once
you were. Once a child, I kept turning
full-faced into everything, never
saying a word. You like
to think that, my brother says. I heard you
plenty of times. And you were hiding.
HAPPINESS: THREE DEFINITIONS
Can you be too happy? Put some
in a box. Tape it. Put it on that
shelf over there. Come Sadness,
little dog no one likes
but you're sweet, you are,
in your way. So I go
to the woods with that dog.
I don't teach it anything. Not heel,
not fetch, not
protect me from monsters.
He hardly looks back at me,
never brings me
a stick to throw past him
to the river. The river
doesn't shine in these woods. Doesn't
make a sound. There’s an old
washing machine in it. A couple
of shoes. Or three. No match
for any other, one with laces
drifting above it, like
some languid sea creature,
tentacles bleached, wayward,
not caring a bit if the fisherman
comes with his net
or not. I'm that happy.
I don't care either.
Which leads to a question. Can
happiness make you stupid? (I love
stupid, said Stupid. What? said Smart.
But that's a different story.) The world
looks great without
sepia, without eye trouble, the moon,
one moon. And all this blinding
daylight, just what we wanted, yes?
Question: do you relish
or endure? Two curious
adjustments on the lens. Or three:
it depends, you said or I said, not sure
what to fix for dinner. (Did we
remember limes? cilantro?
coconut milk?) Meanwhile, how
stupid to qualify stupid, said
Stupid. Or was it Smart at the window,
talking to no one in particular, squeaking
the balloon into the shape of a duck
or a windmill.
In fact, things happen
in threes, said everyone after the second
disaster (those strokes, that trainwreck—you
name it—an earthquake, a flood). We
eyed the room, each other, checking
the door—is it locked for the night?
Then I slept and dreamt people
walking in lines, carrying their picket
signs: no third thing! I could
belabor this. I could say as my
long ago friend did: how do you get there?
First you go there! Then laugh
myself sick. Or tell that dog:
no, Sadness. You have to stay home.
You can't nuzzle the leaves
with me all afternoon. But the way
he looks up, out of focus, so eye
SNOWFALL IN G MINOR
Overnight, it’s pow! The held note
keeps falling. And only seems
slow. Because it's just
frozen rain, what's the big deal? the checker
in Stop and Shop told me.
like stamps. The fade of their color
in the 1920s. Airmail. The pilot with his
skin-tight goggle helmet on his
miniature head could be
All heads are small. Mine's
lost as a thimble
in this weather. Where
a finger should be and be
sewing, every thought
I ever thunk.
I love the word
thunk. Never used.
It lands, noisy
metal in a bucket. That’s
the last of it. No echo
for miles of this
grace, fallen from,
as in a great height, released
from its promise.
WHAT GOD KNEW
when he knew nothing. A leaf
looks like this, doesn't it? No one
to ask. So came the invention
of the question too, the way all
at heart are rhetorical, each leaf
suddenly wedded to its shade. When God
knew nothing, it was better, wasn't it?
Not the color blue yet, its deep
unto black. No color at all really,
not yet one thing leading to another, sperm
to egg endlessly, thus cities, thus
the green countryside lying down
piecemeal, the meticulous and the trash,
between lake and woods
the dotted swiss of towns along
any state road. Was God
sleeping when he knew nothing? As opposed
to up all night (before there was night)
or alert all day (before day)? As opposed to that,
little engine starting up by itself, history,
a thing that keeps beginning
and goes past its end. Will it end, this
looking back? From here, it's one shiny
ravaged century after another,
but back there, in a house or two: a stillness,
a blue cup, a spoon, one silly flower raised up
from seed. I think so fondly of the day
someone got lucky
and dodged the tragedy meant for him. It spilled
like sound from a faulty speaker
over an open field. He listened from
a distance. God-like, any one of us
That sparrow on the trash again, one
leg missing, he
alights and drops down, alights
in this cold, and crooked,
drops down again though he could
fly. He has to, most of the day
I imagine, into its
exhaustion, those moments he
finds a window sill or a patch
of old leaves under some
overhang, his one leg, good wire,
pulled under him, feathers
puffed out—swollen thing, ridiculous—
for warmth. All the lives I
might have had: this one,
oh, this one.
O GODS OF SMALLEST CLARITY
If only those perennial opposites, the bully
and the sweet worried one
slept, kept sleeping. Not side by side,
not the lion and the lamb, just that most
ordinary blind passage, brief
and profound, as it happens
all over the planet. I mean the prince
who's happy with gardening, and the other kind
plotting someone’s downfall, each
going under for the night. Which is to say, not
our usual taking turns at it, not Greenwich
or daylight savings or eight flight hours from here
equals five hours early or late but right now,
this minute, by my marvelous powers
of desperation and delusion, it's
soldier and monk, Sunni and Shiite,
republican, democrat, all Muslims and Christians
and Jews and those of us quietly
not anything to speak of, no reason or rhyme or
respectively about it, no tit for tat
but every one sleeping. And the president
curled fetal, his aides and think-tankers
all twitching in their dreams as dogs do,
on the scent or the chase, hours,
many hours to come. For that matter, the Pope is
drifting off and the greeter
from Wal-Mart, and the magician come out
of a long day's practice in a sword-crossed box
rests now, exactly like the oldest woman
asleep on her side, empty as the young docent
at Ellis Island already certain
it's robot-work, telling the country’s vast sad story
of promise and trouble. And I think so many
miners home from their dark to this
gladder one, sprawled out
on their beds where exhaustion is fierce, no longer
patient. Every child in the world sleeping too,
hunger, once there was, but not here
in this dream, no gunflash, no flood.
Every mother minus panic. Every father
finding his daughters, his sons right where
they should be. Even
the torturers gone into that place they might
nightmare what they’ve done.
But not yet, not for a moment. And of those
who were done to, for them the rope and hood
and diamond-toothed wire, all banished
a few hours, forgotten
as dream is, in this, the real dream
to ink it out, beyond reach.
Believe me, I want to see
the despicable go down as much
as you do, and the innocent shine. But that's
sleeping too. Or so I try,
an experiment which may be stupid,
full of less not more, as in pointless, as in
hopeless, as in less than nothing
because—o gods of the smallest
clarity, let nothing happen
for an hour, for six hours. Rage.
Let that sleep too, its sorrow
no longer a brilliant rant, no longer anything,
a wash, a confluence of great waters
seen from a distance, the horizon a matter of
on and on where a speck out there
might well be a boat, the figure at the oars
untangling and stretching out. One eye
closed, then the other: welcome
no moon, no stars.
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