Friday, June 10, 2016

The Kingfisher

The Kingfisher, Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt, the Iowa Quaker, published her first book of poetry in 1983--she was sixty-three years old--and while she had been writing poetry since her undergraduate days at Grinnell College, she had only started to publish in the late 1970's.  Simply put, The Kingfisher is among the finest sustained poetic achievements in the English language. Clampitt, who died in 1994, was born on June 15, 1920, and it was the proximity of her birthday that led me to reread this extraordinary book.

Wheeling, the careening
winds arrive with lariets
and tambourines of rain.
Torn-to-pieces, mud-dark
flounces of Caribbean

cumulus keep passing, 
keep passing.  By afternoon
rinsed transparencies begin
to open overhead, Mediterranean
windowpanes of clearness

crossed by young gusts'
vaporous fripperies, liquid
footprints flying, lacewing
leaf-shade brightning
and fading....

[From "The Edge of the Hurricane"]

Miss Clampitt's closest progenitor was Gerard Manley Hopkins (her title is taken from a line of Hopkins); both share a baroque and mystical connection to the natural world, an extraordinary lexical richness, stunning imagery, and the metaphysical poet's ability to link the seemingly disconnected into unforgettable synthesis.  Her work at Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society appear to have leached both language and observational acuity into her verse--like Hopkins, but better, Clampitt uncovers the rich symbiotic connection between poet and nature, not in search of God, and not in search of Meaning, but purely for the beauty of being alive, the wry and charming oddity of being in this world. Here's one of my favorite Clampitt poems, "Sea Mouse":

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse. No one
had asked for such a thing, 
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching
edges of sea lettuce--
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance, 
the tops of copses, 

sun-honeyed, needle pelted
pine trees, bearded barley, 
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this 
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny, 
baby-mummy-swaddled, it's

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.  

Such chewy language! Ruchy, needle-pelted, silk-spiny. And in other poems the same joyful playing with language. But not just playing, Clampitt's not a "language poet," no, there's meaning and feeling at every turn: "the nodding/campanula of bell buoys" ("Fog"); "a tatting/ of foam out where the rocks are" ("Gradual Clearing"); "Strawstacks' beveled loaves" ("Stacking the Straws"). She's one of the few poets who sends me, gratefully, to the OED--"furred with a velouté/of looking glass"--velouté, one of the Mother Sauces of French cuisine (who knew?). Then there is "scenes of transhumance," "a chromo of Hobbema," "grisaille." I especially admire the way Clampitt uses possessives and compounding hyphens to join ideas that one might not conceive of as joined, but which, in her capable hands, are effortlessly put together; her striking adjectives: "wing-dragging" killdeer or "berry-eyed and bark-brown" kingfisher. The freshness with which she looks at the every day. Great poets are always youthful, vigorous, joyful. Except if they are mopes, but in the summer I am opting for the joyful ones, Clampitt above all--a romantic in the American idiom.

Not only does she send me to the dictionary. Clampitt taken on a meandering stroll in the local landscape incites me to look more carefully: "Nightfall/hangs up a single moon/bleached white as laundry;" and this: "spilled/and scattered like/a gust of lost pollen."  No seas near me, but I do remember the coast in a storm well enough for this image: "gales hurled gnashing like seawater over fences'/laddered apertures..." ("The Woodlot").

My copy--now 33 years old--is full of pencil markings, grass stains, stuffed with cottonwood leaves, scuffed from being packed along on hikes and camping trips (along with Annie Dillard, who, like Hopkins, is a bit too pious for my tastes, but who nonetheless has the keen eye and immersion in poetic language we find in Clampitt). Clampitt wrote poems about Maine and New York City (where she mostly lived--you wouldn't know it), about Iowa and farm life in that beautiful corny rectangle of a place. About the many countries she visited--Italy and England in particular--and, some of her best and wittiest, about music. Especially memorable is her long poem "Beethoven, Opus 111," too beautiful simply to quote from and too long to type out here.

Buy the book. Write your name in it. Carry it around all summer (with a pocket dictionary). You'll be happy you did.

And finally, this:

Easter Morning

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace : the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

There are no bad photographs of Amy Clampitt. Here is my favorite.

George Ovitt (6/10/16)

The Kingfisher is published by Knopf and is still in print, thank God. 

For the sea mouse:

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