Friday, January 25, 2008

the reverse page

Careful description works well as poetry. The poet seeing, and putting down what is seen.

Careful description often requires a vocabulary that captures precise distinctions. In my own poems I tend to flee into metaphor, especially a story-heady metaphor that turns an object into a character in motion rather than a stone made of this mineral and posed on this slope. It’s fun. And you don’t have to fact check.

With the advent of the internet, research is so much easier than it’s ever been; for a recent poem I did a bunch of research and tried to incorporate the results, something I’ve always wanted to do but – well, one could spend hours and hours at the library, right? I get distracted doing that.

I would like to be able to describe what I see, not just conjure colorful whirls around it. I appreciate careful description. Reading Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980 I came across “The Library”, a poem by John Logan.

The first half of the poem blathers on about Ireland and tries to conscript the rows of library books into the big old organ by saying they look like organ pipes. OK, OK. But then Logan looks down at one book, propped open in a display case, and he begins to describe what he’s looking at right then:

Its goat skin pages open up for us under glass
in a wooden case. At this place:
a dog nips its tail in its mouth,
but this dog is of ultramarine, most expensive
pigment after gold, for it was ground out of lapis,
and the tail is of the lemon yellow orpiment.
Other figures are verdigris, folium or woad –
the verdigris, made with copper,
was mixed with vinegar, which ate into the vellum
and showed through on the reverse page.
Through the text’s pages run constant, colored arabesques
of animated initial
letters – made of the bent bodies
of fabulous, elongate beasts.


John Logan doesn’t push a metaphor in these lines. He does use some of the specialized vocabulary of the bookmaker, and I love the words – orpiment, folium, woad, vellum. The syntax doesn’t call attention to itself, nor does the poet dance around wearing a florescent ego. I read this over & over.

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