C.N.P Poetry 

  • Cathexis Northwest Press

Wordshaper

By: Clif Mason


swirls sounds round on her tongue

& trout jump in a cold stream.

Infatuated with day, she says still


& everything becomes so hushed

it feels holy. Happiness rings

like a silent bell in her blood,


& she holds her arms up

to take in mountains.

Another time, she whistles

& the trees bristles

with the feathers of chirping birds.

She says fire bolt


& lightning strikes the earth.

She says horns

& a herd of antelope springs

across the open grass, claws

& badgers plow the ground, teeth

& a mountain lion tears meat


from an elk’s flanks.

& when Wordshaper clears

her throat, plates shift deep

below the planet’s surface

& willows whip their branches

like striking serpents.

She says sleep

& darkness takes the air

like a gift from the hands of day.



~



Icicles strung across a sky thick black as the mane of a Gypsy Vanner mare. They hang, motionless wind chimes, intoning only a mute chord, a stinging tongue of frost on solitary lips. She chants words distinct as the songs of daybreak birds, poems that take to wing, become owls haunting the cold stubble fields.

She watches wolves run through a snowfield lit with starlight, footpads breaking the dazzling crust, but lifting again before they can sink. Wind ruffs their fur but is rebuffed by the fire in their muscles, the hunger in their thoughts. In a distant town, families sleep, warm under blankets, sleep and dream of the woman racing like a ghost over the snow.



~

She dreams of thousands of flamingoes,

flying above a vast continent

of snow & ice,

feathers reflecting the rising sun

& dyeing the very air pink.

Flamingoes ride harsh wind currents

& land like silk

in freezing water.

Icebergs calve around them,

& they’ll swim as if born

for such climes.

Nights of close clouds

& unremitting cold.

Lacy flakes fall on rainwater,

each making a splash before it’s gone.

Is she the owl

watching from high

in the red maple,

following a single flake

as it spins past

& falls into flowing motion—

absence leaving a ripple behind?

Or is she the snowflake,

lifting a cold lip of water

before they disappear?

Dawn’s blue light

hangs from the big pin oak boughs?

Frost riming leafless branches,

rhyming with the snow

banked below.

Mourning doves ring the zazen bell.

In the House of Story,

dancers emerge.

Freedom links arms with precision.

Elaborate flowered floats,

majorettes & marching bands,

motorcycles & mammoth balloons,

guided by hands

keeping tight grip on guy ropes.

She lets a long parade

of chants & incantations,

of songs & stories,

spill from their fingers

onto crisp paper.

Months’ later,

clouds’ horses lope over the sun,

their bodies glowing

like heated metal.

They are the lake’s ghosts.

As they gallop off,

sun emerges,

burning

like the mind in pursuit

of a new story.

She casts off the boat

& dozes

in muzzy daylight’s trance.

She does not row

but drifts soft & free,

until evening comes down

to drink

& still water

flows into starry night.



~



The lake moon, late, setting,

magnesium clouded with basalt,

fissured with cobalt.


When the dead are taken up

fully into flies & flowers,

when birds become fish


& fish become birds,

when dirt rises to become

more than dirt again,


she hears, with stark clarity

& utter solemnity,

mourning doves


chanting daylight’s sad adagio.

Does she trace the telemetry

of yearning? Her eye discern


the horizon beyond all horizons,

the depth beneath all depth?

Questions question questions


& answers hide in plain sight.



~

Music burns through the air

like triumph

as she belts & lilts—

song after song,

scatting, chanting,

not for the bills & coins

dropped into her open case,

but to sink—hands & body,

mouth & heart,

into what she sees

as whole & hale,

& yes, holy.


She leaps headlong

into what she knows

can exist only

for a moment,

yet can still grant access

to the unchanging

& unseen.

She dives with her entire body

into something so true

it falls far

to the other side

of knowing—

& her every word

becomes prayer.



Clif Mason lives in Bellevue, Nebraska, with his wife, a visual artist. He is the author of four collections, Knocking the Stars Senseless (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), The Book of Night & Waking (which won the Cathexis Northwest Press Chapbook Prize), Self-portraits in Which I Do Not Appear (Finishing Line Press), and From the Dead Before (Lone Willow Press). His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and he has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Rwanda, Africa.


Interview with the Poet:


Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?


Clif Mason: I started writing poetry seriously when I was 19 years old. In the couple of years before that, I wrote a few miserable pieces that I later happily destroyed. CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?


CM: Outside of the occasional song lyric that rose to the level of poetry, it was undoubtedly a number of the dialogues and speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which my college prep English class read during our senior year at Riggs High School, in Pierre, South Dakota. The class was very ably taught by Mary Jewel Ledbetter, who gave us great freedom and offered great insight into the works we studied. Hamlet’s feverish exchanges with the ghost of his father, his “mad speech” banter with Polonius and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his exchanges with the clever gravedigger, and his several soliloquies, most particularly the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy—these possessed an emotional complexity, a cognitive depth, and an original expressive force unlike anything I had ever read before (and, with rare exception, since). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say those speeches (each a poem unto itself) grew new neural pathways in my brain. While I loved Shakespeare’s language, I can’t honestly say that he inspired me to emulate his example at that time. He was far too Promethean for the teenage me to feel anything but awe.

CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?


