Buying a Rose
Recently I reread the only book of poetry purchased on my 2005 pilgrimage to Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA—Diane Wakoski’s Argonaut Rose (The Archaeology of Movies and Books). My adventure getting to Grolier is a story for another time. Let’s just say it has something to do with a country bumpkin on a subway. Regardless of the challenges, every poet or poetry loving person must make the pilgrimage to Grolier. It sits right behind Harvard Bookstore on Plympton in Cambridge, MA. From the outside it looks small, but, inside, 15,000 volumes of poetry are stacked in several rooms, to the ceilings. Can you imagine that? Not at all like the big-box stores with their two skimpy rows of Milton and Bukowski. As a budding poet, I was overwhelmed by the choices.
I settled on Wakoski’s book, Argonaut Rose, having just read an interview with her in my favorite old go-to book, The Craft of Poetry, Interviews from the New York Quarterly. (You can purchase a reprint of the interview here.) In the 1974 interview, she made a statement about the matter-of-fact nature of her poetry that had stuck with me. She claimed it was because she was from California and that was the way Californians viewed the world. (Being from Ohio, I think of Californians a little differently.) She said:
“One of my greatest battles is how to get my matter-of-factness, which I consider part of my vision of the world, into lines and still make it sound like poetry. It’s very natural for me. It’s my matter-of-fact way of trying to describe things. It’s something that I have deliberately allowed myself to use and tried every way possible of using it to see if I could get away with it.”
Wakoski went on to say that there is something in this approach that goes against the grain of poetry in general. Aren’t poets trying to say things in unusual or surprising ways, after all? It was specifically the matter-of-fact nature and conversational tone of her poetry that was intriguing to me. She was clear even then of how she was approaching her work and she stayed true to it. Indeed, there is a forthrightness in Wakoski’s poetry that feels matter-of-fact; but, it still feels like poetry. She “got away with it.”
One of the poems I happened to read while still in Grolier was Beauty (for Tim Lane) .
I had never thought of him as beautiful,
but today he looked as tired as if he had fought a forest fire
and he made me want to hand him a hot paper cup
of fire-fighting coffee,
The poems in Argonaut Rose are often dedicated to everyday people (Tim Lane was a student assistant in the English Department at Michigan State University where Wakoski taught until her retirement a few years ago), and are mostly written with the poet being the “I” in the poem, i.e. Wakoski as the speaker; for me as a new poet, a very different–and permissive–way of approaching the material. In her 1974 interview she said, poetry that is readable is that which is more intimate and touching. Her poetry embodies this view. The poems are loaded with lovely, not so matter-of-fact, and, certainly not run-of-the-mill imagery, as in the poem, Reading the Pharmacist’s Daughter’s letters (for Chase Twichell) which begins:
Each one feels
like digging into a walled garden
to plant a silver apple
And the life—
it feels as if someone tall as poplars
led it. Silvery leaves, a body
trailing white water from swimming
naked. . .
In rereading this book, I decided that what works for me is precisely this kind of masterful imagery that had been honed over years of practice. There is a kind of intelligence and intentionality in the work that I find appealing. Also, words and images return in various poems giving it continuity and making it a great book to read cover to cover. For instance, in the poem, The Argonaut Rose: Amaryllis Belladonna, Wakoski asks:
What is the history
of this arm of a red lily that towers out of its January pot, ready to bludgeon anyone
with its axe-handled crimson blade?
And further on:
. . .Do I
this flower in my drab mid-winter life
Wakoski ends the poem with:
am somebody’s Red Lion.
my blood splashed to set aside one winter,
offered up as some one’s flaming
In a later poem, (70 pages later) Wakoski brings back the image of the Amaryllis in The Flaming Track:
So I asked him why
he was leaving me, and I
what he said. I remember the dog
black as his eyelashes
running against her leash, I
remember an amaryllis on its green stalk
red sail of a flower ship, billowing out past its winter deck;
The description of the amaryllis as the red sail of a flower ship, billowing out, in this poem is as striking as the flower itself is, in real live. There is also an amaryllis on the cover of the book. The work ties together—silver moon, silver apples, one missing sandal, an amaryllis—images that weave in and out of the poems, cover to cover.
I can’t say that everything works for me in Argonaut Rose. I tend to prefer poems that I would consider to be ‘tighter’ than many in the book, with more of the–what feels to me–extraneous words stripped out. And, the book seems a little like it is trying to do too much all at once. It is myth meets quantum physics meets Wakoski’s life journey. While the poet does a good job of tying the disparate pieces together, there were some things that didn’t seem to fit as well, the references to quantum physics, for instance. That doesn’t negate the fact that the poetry is lovely. Wakoski’s style is hers alone with its varying line lengths, conversational (mater-of-fact) tone, and interesting line breaks.
Even though by now, there are at least 100 additional books I would want to buy if I ever went back to Grolier, I am glad Argonaut Rose was the one I did buy in 2005. After I left that day, I sat in a café just off Harvard Square and read most of Argonaut Rose before getting on the train. I finished it later that night. How lucky for me that I got to go to the oldest, all-poetry book shop in America and buy a rose!
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis
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