On Epigraphs & Cairns

September 18, 2010

A cairn on Cauld Face.

A cairn on Cauld Face.

David Orr had an interesting article in the New York Times this week about the use of epigraphs in contemporary poetry. He cites a number of recent examples and offers some historical context, pinning much of the blame for the prevalence of the practice on the shoulders of T.S. Eliot.

Orr also quotes literary theorist Gérard Genette on the functions for epigraphs in his book “Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.”

The first two are straightforward — an epigraph can comment on the title of a given work, or it can apply to the work’s body. But after that, matters get a little more “oblique,” as Genette diplomatically puts it. “Very often,” he says of the epigraph, “the main thing is not what it says but who its author is, plus the sense of indirect backing that its presence at the edge of a text gives rise to.”

This caused me to reflect upon my own use of epigraphs in my poetry. Turns out I use them a lot.

In my current manuscript iteration, perhaps a third of the poems have epigraphs. My “Dwelling” sequence, which had its origins in an essay by philosopher Martin Heidegger, even has a full page of quotations from source material for the poem.

In conversation with Julie Johnstone, a librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library, via Twitter this morning, I offered that I’ve used epigraphs as a leaping off point, to set the stage or as commentary on the poem.

In fact, a few recent poems, such as “Risks Are Risky,” and “Healing,” got their start from a line or quotation, the former from a tweet by Paulo Coelho; the latter a line from Gary Snyder.

“Perhaps they show where you’ve travelled while writing the poem,” Julie suggested, “and also where you and the poem are travelling to.”

I like the idea of epigraphs as signposts or, to borrow from the Scots, a cairn on the trail of the poem.

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Red-winged Blackbird
Image via Wikipedia

Jim Behrle, who has to be one of the funniest most irascible poets on the Interwebz, had a recent post about Dead Bird Poems on his AmericanPoetry.biz blog:

“The Dead Bird Poem is one of the most honored of American forms. Take sappy pastoral, add a dead or dying bird and just watch the meaning drip from your canvas like grease off a slice of bacon. Someone had sent me a Facebook note about the 5 or 6 dead bird poems in whatever year’s that was Best American Poetry.”

I wrote a dead bird poem almost a decade ago, called “Dead Red Wing.”

At the time, I worked for The Nature Conservancy and gave a presentation to a birding group.  The group meeting started with typical group meeting business, then segued into a Quaker-meeting-style sharing of bird sightings and notations.  It was quite poetic.

Then they brought out the specimens.

The meeting turned into a kind of flea market or science fair.  Dead birds, bird parts, wings, feet, beaks; heads, whole birds, birds with missing wings; gashed birds, smashed birds.  It was quite a spectacle.

One woman removed a Ziploc bag from a portable cooler.  She opened the bag and unwrapped a beautiful, complete (and quite frozen) red-winged blackbird.  She handed it to me.  That was all I needed.

Here is my poem “Dead Red Wing,” which didn’t make it into Best American Poetry in 1995 the year it was published in a small journal called Blueline out of SUNY Potsdam:

“Dead Red Wing”
 

Come spring, you’d be up

in the low trees,

on telephone wires,

bowing foxtail in the marsh,

your song become vain:–

“Look-at-meeee…Look-at-meeee…”

Flash of red on black wing

poised to singe the eyes

trained on you,

a life-bird,

through field glasses.
 

In my hand you are stiff,

unrecognizable.

The woman

who brought you

to the birding group

kept you

in a Ziploc bag

in the freezer,

next to the roast

and last week’s red beans.

Every evening,

when she finished her vigil

at the window,

she took you out,

rubbed your cold breast,

ruffled feathers,

sang your song.
 

–Scott Edward Anderson, Blueline, Volume XVI
 

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In the wake of tragedy on September 11, 2001 — in the face of it, in some ways — there were reports of poems appearing all over New York. On lampposts, bus stops, phone booths, taped over advertisements; poems to lost loved ones, the missing, the dead, to the world.

Poetry seemed to be a healing force for some, a way of calling out in remembrance for others. Poems then started to appear in print, as poets from Deborah Garrison to Wisława Szymborska tried to come to grips with what had happened that day.

I tried to write a poem to express what I felt about that day. I wasn’t there, I was 100 miles away in Philadelphia, but some people I love were there and their lives were forever changed by the tragedy. All of us were.

I started writing the poem that November and worked on it for a while before giving up. It wasn’t easy to write about. I took it out again six years later and found it wanting. I was reminded of the poem today — nine years after the tragedy — and decided to share it here.

Here is my poem, “Ground Zero”:

Neighbors worked in these buildings;
buildings no longer there, no longer here.
Their emptiness fills the space once occupied.
How tall is emptiness?
How empty is remembrance?
Memory flares, burns out.

Neighbors are strangers become familiars,
and neighborhoods are the places we meet
the stranger’s glance, acknowledge or turn away.
Only now, who can turn away?
Who can pretend innocence?
Decoy repelling and attracting.

The boy in Belfast on his way to school
who runs past the empty spaces
between houses, fearing snipers;
the girl who fears an ill-timed car bomb;
the mother awaiting children from the playground;
the father fearing policeman protecting and serving.

Neighbors may be those we’d least like
to live with, but they make our community.
The empty space left by buildings gone.
Our hearts wanting for lack of something,
connection, community, solace–
Who can fill the space gone empty, gone?

(for Barbara Einzig & Chloe Indigo Hannah Guss)

–Scott Edward Anderson

Over 48 hours, from noon on August 27, 2010, through noon on August 29, 2010, “hundreds of writers, editors, artists, photographers, programmers, videographers, and other creatives from all around the world came together via the Internet — and in offices in Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco — to make a magazine from start to finish.” It was called Longshot.

The theme was “comeback.” My submission wasn’t published in the magazine, but will appear on their blog linked to this blog post. It’s a cool idea. Here is my longshot, a poem I wrote in a flash on Saturday, August 28th, called

“Imaginary Comeback”

He was big, really big.
In his mind, he was the only star
There ever was — the one true star.
A star of the stage, screen, and sport,
Legions of fans cheering his every move.
They bought all his records,
Sold out his shows, cheered every score.
No one could get enough of him,
Kept demanding more.

He fell in with the wrong crowd,
An adoring mass of one,
That took him down the wrong path.
He fell into bad habits: sex,
Drugs, deviant behavior – all by himself.
Only, when he fell, nobody knew
It was all in his mind. He disappeared
Further into obscurity; none missed him.

He stopped hearing the cheering
In the back of his mind,
The soundtrack no longer played,
Accolades and self-congratulation
Were no longer forthcoming.
But now, poised for a comeback,
He sits on the couch and stares,
Paralyzed with fear and self-loathing.

What if you were a star
Of your own mind
And you made a comeback
To which nobody came—
Would the fame taste as sweet?
Or bitter, bitter as bile piling up
In the pit of his stomach
Churning with anxiety.

Heck, even John Lennon used to
Throw up before The Beatles’ gigs,
He tells himself. Then he heaves,
Leaving his lunch on the living room
Floor: the only thing making
A comeback today
Is the sandwich he ate an hour ago.

–Scott Edward Anderson