Thursday, May 2, 2013

Missionaries (1758)

Dawn Potter

We started early, took our Horses
And climbed upon a steep Hill,
Until Thomas’s beast tumbled on the Rocks,
Rolling down and down like a shattered Wheel.

We started early, boiled some Chocolate.
Our surviving Horse could not be found.
Thomas shot a Squirrel and broke his Gun.
I felt a dismal Impression grow upon me.

We started early from this barren Place
So shocking and dark on a Winter’s Morn.
Passing through thick Bushes of Briar,
Thomas muttered a slew of impure Words.

We started early, with intent to cross the River,
But in Vain, so we went Smart to Work
And built a Raft. The Wolves and Owls
Made a great Noise in the Night.

We started early, fell in with Five of the King’s Men
Who told us the disagreeable News,
That the French had infused bad Notions
Into the Minds of the Indians.

We started early, for Time seemed precarious.
Entering a Town, we learnt of Skirmishing.
Rumour declared a Captive had been burnt,
Which grieved All to a great degree, even Thomas.

We started early, again reached the River,
But I had forgot my Blanket,
And Thomas’s black Oak Raft
Sank as soon as it touched cold Water.

We started early, for the Ice was violent.
Thomas hallooed till he was Tired.
Then he cut Wood and cleared Snow,
Whilst I designed a small Cabin of Hides.

We lay by a Beaver Dam.
It snowed the whole Day.
Thomas was discontent with his Lot,
But I pulled my Belt a little tighter.

I woke early, to find the Storm had eased.
Angry boot Prints marched Town-ward.
I was thus obliged to carry
Much deserted Baggage.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania]


Christopher said...

Love "Missionaries (1758)," and wonder what the original source material was like as you have achieved such a special period flavor. Ironically the poem achieves that partly through the eccentric ("off-centered") commas, almost as if they were quill pen-strokes, and the ink had to be sanded or blotted.

Punctuation is so period anyway, isn't it -- yet we feel our own is invisible.

And listen to me, I'm beginning to sound just like Thomas!

So looking forward to this book -- hope there will be more in the same mode. Our own pilgrim's progress.

Dawn Potter said...

I love playing with the capitalization too. I've found a real difference among "random" cap styles in period journals written just decades apart. It's such an entertaining way to be sly, at least for the writer.

Christopher said...

I think all human beings read their lives as a fable, as if the purpose of life really were teleological. It must make sense, such an expenditure, such a sacrifice, we all feel that -- even Galileo himself at the very moment he proved, with his eye glued to his little telescope and great mind, it didn't.

"Much deserted baggage," the poem ends -- and one feels the narrator will make it too. On his mission to meaning, at least that's the way we read it, and we don't need to be Christian to feel that, needless to say. "Like a shattered wheel," "broke his Gun," "a slew of impure Words," "angry boot Prints march[ing] Town-ward."

Missionaries -- all of us onward with what remains of the baggage we really ought not to be carrying.

Thanks, Dawn -- even if you didn't mean any of that.

Christopher said...

Forgive me for going on with this, Dawn -- "Missionaries (1758)" is still much on my mind and I'd like to add a bit more.

“Nature is a Haunted House,” says Emily Dickinson, “but Art – a House that tries to be haunted,” and this poem is very much like that. It “tries” in two ways – it not only tries to recreate a past event as if it were still current but adopts an old-fashioned style that nobody talks or writes anymore, unless, of course, they’re in a movie. And all poetry does that to some extent – by definition poetry is artificial in its events and/or imagery, i.e. everything’s made-up, everything's artificial like its style and format. Even if a poem can be read out loud as straightforward prose, as much of Wordsworth can, for example, there's nothing straightforward about it.

