Between Silence & Sound

The poet Marie Ponsot has always written at the top of her talent, which is at the top of the art. From the outset, she has imagined the making of a poem in its fullest sense. A poem for Ponsot is an object of sight and of sound, of thoughts and of feelings, a created field of interacting language and themes, composed of various voices and tones of voice. Ponsot requires that we pay the closest attention to every level of language in a poem: syllables, words, lines, sentences, spacing on the page, punctuation, meter, rhyme, syntax. The payoffs—depths of meaning that endlessly surprise, instruct, and delight—are stunning.

Born in New York City in 1921, the poet graduated from St. Joseph’s College for Women in Brooklyn and Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in seventeenth-century English literature. After World War II, she lived for three years in Paris, where she married the French painter Claude Ponsot. Returning to New York, she worked as a translator and freelance writer of radio and television scripts, while raising seven children on her own. She taught until she was seventy-two at Queens College, where she is now professor emerita of English.

Easy
is Ponsot’s sixth book of poems (several of its poems originally appeared in these pages). Ponsot’s first book, True Minds, was published in 1957 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, which, a year earlier, had published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Ponsot’s second book, Admit Impediment, was published more than two decades later in 1981 by Knopf. That book was followed by The Green Dark (1988), The Bird Catcher (1998), and Springing: New and Selected Poems (2002). When Admit Impediment appeared, much was made of the fact that Ponsot hadn’t published a second book until she was almost sixty, but Ponsot has never stopped writing poems. It was just that during the late 1950s and through the ’60s and ’70s, personal circumstances demanded that she take herself out of a literary world in which poets, almost exclusively affiliated with academic institutions and creative-writing programs, wrote and published books of poems every two or three years. 

By the second poem in Easy, “If I Live, Stones Hear,” Ponsot has brought us to her new book’s vision. “Between silence and sound / we are balancing darkness, / making light of it,” she writes, releasing through her language (within three lines!) several meanings. “We,” of course, includes every one of us, living as we do between being silent and speaking, between realities both good and bad. But, of course, “we” also includes the poet, who, now in her eighties, has spent well over fifty years “making light” of darkness (whatever its source) by making poems. The theme is picked up again in “This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo.” William Blake is quoted in an epigram:  “In a time of death bring forth number, weight & measure.” A cloud is described, driven by wind “between earth and space. Cloud / shields earth from sun-scorch. Cloud / bursts to cure earth’s thirst.” The cloud, “airy, wet, photogenic,” is “a bridge or go-between,” which (like poetry) “does as it is done by.” Or, as Ponsot writes in “Skeptic,” changing her metaphor from a cloud to the sea:

Language thinks us. Myth or mouth

we migrants are its mystery.

It’s our tension floats those halycons

we want to say are safe

riding the wave-swell,

on the surface of the same sea.

In several poems—“Head Turkey Muses: A Soliloquy,” “One Grimm Brother to the Other,” “Peter Rabbit’s Middle Sister,” “The Wolf and the Lamb”—Ponsot makes light out of our lives in the form of  fables. In others—for example, “Route 80, Salt Lake City to Reno, Beautiful,” “Train to Avignon,” “On Easter Saturday Bells Whacked the Air”—Ponsot takes us back to a specific place. “True’s a risk,” she says in “Cometing”: “Take it I say. Do true for fun.” Which truth? How about the truth of language, as “words become us,” and “we come alive lightly,” “the jolt of language…its lucid hit / of bliss, the surprise.” Or how about the truth of what Ponsot calls “the place of language” in “Imagining Starry”:

                                 the place between me

and the world of presences I have lost

—complex country, not flat. Its elements free-

float, coherent for luck to come across;

its lines curve as in a mental orrery

implicit with stars in active orbit,

only their slowness or swiftness lost to sense.

In “Why Vow,” Ponsot’s world of presences in the complex country of ourselves and our language invokes Gerard Manley Hopkins, who “(some say, daft) holds / that his self is unlost, a fact, / unchanged by its unfolding / as it stands for his each act.”  Hopkins’s “[s]elf (daft or not) lives out its vow: / his now is a perpetual now.” Hopkins is obedient because “he said he would. / He did as he said.  He did / as he was told.  He could / good as gold, hold good.”

Easy concludes with “Dancing Day I” and “Dancing Day II.” “I call this the end of the beginning,” she writes near the beginning of “Dancing Day I.”

In its mist, frayed ghosts of selves drowse;

I call them my lost selves.

Lately they drift close, unaging,

watching me age. Now & then, one or some

flare up, known shapes in known clothes.

Each of them is not not me, and wears

the clothes I walked in, joked, worked hurt in

“I still know,” Ponsot writes, “all those moves.” Those selves have “come to stay!” So, the poet puts out “bread, plates, glasses, grapes, / apples, napkins, pretzels, Bleu des Causses.” The poet proposes a toast— “why not. / Time to let go. / Get going. / Out of the cellar I take, ripe, / the rest of the case of Clos de Vougeot.”

“Once, one made many. / Now, many make one. / The rest is requiem.”  So begins “Dancing Day II.” Those lost selves “keep arriving, some / we weren’t waiting for.” “Every one we ever were shows up / with world-flung poor triumphs.” And every self has “learned the moves, separately, / from the absolute dancer / the foregone deep breather / the original choreographer.”

The dancer, the dance; the poet, the poem: the famous last line of William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children”—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—comes to mind. Just as Yeats’s dancer is the dance and the dance is the dancer, Marie Ponsot in Easy unfolds for us the ancient truth that the poet is her poems and her poems are the poet. Who in American poetry—except for, perhaps, Wallace Stevens in The Rock—has given us a book that so magnificently and magnanimously portrays a lifetime committed to the art of poetry and all that it concerns? Easy easily confirms that Marie Ponsot is among our major poets.

Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: 
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Lawrence Joseph is the author of five books of poems, most recently Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) His sixth book of poems, So Where Are We? will be published by FSG in 2017. He is also written two books of prose, Lawyerland (FSG) and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose (University of Michigan Press). He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and lives in New York City.

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