Sunday, April 22, 2012

Poem: Martha Collins

Today's poem is by a poet I've never featured before, but this poem, and this poet's work, have intrigued me, not least because of one rhetorical device (of the many) she uses so well: repetition. In several of the poems by Martha Collins (1940-) that I've read, repetition serves as the means for what might in music be called motivic variation, at least if I'm grasping the concept right.

She will introduce a word, a phrase, an idea, and then repeat it with variations in its placement, context, meaning, function. In one of her better known poems, "Lines," she spins from that word's many meanings a complex little poem about composition, connections, relationships, the algebra of love. In many poems she plays with the mechanics of syntax, semantics and spatiality, allowing her to make quite complex works with the seemingly simplest of tools--think Williams Carlos Williams's machine made of words, but with hidden, powerful gears.  It should hardly be surprising, then, that she has written books titled Some Things Words Can Do (Sheep Meadow Press, 1999), and The Arrangement of Space (G. Smith Publisher, 1991).

The poem below operates a little differently, but as you read it you start to see how she can take an idea and draw all sorts of interesting things out of it, using, among her tools, repetition. This is not to say, however, that her focus is only on language; in her 2006 book-length poem, Blue Front (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press), she took on history directly, writing about a lynching that occurred in her father's hometown of Cairo, Illinois, bringing to bear her poetic skills to render unforgettable one of many too-forgotten, horrible moments in American history.

Martha Collins is a native of Omaha, Nebraska, and established  the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She currently is the Pauline Delaney Professor in Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She has published five books of poetry, and one chapbook, and has edited a book of critical essays on poet Louise Bogan, and translated two books of poetry from Vietnamese, The Women Carry River Water by Nguyen Quang Thieu (1997), edited with Ba Chung Nguyen; and Green Rice by Lam Thi My Da (2005). Among her awards are the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Blue Front, and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Several things could happen in this poem.
Plums could appear, on a pewter plate.
A dead red hare, hung by one foot.
A vase of flowers. Three shallots.

A man could sing, in a burgundy robe
with a gold belt tied in a square knot.
Someone could unite the knot.
A woman could toss a gold coin.

A stranger could say the next line,
I have been waiting for this,"
and offer a basket piled with apples
picked this morning, before the rain.

It could rain in this poem,
but if it rained, the man would continue
to sing as the burgundy silk fell
to the polished parquet floor.

It could snow in this poem:
remember how the hunter stamped his feet
before he leaned his gun in the corner
and hung his cap on the brass hook?

Perhaps the woman should open the ebony bench
and find the song her mother used to sing.
Listen: the woman is playing the song.
The man is singing the words.

Meanwhile the hunter is taking a warm bath
in the clean white tub with clawed legs.
Or has the hunter left? Are his boots
making tracks in the fallen snow?

When does the woman straighten the flowers?
Is that before the hunter observes
the tiny pattern on the vase?
Before the man begins to peel the shallots?

Now is the time for the woman
to slice the apples into a blue bowl.
A child could be watching the unbroken peel
spiral below the knife.

Last but not least, you could appear.
You could be the red-cheeked child,
the hunter, or the stranger.
You could stay for a late meal.

A Provencal recipe.
A bright red hare, shot at dawn.
Shallots. Brandy. Pepper, salt.
An apple in the pan.

Copyright © Martha Collins, "Several Things," from The Catastrophe of Rainbows, Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 1985. All rights reserved.

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