CM:

For me this is the most challenging of all questions. I love so many different poets and poems, and for so many different reasons. I’ll mention a small handful of examples, with the idea that these few will have to stand in for hundreds of others. As might be gathered from my answer to the first question, Shakespeare has been an enormous force in my literary development, and I would certainly want to address, in my answer to this question, why that is. Shakespeare’s sonnets are individually lyric but collectively narrative, in that together they tell an ultimately sad story of a poet narrator, his beloved friend and patron (some would say his lover), a dark-haired woman (lover first of the narrator and then of the friend), and a rival poet. Of the 154 sonnets, my two most favorite 29 and 55. Sonnet 29 is written out of a humility that we can scarcely credit: the speaker describes himself as “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” But to transform the self-loathing of the octet into a statement of renewal through love in the sestet is a turn that steals my breath away every time I read it. This poem demonstrates the aesthetic power of the turn in the sonnet. Regarding Sonnet 55, the brash assertion of art’s power in the opening lines—“Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme”—remains a succinct statement of my own aesthetics and belief in the power of language and poetry.

How often while walking through a shopping mall or down a crowded street or through a big box store have I thought of these lines from Blake’s “London”: “. . . And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” It’s always a deeply sad epiphany. Blake compresses more tragic truth into four quatrains than almost any brief lyric can bear. The lines present astringent criticisms, not only of the London of Blake’s day, but of almost any city in almost any time. The streets and rivers are “charter’d,” that is, both free and set aside for capitalistic commerce. The Chimney-sweeper’s cry “appalls” ‘every blackning Church,” the soldier’s blood “runs . . . down Palace walls,” and syphilis blinds the “new-born Infant” and brings “plagues” into “the Marriage hearse” (bed). That Blake’s poem captures and contains all of this corruption and grief without becoming either hectoring or histrionic speaks to “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” to lift a line from Hopkins.


Where Blake’s poem is caustic, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”—which to me is the pretty much the apogee of lyric poetry—is more melancholic. Certainly the poem’s third stanza paints about as bleak a picture of reality as one can imagine: the world is a place of “weariness,” “fever,” and “fret, “where men sit and hear each other groan”; “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”; and “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs.” Yet against this vision, Keats presents his speaker’s escape “on the viewless wings of Poesy,” as they fly with the nightingale “into the forest dim”—which is also the world of imagination, peopled by the “Queen-Moon” and “all her starry fays.” The speaker feels it would be “rich to die” while listening to the nightingale “pouring forth [its] soul abroad / In such an ecstasy.” They realize the nightingale is an “immortal Bird,” whose song has been heard in every age and even “in faery lands forlorn,” whereas the speaker’s vision cannot be sustained beyond these few moments: Powerful as “fancy” is, it “cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do.” The reader, like the speaker, has been transported by the music and the imagery and the thoughts and is likewise uncertain if they “wake or sleep.” How often do I inhabit that sweet twilight realm, possessed of and by “a vision, or a waking dream”—the world as John Keats has recreated it in his imagination.


Emily Dickinson, though often cheerful and witty and ebullient, also knew deep melancholy and expressed it as powerfully as few ever have. Her “Poem 341” describes a state in which “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” in which “The Feet, mechanical, go round” “A Wooden way regardless grown.” Dickinson terms this state of numb, insensate depression “the Hour of Lead, and she says it is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— / First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—” To me, there are few lines in poetry as haunting or fearful as these.


Against the damage done to everyone but especially to women and others who have been dispossessed and, often, brutalized by a patriarchal society—a damage that might well lead to such “Hours of Lead”—Adrienne Rich offers us a way forward. Her poem “Diving Into the Wreck” takes us on a poetic quest not unlike Keats’, in that it is a journey of the creative imagination—down into the ocean waters, where she “has come to “explore the wreck”—a powerfully multi-valent symbol, but certainly one that implies the wreck of patriarchal civilization. Her “words are purposes . . . are maps.” She has come “to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” Before her dive is done she will have discovered both. She demands truth; she wants “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” She is both “mermaid” and “merman” and she discovers that “we are the half-destroyed instruments . . . the water-eaten log / the fouled compass.” Each of us is the wreck, but the “treasure” is the truth we can uncover in our quest, using the tools we have brought with us “a knife, a camera / a book of myths / in which /our names do not appear.” The self-recognition gained from such a deep dive into the self can prepare us to live and act in the world of the surface, a world that can no longer claim or own us because its myths do not describe us. We are free to create our own counter reality, to create our own treasure in the company of each other, and to act in the world as free people, no longer held prisoner by what Blake called “mind-forged manacles.” Reading Rich in the 1970s was a profoundly liberating experience—and it is still such an experience today, for anyone who picks up this, or indeed, almost any of her poems.


For considerations of space and what can be said briefly, I have not commented on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”; Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”; Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey; Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Whitman’s “Song of Myself” or “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”; Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” or Illuminations; Rilke’s Duino Elegies; Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”; Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Four Quartets; Lorca’s “Sleepwalking Ballad,” “Ode to the King of Harlem,” “Ode to Walt Whitman,” or “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejias”; Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” or, indeed, all of Canto General; Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred; Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” Roethke’s North American Sequence; Dickey’s “May Day Sermon,” Berryman’s Dream Songs, Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Snyder’s Rivers and Mountains Without End; Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You; Dove’s Thomas and Beulah; Walcott’s Omeros; McGrath’s “The Bob Hope Poem”; Logue’s War Music; Fasano’s Vincent; Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams; and Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic--all works that I adore. Yes, I have a fatal weakness for long poems. I embrace and celebrate this weakness