Selected Poems by Anne Stevenson
Anne Stevenson, 'Selected Poems'
Anne Stevensons' Selected Poems edited by Andrew Motion, published by The Library of America
Introduction - Geoffrey O’Brien editor-in-chief of The Library of America.
The book of selected poems that was edited by Andrew Motion and that The Library of America had the happiness of publishing is, as they say, a slim volume, but it contains immense reaches of space and time. Here are the landscapes of dream and the landscapes of geology. Here is life perceived at the level of cellular dissolution and in the context of the remotest stars, as in the poem "The Other House": "Beneath me, infinitely deep, / Solidity dissolves. / Above me, infinitely wide, / Galactic winter sprawls." And in the midst of that, as she writes in a different poem, "Consciousness walks on tiptoe through what happens."
At any moment in a poem by Anne Stevenson we are apt to be surprised by a drastic shift in perspective. Often her poems are cascades of such shifts, and the elegance of her form does not disguise the furors and uncertainties of the passage. Every settled image is no sooner framed than unsettled. No moment is evoked without evoking as well the mysteriousness and monstrousness of time. She may encompass in a single poem the trajectory of a life, or of a series of lives, moving backward and forward within those trajectories to stunning and often heartbreaking effect. In her work the most ordinary and indistinguishable of moments is often, as in the poem "Washing My Hair," the pivot for a sweep of what might be called metaphysical apprehension. A poem that begins with the difficulty of adjusting the water from a showerhead to the right temperature arrives, by a process that is made to seem as ineluctable as the flowing of water, at the question: "My soul, how will I recognise you / if we meet?"
It is hard to isolate neat illustrative quotations from her poems because in each of them every part is linked to every other, chained or wreathed like human generations or like the notes of a musical composition. One would not need to know the importance of music in her life to gauge its importance for her art of phrasing and the variegated texture of her soundings. In some poems she can reduce everything to an attenuated solo for the innermost voice- "I have grown small / inside my house of words, / empty and hard, / pebble rattling in a skull"- and then again, in her narrative masterpiece Correspondences, for a whole family tree of voices.
It's a great honor and pleasure to introduce Anne Stevenson.
Somewhere nowhere in Utah, a boy by the roadside,
gun in his hand, and the rare dumb hard tears flowing.
Beside him, a greyheaded man has let one arm slide
awkwardly over his shoulders, is talking and pointing
at whatever it is, dead, in the dust on the ground.
By the old parked Chevy, two women, talking and watching.
Their skirts flag forward, bandanna twist with their hair.
Around them, sheep and a fence and the sagebrush burning
and burning with a blue flame. In the distance, where
mountains are clouds, lightning, but no rain.
When my mother knew why her treatment wasn't working,
She said to my father, trying not to detonate her news,
'Steve, you must marry again. When I'm gone, who's going
To tell you to put your trousers on before your shoes?'
My father opened his mouth to - couldn’t - refuse.
Instead, he threw her a look; a man just shot
Gazing at the arm or leg he was about to lose.
His cigarette burned him, but he didn't stub it out.
Later, on the porch, alive in the dark together,
How solid the house must have felt, how sanely familiar
The night-lit leaves, their shadows patterning the street.
The house is still there. The elms and the people, not.
It was now, and it never was now. Like every experience
Of being entirely here, yet really not being.
They couldn't imagine the future that I am seeing,
For all his philosophy and all her common sense.
Is this a new way of being born?
To feel some huge crescent personality
burgeoning out of your shoulders,
winging you over the sand, the sluggish sea?
Mile upon mile of contaminated Wash is
tucking a cold March sky into the horizon.
You can drive no further.
Look down at the thrashing water,
the upfalls of its reach
failing, failing again to take the cliff.
Sandpipers hunch on the geomorphic ledge-
rock face and wave force, story without speech.
But it's one thing to pause at the cutting edge,
another to face the evolving beach, the gap
where the road stops and the dunes heap
and the wind blows fiercely in the wrong direction.
One gaudy comma ascends... another... another...
the air is rocking alert with punctuation.
Grey sickle cells cluster under a microscope.
A jumbo wasp, a pterodactyl, a peacock feather
jockey for space against moon-parings, rainbow zeppelins,
prayer flags - imagination battling with imagination,
spotted species chasing the plain- as out they float,
strong men steering their wild umbilical toys
away from the girlfriends in the car park, who
leathered from heel to neck in steel-studded black,
headscarfed against the wind, seem coolly resigned
to an old dispensation, a ritual of mating
that puts up again with the cliff-hanging habits of boys.
Is this a new way of writing?
The heroes off flying or fighting, the women waiting?