I don’t know why, but today most of the arts are trying very hard to pretend they’re not trying at all, and certainly not “haunted,” including poetry. That’s why it’s always a bit of a shock to realize how many great modern poets are still perfectly capable of writing in a very artificial way: three of my favorite modern poems in this mode are Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Renascence” (1912), Robert Frost’s “Directive” (1946) and Stanley Kunitz’s ”The Unwithered Garland,” (1958) though I could include almost any poem by Carl Philips, for example, or let’s say Jean Valentine. And it's not just about being 'formal' either. It's about very hard work as well as gut-wrenching intention -- which is why all of the above authors get, and hold, our attention, as well as our love..

You will have had to work hard writing "Missionaries (1758)", Dawn -- the poem moves so assuredly despite its odd diction, punctuation and capitalization, and partly as a result of all that effort it's powerfully “haunted” -- and yet more proof that you're truly outstanding as a poet. On the other hand, you never want to talk about meaning -- but don’t worry, I haven’t a clue what the poem “means,” just as I don’t know what most of Emily Dickinson's poems mean either, partly because her poems never stop shifting and partly because I’m growing older and older so everything's changing for me anyway. But there’s a ghost in “Missionaries (1758),” for sure, there’s a shape-shifter there, a Proteus that if you hang on to it will yield up something that you badly need to know to get through any day, indeed as much as you need water!

Dawn Potter said...

Probably I was as much character-driven as anything else. Unsatisfactory Thomas and the meek narrator, they caught my fancy.

Christopher said...

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, Dawn -- you're something! And undoubtedly that's why I felt I was beginning to sound like Thomas!

I muddled one part in my previous, about 'meaning.' Art is a house that tries to be haunted, o.k, but the moment it tries to be meaningful it's done -- or tries not to be meaningful, like you know who and who, ditto. True meaning is what you feel when something is haunted, that there's something extra there, something unintended, unaccounted for, something you can neither dismiss, understand or control. But if you SAY it's there it never is, for knowing where you are means you're certainly not in any house that's haunted!

The cardinal sin in American poetry today is to be called 'didactic,' i.e. to be accused of taking a stance, intruding your position, defining your own parochial meaning. But be careful, a didactic statement in a great poem, or even just a didactic tendency, can also be an image, like "Beauty is Truth," or " Happy the man, therefore, with a natural gift," or "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."

Don't you believe that's preaching -- get on with the poem which, if it's truly good, is way beyond what it says it's about. Because if it's haunted what it says is a figment of your own imagination!

And that's about "Missionaries (1758)," Dawn, which has got me all in a twist!

Dawn Potter said...

Well, I'm glad you like it, Christopher, though I realize that's a lukewarm word for what you're telling me. Please pardon me if I sound shell-shocked. I'm recovering from a bizarre graveside incident. More on that anon.

Christopher said...

Recovery is good, and needless to say we're all in recovery from one thing or another, like getting born in the first place. But hiding behind recovery can also become the rationale for not moving on, and I include myself in that. Like not reading beyond the first paragraph which I do all the time.

You're a wonderful poet, Dawn, humble yet extravagant, rooted yet over-the-top -- as in "Mr Kowalski," for example, which nobody dares to discuss, it's so purple, so in-your-face ardent. Indeed, "Mr Kowalski" is far more risqué territory than any right-thinking, language-based crafts-person like yourself would be expected to venture. A veritable Balthus – not that there’s any similarity in the territory, just in the venturing into the shadows. Because who would ever dare say what Balthus ‘means,’ as if his paintings had anything whatsoever to do with prurience, or “Leda and the Swan’ with ornithology.

And that's precisely how the haunting comes in in your work too, in "Mr Kowalski," for sure, but also in both "Elegy for a One Night Stand" and "Missionaries (1758)," and it comes in because you dare to go there. They're all three beautifully crafted, of course they are, but they're extravagantly lawless too, indeed their lust for meaning is what makes them so special.

You can say your not interested in that sort of thing, fair enough, you're just the poet, but to suggest wrestling with meaning is just for critics is to exclude the hungriest readers from your table, the ones who stay up so late with a poem because the morning’s coming up so fast.

Christopher said...

I missed the operative word there -- it comes in because you try!

Hakuna Matata said...

It so meaningful and I love the lyrics of it can you made a tune of this?

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