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March 01, 2011
I had a break last month from writing my usual note about poetry for the Nittany Valley Writers’ Association Newsletter. The reason was because chaos ensued after my apartment was flooded last month. I am now getting back on top of my writing workload, however, and things are getting back to normal.
Poetry is often thought of as an elite mode of writing which focuses on grand themes. Some of the most successful poets, however, place their poem in a familiar domestic space, which nevertheless enables them to work through universal and enduring themes. Take for example, a poem by local poet Robin Becker: ‘The Roast Chicken’.
Ostensibly, the poem tells a simple story; the narrator cooks a roast chicken, picking over its carcass on consecutive nights. By the end of the poem, however, it is clear that the narrator is actually picking over her own life choices. The tone is rueful, self-mocking even, as the narrator sits down to eat ‘alone’. The use of humor, however, makes the subject matter all the more affecting: the suicide of the narrator’s sister, loneliness, the lack of family life, and the narrator’s fear that she may be taking on the characteristics of her father. Though the poem is confined to a simple, domestic scene, it hinges on a sense of regret, and ends with the image of an old flame who admonishes the narrator for lost chances:
knowing that she was your best chance,
though she would say
your best chances are the ones you take.
Note: You can find ‘The Roast Chicken’ in Becker’s collection All American Girl.
February 23, 2011
Writing about web page http://alumni.psu.edu/events/2011-events/fireside-poetry-reading-dessert-reception
Last week, I attended a reading by the poet Robin Becker, who is currently the Penn State laureate. Every year or so, Penn State chooses an artist from amongst its staff to represent the university and to make links with the community. This year teh laureate is Robin Becker, and she was joined at the reading by a previous laureate, the cellist Kim Cook.
Becker opened the event by noting that poetry had its origins in song, and she quoted the Pennsylvania poet J.D. McClatchy who says: “All arts want to have their birth in music”. Music, according to McClatchy, is “the most godly of all the arts”.
Thinking about music and poetry, Becker talked about how both arts are able to bring back reminiscences: the idea of “memoire involuntaire”. As John H. Mace explains, these involuntary memories are “described in modern literature as instances in which memory comes to mind spontaneously, unintentionally, automatically, without effort” (2).
This was Becker’s introduction for Kim Cook who was to play Bach’s ‘Suite in G Major’. Becker also, however, read a poem: ‘Girl with Cello’ by May Sarton . Sarton was new to me; I am ashamed to say that I had not really come across Sarton’ poetry before, but I am really enjoying discovering her. (I was interested, for example, to discover that, like me, Sarton wrote a poem based on the Cluny Tapestries in Paris: ‘You are the lady woven into history. / Imagination is our bridal bed’.)
After the cellist had played, Becker presented some of her own poems, and many of these were about memory, the praise of song and nostalgia, as she indicated in her introduction.
There were many poems that looked back nostalgically (but without sentimentality) on Becker’s Jewish familiy life. ‘The New Egypt’ was a poem about Jewishness and acquisition. The poem is moving in its description of how the Jewish people had to learn difficult lessons in order to survive: the narrator’s inheritance is these lessons. I loved the closing lines where the narrator describes the necessity ‘to plant the self in the desert like an orange tree in the desert and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.
‘Too Jewish’ was more sinister, as Becker’s narrator described women correcting their noses, which were supposedly too big. Becker concludes: ‘In the name of love, we draw a blade across the beloved’s face.’
Many of Becker’s poems seemed to deal with loss. ‘Repair’ was a 9/11 poem, which fused a nostalgic view of Greenwich Village, New York, with a lost relationship: “our New York of the damaged, the irredeemable, beyond repair”.
This concern with loss extended itself beyond human worlds to the sphere of nature too. In the pantoum, ‘Bird of Prey’, Becker circled around the conflict between nature and building developments in Pennsylvania. Other poems praised nature, such as ‘Meeting the Gaze of the Great Horned Owl’, where Becker admits ‘I wanted that creature’s attention’. Switching for a moment to the gaze of the owl, the bird watches the human observer, seeing ‘something large straining to rise and failing’. Becker describes human failure as compared to the beauty and elegance of nature. Similarly, in ‘In Praise of the Bassett Hound’, Becker admires a sickly but enduring animal and all the ‘mute creatures in their green, dying skin’ (a phrase that recalls Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Fern Hill’).
Friendship in general is an important theme of Becker’s work, and often loss is redeemed by connections to other people, as in ‘Listening to Bach on Route 89’ or ‘Our Best Selves’. The narrators of Becker’s poems are wryly aware too of their failures in making or maintaining relationships. ‘The Roast Chicken’ is extremely moving in this respect, as an isolated narrator contemplates their own loneliness without self-dramatising illusions:
Mace, John H. (2007) ‘Involuntary Memory: Concept and Theory’ in Involuntary Memory, ed. John H. Mace, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 1-19.