Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday Poem: Class Discussion by Bryan Walpert

First snow falls
on the half-finished bridge.

All afternoon snow falls, as on
Basho’s half-finished bridge. Light falls
through the half-opened blinds
onto the table, over which this poem
is disputed. Why does it seem
suddenly so difficult to me?
Perhaps the speaker is approaching
middle age, someone suggests,
so all things seem elusive.
Yes, another says, the snow
is the first hint of white
in the speaker’s hair, which
he has arranged in a comb-over.
I touch the top of my head.
And why falls, asks a woman,
her eyes closed in emphasis,
her head thrown back, as if
she planned to stick out her
tongue to catch the flakes,
so young she would not think
twice about a world arranged
to suit her taste: Why not just
have it all already sitting there
for the speaker to come upon:
the crest of a long hill,
snow covering the valley, ice lightly
on the river, from which only some
wood pylons, a few boards, extend
as the speaker stops to compose
himself. There is some place he had
hoped to reach, perhaps someone,
but even as the words
he had planned form in his mind,
as he writes them into the lines
of the landscape they slip
like scent into the cold air,
and anyway he is struck
by the beauty of the blossoms
of snow on his boots, or rather their
wabi-sabi, their imperfect beauty,
for even as he notices them
the vibrations of his steps
have settled the flakes into
less and no less satisfactory
patterns. He knows nothing
is less satisfying than resolution,
than having, something that now
seems only an idea, like the future
into which I like to think he will turn,
unbothered by disappointment
or anticipation, towards home,
where someone will be glad
to see him. Perhaps as he
approaches he will see smoke
from his own chimney etched
across the sky, which soon
will darken, as he sits by the fire,
the objects of his life arranged
around him, a sky from the greater
perspective of which one might
see students, the class over,
having smoked beneath the balcony,
one by one braving the weather,
the ghostly blossoms of their
breaths merging with the snow,
drifting to other buildings
or cars or the middle distance
into which this afternoon extends,
nearly complete.

This poem is a taste of Bryan Walpert's new collection A History of Glass (Stephen F. Austen State UP, Texas) due to be launched in March during NZ Book Month.  Bryan's first collection of poetry Etymology (Cinnamon Press 2009) and his short fiction Ephraim's Eyes ( Pewter Rose Press 2010)  I rated very highly, and I am looking forward to his new book very much. I reviewed Etymology on my blog, and on Tuesday Poem; and the review of Ephraim's Eyes is here. 

American-born, Bryan lives in Palmerston North - blogging on what it's like to do that cultural switch - and teaches at Massey University. He's won a number of awards for his writing including a manuscript prize by the publisher of History. I tutor at Massey University Wellington  and hence am a colleague of Bryan's - hence my choice of this poem. This is familiar ground. Not only the poetry discussion - and the teacher questioning the poem afresh for some reason - but the falling of the snow while the discussion goes on. I was teaching a first year creative writing class when the snow fell and we stopped and stared and then did a snow/poetry exercise. I had a lot of snow poems to mark later that term.

But back to Bryan - this is a marvellous poem for so many reasons but most of all for the winding curl of language from line to line to line as it picks up an idea (the Basho poem), opens it up, climbs inside it, explores it and -  by implication - the speaker of the poem (who, via a Walpert sleight of hand, slips inside the skin of the man in the poem - or vice versa) and, eventually, the students who are hauled in to complete the picture. Or nearly. Like the bridge.

There is always a welcome layer of clever word-play in a Bryan Walpert poem, and here he plays with the idea of something being more satisfying when it's unresolved/imperfect - whether it be the Basho poem or the discussion of the poem etc, and I also wonder if  Bryan's commenting quietly on his own previous poems which could tend towards wrapping things up too tidily at the end sometimes. It's certainly possible.

There's so much more here but I'll need to take more time to read the poem over, along with the full collection which I'm promised any day now. Looking forward to that - I'll post more on it in March. This poem is published here with permission.

Do check out the other poems on Tuesday Poem  with James Norcliffe at the hub.


Kathleen Jones said...

I like this very much Mary - and your analysis of it. I've read Bryan Walpert before and liked his work - good to see more of it.
Incidentally - after you posted the Robert Hass, I went out and bought the Apple Trees at Olema. It's fantastic.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Kathleen. And how exciting you have the Robert Hass book, I might have to do the same... I've only read him online!

Jennifer Compton said...

great stuff - i want to enter the argument - it is winter and the bridge is unfinished - the year of life is nearly over and the tasks are still undone

Keith Westwater said...

Thanks Mary for bringing us one of Bryan's poems - I've long been an admirer of his work. I particularly like this one, which I've not read before. For a moment I thought it might turn out to be a parody of the class dissection of a poem, which Billy Collins did so well in 'Workshop', but no, it's far richer than that. I can see the depth unfolding, the landscapes past and present interacting, the teacher reflecting on both and then coming back. Very well crafted.

Tim Upperton said...

Magnificent poem.

Helen Lowe said...

Yahoo! What a fabulous Tursday Poem--there's so much in it, so much to think about and enjoy. Love it.

Note to self: must, must, must get Bryan's book.

Rachel Fenton said...

The opening reminded me very much of Sophia De Mello Breyner's "Exile" - beautiful and powerful imagery. The development of the poem was a joy to read.

Elizabeth Welsh said...

I'm absolutely sold - I shall have to seek out his new collection, too. I've read his Cinnamon Press collection - that was wonderful. Here, the background distraction/inspiration of the snow falling was so carefully constructed. Great stuff. Thanks Mary and Bryan!

Bryan Walpert said...

Thanks, everyone, for such generous comments!