The astonishment of insight


October 13, 2002|By Michael Collier

The poet William Meredith once said in an interview that he would wait "until the poems seem to be addressed not to 'Occupant' but to 'William Meredith' " before writing. This careful, patient and proprietary way of working is evident in some of the best poets of the last century, including Louise Bogan, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Donald Justice to name a few.

Like these poets, Elizabeth Spires makes sure the muse has the right name and address before committing her words to the page.

Additionally, Meredith said the job of a poet was not to make poems out of the "astonishment of experience" but out of the "astonishment of insight." It's not the experience of "Meeting old friends after a long time" that makes Spires' "The Faces of Children" so powerful.

Spires' poem, anticipating the ease old friendships bring, catches us off guard. The "joy" of reunion is tempered by the "terror" that time has brought change. Friendship now is just another measurement of mortality, as are the things the friends share -- the vanishing afternoon and their children for whom they must now "stand to the side of [their] lives."

Spires is such an expert writer that she can stitch her lines together seamlessly with internal rhyme: "surprise," "lies," "die" and "lives," and deftly employ figurative language, "The lawn is full of breathing statues," to layer meaning through metaphor. She dazzles us several times with her use of chiasmus, a repetitive syntactical technique, which she uses to mimic the changes in the various relationships the poem charts.

In fact, the sixth stanza contains two examples of chiasmus: "We are the conjurors who take away all pain, / and we are the ones who cannot take away the pain at all." And "They do not ask, as lately we have asked ourselves." In all of this, there is an effortlessness that undercuts the tremendous difficulty that attends the process of writing.

Elizabeth Spires is one of America's most elegant, intelligent and poignant poets. She has spent almost all of her writing life in Baltimore, producing five books of poems, including the just-published Now the Green Blade Rises (W.W. Norton), and four children's books. The prestigious Guggenheim and Whiting foundations have awarded her fellowships, and the Academy of American Arts and Letters has honored her with one of its coveted citations. For almost 20 years, she has taught at Goucher College, where she oversees the Kratz Center for Creative Writing.

Spires will be reading with her husband, fiction writer Madison Smartt Bell, in an event for the Howard County Literature and Poetry Society on Friday at 8 p.m. at Howard Community College, 10446 Waterfowl Terrace, Colum-bia. A book signing and reception will follow. Admission is $10, $5 for seniors and students with ID. Call 410-730-7524.

The Faces of Children

by Elizabeth Spires

Meeting old friends after a long time, we see

with surprise how they have changed, and must imagine,

despite the mirror's lies, that change is upon us, too.

Once, in our twenties, we thought we would never die.

Now, as one thoughtlessly shuffles a deck of cards,

we have run through half our lives.

The afternoon has vanished, the evening changing

us into four shadows mildly talking on a porch.

And as we talk, we listen to the children play

the games that we played once. In joy and terror,

they cry out in surprise as the seeker finds the one in hiding,

or, in fairytale tableau, each one is tapped and turned

to stone. The lawn is full of breathing statues who wait

to be changed back again, and we can do nothing but stand

to one side of our children's games, our children's lives.

We are the conjurors who take away all pain,

and we are the ones who cannot take away the pain at all.

They do not ask, as lately we have asked ourselves,

Who was I then? And what must I become?

Like newly minted coins, their faces catch

the evening's radiance. They are so sure of us,

more sure than we are of ourselves. Our children:

who gently push us toward the end of our own lives.

The future beckons brightly. They trust us to lead them there.

Reprinted from Now the Green Blade Rises by Elizabeth Spires, c copyright 2002. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. His "Poet's Corner" column appears monthly in Arts & Society.

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