Seeing with Amy Clampitt

Few modern poets loved the world so fiercely, or looked at it so closely, as Amy Clampitt. Her best poems express an ecstatic delight in perception, giving the sense that the world is more than we thought it was—more beautiful and more terrifying, more astounding in its intricacy and more startling in its sublimity.

Clampitt comes in the line of writers like John Keats (one of her favorites), Emily Dickinson (another favorite), and Marilynne Robinson. All of these writers are both visionary and realist: in fact, their sense of the visionary—that which exceeds the everyday—is arrived at by way of the realistic, through a commitment to seeing the world in its absolute and wondrous particularity.

Here, for instance, is “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews,” which appeared in Clampitt’s 1983 debut collection The Kingfisher:

An ingenuity too astonishing

to be quite fortuitous is

this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-

lined and shaped like a teacup.

                                                   A step.

Down and you’re into it; a

Wilderness swallows you up:

ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-

to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted

understory, an overhead

spruce-tamarack horizon hinting

you’ll never get out of here.

                                                  But the sun

among the sundews, down there,

is so bright, an underfoot

webwork of carnivorous rubies,

a star-swarm thick as the gnats

they’re set to catch, delectable

double-faced cockleburs, each

hair-tip a sticky mirror

afire with sunlight, a million

of them and again a million,

each mirror a trap set to

unhand unbelieving,

                                                  that either

a First Cause said once, “Let there

be sundew,” and there were, or they’ve

made their way here unaided

other than by that backhand, round-

about refusal to assume responsibility

known as Natural Selection.

                                                  But the sun

underfoot is so dazzling

down there among the sundews,

there is so much light

in the cup that, looking,

you start to fall upward.

The poem is about a plant that is both lovely (see the accompanying image) and violent (the carnivorous sundew lives in part by luring and feasting upon unsuspecting insects), and Clampitt refuses to look away either from the loveliness or the violence. To look at the natural world with real attention, Clampitt suggests, is to find it “astonishing,” “delectable,” and “dazzling”—in short, it is to be reminded that the world exceeds our best efforts to understand it. 

Clampitt isn't read nearly as much as she should be. Here is a link with some other poems, all worth reading.

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Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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