The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by 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 containedand 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 deafThere’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 flamingFor 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,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,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 exceptSo 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 beRembrandt’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,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,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?Again and again the Voice points the god-seeker to what is eye-level:
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,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 snowHere again, an in-flowing: The marsh wren
exists exactly as if he were a productFor 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,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.
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