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Atavism -- William Stafford

Guest poem submitted by Joyce Heon:
(Poem #1057) Atavism
 Sometimes in the open you look up
 where birds go by, or just nothing,
 and wait.  A dim feeling comes
 you were like this once, there was air,
 and quiet; it was by a lake, or
 maybe a river  you were alert
 as an otter and were suddenly born
 like the evening star into wide
 still worlds like this one you have found
 again, for a moment, in the open.

 Something is being told in the woods:  aisles of
 shadow lead away; a branch waves;
 a pencil of sunlight slowly travels its
 path.  A withheld presence almost
 speaks, but then retreats, rustles
 a patch of brush.  You can feel
 the centuries ripple  generations
 of wandering, discovering, being lost
 and found, eating, dying, being born.
 A walk through the forest strokes your fur,
 the fur you no longer have.  And your gaze
 down a forest aisle is a strange, long
 plunge, dark eyes looking for home.
 For delicious minutes you can feel your whiskers
 wider than your mind, away out over everything.
-- William Stafford
No matter how often I read this poem, I feel the fur I no longer have lift,
something creeps my skin, more primeval than thought.  The space of it
recreates my youthful forays onto forest paths, where light becomes defined
by the upright tree and angle of the sun, where it comes like jaguar spots
to the skin.  Every trip into the forest makes you more than yourself and so
much less.

Archibald MacLeish advises that a poem lies less in what is said than what
is not, what is communally recognized, but is just shy of being put in
words, possibly cannot be put in words.  It is more feeling than thought,
something that fits in between lines and images, and that is eternally true.
Atavism takes you from the common experience into the uncommon, the
recognition that we have a long history of forest and field, clearing and
thicket, that beneath our skin lies the caution of hunter and hunted.  It
speaks to where we live and die.  If you pause, you sense that you are just
about to come upon the most revealing truth of your life, some secret,
perhaps there in that shadow.

Stafford leaves you in that moment of expectation, unlike Mary Oliver, whose
fox leaps from hiding like flame across your mind.  She paints the image,
the experience, and resolves it with photo-realism.  For all the fire, the
mystery is smothered.  You are left having seen a fox.  But Stafford only
suggests what you might have seen, and thereby reveals some places within
you that you didn't know.

William Stafford is one of my favorite accessible poets.  How can you not
admire a man who on the day he died in fragile hand wrote a poem so
incredibly affecting as "Are you Mr. William Stafford?" without the least
trace of soppy self-pity?  You read it with the certainty that he faced
dying with his whiskers way out over everything.


[Links] has the text of "Are You
Mr. William Stafford?", along with a facsimile of the (dying) poet's
handwritten draft of the poem.

[broken link] is a comprehensive Stafford

Minstrels poems/poets mentioned in the commentary:
Poem #188, Ars Poetica  -- Archibald MacLeish
Poem #457, The End of the World  -- Archibald MacLeish
Poem #426, Wild Geese  -- Mary Oliver

34 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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