Thursday, April 25, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 25 with Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place” presents the biggest challenge for explication du texte that the Steiny Road Poet has encountered in her previous 24 lit trips through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40.  Yes, Dear Reader, Fagan’s six couplets with a single end line is much more perplexing than Charles Harper Webb’s “Rain-Out” and harder to approach than Todd Portnowitz’s “The Physiologist’s Rebuke to His Lover.”

Thinking back to her days as a French literature and language major at the University of Maryland where talking about twentieth century literature had to be done in French, the Steiny Poet now pulls herself together for her explication. The poem is about spring when bird come back to make nests in such trees as cottonwoods. Clues include: “little birdies come home to roost”; the word altricial which refers to helpless, naked, blind (maybe newborn birds); and “ribbon I’m meant to twist/ Into ornament” (an element woven into a bird’s nest, perhaps?).

Why might the mightier sycamore, which has stronger wood and is much taller, be envious of cottonwoods trees? The only guess is that whatever kicked this poem into being for the author was not a stereotypical event. From Googling, the Steiny Poet has learned that birds like cottonwoods and sycamores because both species often have cavities in their trunks handy for making nests. From the way the poem opens, one might guess one of these trees might be a tree type chosen for street utility poles.

You’re high gloss and order in the newest street lamps.
All your little birdies come home to roost.

Except popular trees used for utility poles are more likely to be southern yellow pine, Douglas fir, Jack pine, western red cedar, etc. Wait! Maybe the cottonwoods are illuminated by the newest street lamps and take on a sheen that makes the sycamore envious.

But then the more pressing question is who or what is the narrator of this poem? From the title, one might think the personified sycamore would be telling of its discontent with the cottonwoods. What makes this argument fall apart for the Steiny Poet are these lines:

… remember me, my streaming
Seed, night and its coat-tailing meteors. . .

Sycamores have helicopter-style seeds while the cottonwoods enveloped in a fuzzy white substance bursts like popcorn and on windy day looks like snow falling or, maybe, streaming. On the other hand coat-tailing meteors seem more like the sycamore seeds.

Since the Steiny Poet is making no headway in resolving the mysteries of this poem, she will skip ahead to why she is fascinated with Fagan’s composition. She likes what is happening in these lines:

He, she, and it pass, the one altricial need;
At their lips is pressed the ribbon I’m meant to twist

Into ornament: remember me, my streaming
Seed, night and its coat-tailing meteors . . .

The Steiny Road finds the he, she and it writerly. It seems to be a declension of the third person singular pronoun. Granted it might also be the male and female birds that make the it, the egg that becomes the naked, blind newborn bird, which has a dependent need on the parents or at least the mother bird. The Steiny Poet also like the tactile-ness of their lips pressed against the ribbon. More, she loves the plea—how Steinian—to remember me, the me that is streaming seed melding into the night filled with coat-tailing meteors.

After the meteors, the poem leaps into a wider space and presents more mystery than clarity.

So once went my habit of mind: poppies, paper, stars.
Tonight the tenderer planets take cover,

Bodies abuzz in their own demise.

The Steiny Poet thinks she will have to sleep on this poem for the rest of her life or until she corners Kathy Fagan and gets a tutorial on the entirety of this place of sycamore and cottonwoods filled with birds and seeds.

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