Poetry Summer, for those who don’t know, is my goal and challenge to memorize a poem every week this summer. So far it’s going great, and lots of people have joined in.
The great thing I’m learning as I memorize these poems is that no matter how much I liked them before, I like them even more as I go through them and commit them to memory. This week I did John Keats’s “To Autumn;” he’s a poet I love, but that’s a poem of his I don’t know as well as some others. I’d always given it the very cursory reading of “each stanza is about a different sense,” and that’s still true, but as I studied it this week I saw that it was so much more. It’s about how Autumn is the time of harvest and food and warm, lazy days, but it’s also about how Autumn is the death of summer, and the last mournful pause before the world slips into winter and everything grows old and cold and dead. In the first stanza there are apples on the trees, and in the second the apples are crushed in a press, and by the third the fields are stubble and the sun is setting and the world is going to sleep.
The third and final stanza is hushed and still; the only verbs are soft sounds, like the “wailful choir” of gnats, and then suddenly a vast flock of birds lift up from the trees and flap south for the winter. This last line is my favorite, because he never comes right out and says it and yet you can see it, and hear it, because the structure of the poem creates the image so perfectly in your mind. We start with the setting sun, and the wailful choir, and already your mind starts to think of quietness and stillness. Saying it out loud you can’t help but lower your voice. The penultimate line is about a single bird whistling in a garden–a soft, static, solitary image–and then the final line has an entire gathering of swallows up in the skies, chirping and singing. This sudden shift of one bird to many, from whistle to twittering, from garden to sky, creates a strong visual image of a flock of birds suddenly lifting up and flying. It’s gorgeous, and brilliant, and if I didn’t think it was possibly to love Keats any more than I already did, well, “To Autumn” has proven me wrong.
My friend came over and we recited our poems to each other (he did the sixth section of “A Song of Myself”), and we realized that two of my three poems have been about nature, and all three of his have been about death. We decided that for this week we’d switch topics, so I’ve spent the last few days looking for a good death poem. I settled on “Here, Bullet” by Brian Turner, the titular poem from the collection he wrote after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire collection is wonderful (I especially love his poem about the burning oilfield, but I can’t remember the name of it), but I chose “Here, Bullet” because of it’s direct connection to my theme of the week. And because the title alone is completely brilliant, and he gives it multiple meanings. Here’s the full text:
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
How did your third poem go? Any insights to share? I love reading the poems you guys link here, so keep ’em coming.