Smuggling the Poem Across by Anita Sullivan

Smuggling the Poem Across

Some poems seem to bypass words. The poem itself is actually carried across naked and entire, with its full pre-wordless weight. It is carried from the place where it emerges “like a worm in the heart,” and where it grows into a serpent ready to eat you alive unless you get rid of it. The poem is smuggled across the gap, before it has time to wake up the border guards, who will demand it to be – on the way across –  told. [They will make telling demands upon it.]

[The serpent-poem will believe it has been ‘tolled.’]

Instead of delaying the writhing creature long enough to cover it in a set of words to give it a decent shape, a story, a hierarchy of functions –- instead, you the poet push it out of the nest while it’s still wet and lumpish, and let the words run after it like kids on the ground whose dragon-kite is rapidly drifting away. Their task is simply to hold onto the kite long enough for it to unfurl.

In such poems your words say something –-  that means something else, entirely. And instead of this being a bad thing, it becomes –- both for the poet and the poem –- a good thing.

You might call such poems “impressionistic” because they follow a different path from the usual one that travels from eye (reading the words); through brain (understanding the words); to heart, body, and memory, where they can finally make their fully-orchestrated impression.


Here’s an example of both sorts of poems –- as I see them. These are two favorites of mine, and I consider them both to be of high quality. But the first one leaves me here in the primary reality, the second takes me into the alternative, the illuminated world.

Lying Upon the Waters

Stinking Mediterranean city
stretched out over the waters
head between her knees,
her body befouled by smoke and dunghills.
Who will raise from the dunghills
a rotten Mediterranean city,
her feet scabby and galled?
Her sons requite each other
with knives.

Now the city is flooded with crates of plums and grapes,
cherries laid out in the marketplace
in the sight of every passerby,
the setting sun peachy pink.
Who could really hate
a doped-up Mediterranean city
lowing like a cow in heat,
her walls Italian marble and crumbling sand,
decked out in rags and broidered work.
But she doesn’t mean it at all,
doesn’t mean anything at all.
And the sea is full, brimming at her blind forehead,
and the sun pours his horn of mercy upon her
when at dusk his wrath subsides.
And the squashes and cucumbers and lemons bursting
with color and juice
waft over her the sweet savor of summer perfumes.
And she is not worthy.
Not worthy of love or pity. 

Filthy Mediterranean city,
how my soul is bound up with her soul.
Because of a lifetime,
an entire lifetime.

–-Dahlia Ravikovitch (tr. from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.) (The New Yorker, Feb. 13 & 20, 2006)

This is a passionate extended metaphor in which a city is compared to a woman living on the streets, poor, possibly a prostitute. The poem’s strength is that you reach a point where you forget about the metaphor and start reading the poem as if it really is totally about a woman. Yet it is not. There is no real ambiguity on that point. The poem, lush and rich though it is, with smaller metaphorical expressions such as “lowing like a cow in heat,” or “the sun pours his horn of mercy upon her,” never loses its sense of place and direction, nor does it rankle with mysterious strangers lurking in side passages, who might – if interrogated – turn out to be full-fledged secondary poems.

Midi/Minuit, Narbonne

The sound of a train is the sound of the wind
In the narrow streets, is nowhere, is a train
Not taken, though I see its swaying corridors
Framing the sun’s flight second by second
And wake to a scattering of rain at the glass,
To streets I have been dreaming, still and wet,
From which the sound has only now
Yet therefore utterly departed, which is why
I go on listening anyway, until
The silence too exhausts itself and once again
The wind sings in the eaves and campaniles.
I know that when we lie at rest
You listen too, that you are not afraid
If clearly we shall have to live forever
In this state of perfect ignorance, new-born
To these familiar conditions that will once more
Exalt the heart in breaking it. Come close.
No atlas could describe the distances that sound –
The train, the gust among the tiles and attics –
Offers us for nothing as it fades, the wind
Into itself, the train into its schedule – an express
Importantly imagining the north for those
Who long to go or dare to stay or never
Think of going anywhere at all. Come close.
What business can it be of ours
To feel this way, as though both honoured
And arraigned, to have to give this sound
That might be nothing but the wind
Our tribute of attention till it’s gone?

–Sean O’Brien (Times Literary Supplement, 4-16-10)

In this poem I feel a totally different kind of certainty. Inherent in the poem –- like an engine with toothed gears ratcheting its slow way around, deep in the center of things –- is an essential misunderstanding between the maker of the poem and the poem. This must be resolved in some fashion by the reader, who will thus be empowered to misunderstand in her own way. Who will thus be empowered to enter, by way of words, the illuminated world.

O-Brien’s own original misunderstanding may have been negotiated by the smuggling process I spoke of. Something brought to his attention, once again, that tantalizing secret that always takes hold of him like a recurring avatar. The poet, driven to jump on it like a photographer before it disappeared, began to write about it, and immediately misunderstood himself (again). He wrote, crossed out words, and the misunderstanding began to wobble and melt. He lost himself in the delightful apprehension of oil on water, and made no further attempt to reify his original notion. The poem crossed the gap.

Anita Sullivan
Guest Writer for The Poetry Loft



Leave a Reply