devil’s backbone

(artwork by reinisgailitis)


I’ve devoted the last five years to a novel that’s being considered by agents. I say it’s in the lap of the gods, but it’s in the lap of agents far and wide; I’ve sprung my seed and hope one will take.
I’ve half-heartedly written a handful of poems these past five years, mostly responses to artwork at the Ashmolean museum; ekphrastic villanelles and free verse sown in random canvases from di Cosimo to Blake. One is planted in The Forest Fire, and the other is stuck deep in a circle of Dante’s hell. Fat chance they’ll see the sun. They’ll grow toward flame and photosynthesize its lies.
And here I am walking the Devil’s Back causeway in Oxford thinking of poetry again, having spent a day in Blackwell’s bookshop reading Ambit, Agenda, The Rialto. But I don’t want to bite my tongue, stop the nib before it skips off the cliff. I don’t want to stop myself, shut the gate, snuff the flame.
I don’t want a terrarium, I want a forest. And a fire to plant in it.
The poet Brett Ralph, one of my favorite instructors at UMASS when I was eighteen – who introduced me to Bukowski, Burroughs, and Rilke –  had this to say of poetry versus prose poems in Whole Beast Rag:
     And so the prose poem, what I love about it, is it feels spiritually, aesthetically like a poem…it abjures the technical conventions of verse, yet still achieves the substance of poetry, and it seems like the best of both worlds, almost like a kind of magic…

Brett added that prose poems are sometimes considered bastardized poems. Like my makura no soshi— a pillow book of random poems, lists, musings, stories in a loose arrangement that may very well be unagreeable, un-genre-able. A collection of orphans, bastard forms. I want all of my writing to be fatherless, to walk in step with the devil.
Poet and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal wrote, ‘How trivial a love of poetry that stops with the text.’ Poems carry over into the hedges, jump off the ledge of the mind and run riot despite our best intentions. They spread tap roots, come up wild and woody in the wrong poem, on the wrong page, to reclaim the book with ground cover. You must bend over a poem and defend its few inches of sunlight. Vouchsafe its virginity; no seed must snuggle in those neatly ploughed lines of text dark and grainy as soil. You may as well let your soul become overgrown, sweet and seeded as a fig.
The Devil’s Backbone path was immortalized by poet Matthew Arnold in his poem The Scholar Gypsy, a title that implies a double life, something I’m accustomed to; part scholar, part gypsy. Part resident, part tumbleweed. The strip of solid ground is a tight wire I walk between my two lives.
Like a prose poem, the Devil’s Backbone is gloriously bastardized; it winds around line breaks and enjambs itself into the next section of path; bricolage of copse, pebble, dirt, dung. The woods maim themselves on the teeth of barbed fences and grow grafted; half tree, half ingrown poetry. The path scythes a scar through riotous yellow fields where the rape sways waist-high. You can hide in it, haloed with its bright suns.
Line breaks of land can’t withstand the organic rise and ruin of topography; woods, floodplains, railroad track, pond. In spring the path is a tunnel of greens, curved canopies and fallen trees. In winter the fields flood and look back at the sky; a harvest of blindness best seen from the causeway’s spine. A poet’s delight; white space to the edge of the page.
A fisherman and his wife stand on the devil’s back still as reeds, leashed to their bait. A hungry stomach is a small pond for big fish. They cast lines off the spine; nerves awake to sensation under the skin of the lily pond. They hope for suspension of disbelief: this feather is food. They lie to the water again and again, and each time it believes. It grows no wiser. They reel the pond into pails, flashes of silver scales; portions weighed like stanzas.
But I stray.
If I trim the feral path, tame
its fecund magic
I’d be a poet and traitor;
blow the wind’s industry back
into ovules, pods and seeds
shush song into beaks
crack the backbone over
a knee obediently
meted in straight lines
rhymes stacked with
weeds wedged between.

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