Whatever you think of John Ashbery’s poetry — and there are opinions for and against, none of which I’m going to get into here — you cannot argue with the fact that he has been a presence in the word of Art and Letters since first emerging on the scene in 1956.

I have a soft spot for Mr. Ashbery, not necessarily because of his poetry or the fact that he hails from Rochester, New York, outside of which I spent my middle and high school years.

 

Rather, my fondness stems from his selecting one of my poems, “Becoming,” which is part of my Dwelling sequence and appears in my book Fallow Field, to represent the Millay Colony for the Arts, in its 30th Anniversary Exhibit at the Albany (NY) International Airport Gallery, in a juried show, from January-August 2004.

The poem, along with others in the sequence, was written during my residency at the colony in November 2002.

A heady feeling having my poem displayed in this context, adhesive red vinyl letters applied to the thick glass walls overlooking the security area. As I recall, my poem was positioned next to one by Colette Inez, another former resident at the colony, as a dear friend. In a way, it was a bit like being in an Ashbery poem.

(The photos here, blurry and boozily out-of-focus, seem to exemplify that feeling. And I had no idea my scarf was going to mimic the colors of the letters!)

Here is my poem, “Becoming,” with thanks to Mr. Ashbery — on this, his 90th birthday –for recognizing it in the way he did.

 

Becoming

 

Say that childhood memory

has more relevance than yesterday–

 

a moose calf curled up against the side of a house

 

merely saying it may make it so.

 

The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

 

            a hermit crab crawling out of a coconut

 

–no, the child growing taller.

 

            a sharp-shinned hawk swooping over a stubble field

 

imagining the earth, “the earth is all before me,”

blossoming as it stretches to the sun–

 

            a brilliant red eft – baby salamander — held aloft in a small, pink hand

 

Is home the mother’s embrace?

 

            a white cabbage butterfly flitting atop purple flox

 

The child sees his world or hers

 

            stroking the furry back of a bumblebee

 

head full of seed, until it droops,

spent, ready to sow the seeds.

 

Say that our presence in the world

 

a millipede curling up at the child’s slightest touch

 

is making the book of our becoming.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

 

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Moulted snake skin

Image via Wikipedia

The poet John R. Keene was tweeting about sestinas on Saturday under the Poetry Foundation’s @harriet_poetry moniker and I sent him one that I tried back in 1994.  It started from an actual scene I witnessed at the time in my garden in Garrison, NY.

According to The Academy of American Poets, “The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction.”

The Academy description lists some tour de force sestinas, including Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” along with “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Paysage Moralise” by W.H. Auden.

Here is my sestina, which pales in comparison like the flaking sloughed-off skin of the snake it describes:

Second Skin

 

In the yard by the barn was a snake

resting on a leaf-pile in the garden,

nearby his old shod skin

limp and lifeless under a noon-day sun.

Abandoned on the blades of grass,

like an untangled filament of memory.

 

The sight of him fired my memory,

which cast a shadow on the snake

(who now slithered away in the grass).

He lent a curious aspect to the garden–

aspect being its relation to the sun

–not unlike his relation to the skin.

 

He seemed to remember the skin.

(Do snakes have that much memory?)

Or was it a trick of the sun

that he mistook for a female snake?

When he made his way out of the garden,

I crept along quietly in the grass.

 

As I followed him there in the grass,

he stretched ever closer to the skin;

his path leading out of the garden,

as if tracing the line of a memory.

How strange, I thought, this snake,

disregarding the late summer sun.

 

Later, over-heated in afternoon sun,

I lay down to rest on the grass.

I watched again as the snake

tried to resuscitate his discarded skin,

perhaps to revive its dead memory

and lure it back home to the garden.

 

Cutting the lawn by the garden,

I must have been dizzy with sun,

or dozing in the haze of a memory.

Translucent flakes feathered the grass:

it was then I remembered the skin;

it was then I remembered the snake.

 

I sat by the garden dropping fresh-cut grass

onto my arm and its sun-baked skin,

clippings of memory snaking through my mind.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson