March 31, 2014

Readers:
No one likes running, but even on bad running days you run into luck sometimes. Yesterday: the sun, a fortuitous desire to be alone and bored, the guy on his way into church who yelled, “Hey, run a mile for me, too!,” and, at about the 3/4 point, graffiti on a pedestrian bridge that read, “KNOTT YOUR PROBLEM.” Since Bill Knott has been far from overused in this forum, I decided we had our subject for today.
Bill Knott (1940-2014) was one of American poetry’s true rebels. He hated the publishing business, so he turned to self-publishing most of his work. Almost all of his collections are available for free via his website. But even when he purposefully removed himself from the “fame” conversation, he was recognized by his peers as a contemporary master. Not all of his poems were pretty or happy, which befits a man with such a horribly sad childhood: early parental deaths, orphanhood, a stint in mental health confinement; later, 2 years in the army. And he could be openly prickly about his outsider status. In 2006 he wrote,
“Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book.”
Nevertheless, he taught for many years at Emerson College, and wrote hundreds of poems, formal and free verse, some personal, some political, almost never experimental, always in a singular voice. I’m printing 2 poems today, and both are about death. The first one makes me think strongly of G.M. Hopkins with its dense, staccato wordplay. The second is a little less… claustrophobic. -ed.

The Closet

(…after my Mother’s death)

Here not long enough after the hospital happened
I find her closet lying empty and stop my play
And go in and crane up at three blackwire hangers
Which quiver, airy, released. They appear to enjoy
Their new distance, cognizance born of the absence
Of anything else. The closet has been cleaned out
Full-flush as surgeries where the hangers could be
Amiable scalpels though they just as well would be
Themselves, in basements, glovelessly scraping uteri
But, here, pure, transfigured heavenward, they’re
Birds, whose wingspans expand by excluding me. Their
Range is enlarged by loss. They’d leave buzzards
Measly as moths: and the hatshelf is even higher!—
As the sky over a prairie, an undotted desert where
Nothing can swoop sudden, crumple in secret. I’ve fled
At ambush, tag, age: six, must I face this, can
I have my hide-and-seek hole back now please, the
Clothes, the thicket of shoes, where is it? Only
The hangers are at home here. Come heir to this
Rare element, fluent, their skeletal grace sings
Of the ease with which they let go the dress, slip,
Housecoat or blouse, so absolvingly. Free, they fly
Trim, triangular, augurs leapt ahead from some geometric
God who soars stripped (of flesh, it is said): catnip
To a brat placated by model airplane kits kids
My size lack motorskills for, I wind up glue-scabbed,
Pawing goo-goo fingernails, glaze skins fun to peer in as
Frost-i-glass doors … But the closet has no windows,
Opaque or sheer: I must shut my eyes, shrink within
To peep into this wall. Soliciting sleep I’ll dream
Mother spilled and cold, unpillowed, the operating-
Table cracked to goad delivery: its stirrups slack,
Its forceps closed: by it I’ll see mobs of obstetrical
Personnel kneel proud, congratulatory, cooing
And oohing and hold the dead infant up to the dead
Woman’s face as if for approval, the prompted
Beholding, tears, a zoomshot kiss. White-masked
Doctors and nurses patting each other on the back,
Which is how in the Old West a hangman, if
He was good, could gauge the heft of his intended …
Awake, the hangers are sharper, knife-’n’-slice, I jump
Helplessly to catch them to twist them clear,
Mis-shape them whole, sail them across the small air
Space of the closet. I shall find room enough here
By excluding myself; by excluding myself, I’ll grow.
-1983

Death

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.
-2003
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