Phyllis Webb is this year’s happy find for me. Several people suggested I read her and then repeated the suggestion when I started writing Ghazals. I started with her selected poems – The Vision Tree: Selected Poems, Talonbooks, 1982, as that was the only thing available at VUW library, WPL or the MA library. Webb is Canadian, born in the 20’s, writer, broadcaster and creative writing teacher at Victoria (BC). Sharon Thesen in her introduction to The Vision Tree wrote:
What we are often most grateful for are the poem’s open completions, which do not stop the poem, but which cast their strange felicity back over the other lines, so that the whole poem is gathered into a unity without proposing a closure.
I read and re-read this volume. You just can’t read her work once, it is dense and surprising and multi-layered. I kept coming back to one of her earlier poems “Patience”:
Patience is the wideness of the night
the simple pain of stars
the muffled explosion of velvet
it moves itself generally
accepts the telling of time
without day’s relativity. (stanza 1)
These metaphors are startling for me. Then the last four lines. Patience isn’t concerned with details or comparison, Patience is vast, thick and heavy, sharp and piercing. What else is vast? The wide night sky is vast. What are in the night sky? Stars. What goes on for eons? Starlight.
‘The muffled explosion of velvet’ I imagine the night sky as a big piece of thick, heavy velvet that is shaken out with a crack / snap and once laid over you is so thick and heavy it almost suffocates.
This is clever because instead of using three un-related metaphors for Patience she has used three that are intertwined and the third is a metaphor for her first metaphor – the night sky. So it is all woven in on itself. Makes me dizzy!
Then when she expands the rest of the stanza it is as if she is talking about Einstein. She is talking about time and space. The last word of the stanza – relativity, (the theory of which describes how things stay in orbit) again going back to the night sky and space and also relationships.
This stanza is extraordinary! I wasn’t sure at first if that was what she intended or if I was just reading my own interests into it but I later read an essay of hers in which she odes say she is influenced by ‘Field Theory’ much to my satisfaction.
The second stanza goes on:
But more than these accommodations
patience is love withdrawn
into the well; immersion into
a deep place where green begins.
It is the slow beat of slanting eyes
down the hearts years,
it is the silencer
and the loving now
involves no word.
Patience is the answer
poised in grief – the knowing –
it is the prose of tears
withheld and the aging,
the history in the heart
and futures where pain
is a lucid cargo. (stanza 2)
This stanza is quite different from the first, it comes not only down to earth but then down a well. It becomes less abstract and more human – love withdrawn is a very human condition. Silent years of wordless, withdrawn love grieved. Tears withheld as years pass and on into the future, where pain is still a ‘lucid cargo’. You need patience to endure never-ending heart break.
So, I’m thinking stanza one, two people are in orbit – in love, then in the second stanza love is withdrawn so patience morphs, earths. The second stanza is also longer than the first, which intimates that the loss and suffering goes on for much longer than the time of being in love. The lines get shorter too. ‘pain is a lucid cargo’ – Christ!
Chris lent me her copy of Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals. (Coach House Press, 1984) as it is out of print and not in any of the libraries. The selected poems had some Ghazals in them but not the whole lot. I have to say that I was not as drawn to her Ghazals as I was to her earlier work. I really enjoy the way each couplet in a Ghazal is a leap, 5 or more seemingly unrelated topics each contained in a separate couplet, which then combine to create an over-reaching deeper meaning. They were helpful to read while thinking about writing Ghazals and thinking about what Ghazals may or may not be but they seemed to lack the crazy multifaceted nature of the earlier work to me.
Dinah lent me Nothing But Brush Strokes: Selected Prose by Phyllis Webb, which has some great essays. I ended up using an extract of ‘Up the Ladder: Notes on the Creative Process’ for my reading packet handout. It has in it a poem called ‘Field Guide to Snow Crystals’ and her notes say it is about the Field Theory of poetry. This got me excited. The physics of Quantum Field Theory originated in the 1920’s and influenced a poetics of connection that Muriel Rukeyser described as “not a point-to-point movement but a real flow in which everything is seen as deeply related to everything else”. William Carlos Williams said in his essay The Poem as a Field of Action that “The only reality we can know is MEASURE”. He saw structure (not subject matter) as being the poet’s contact with reality, the only way we can modify it. This has been making me think about form, because of course the Ghazal is Field Theory in action.
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