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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Process

The other day I was lucky enough to trade a couple of pounds of a fine 4-bean espresso blend for a scanner, so I've been scanning things like the book covers, etc, in the previous post.

Something that constantly fascinates me when I look back through my notebooks are the small cumulative changes in various drafts of poems. So today I scanned some drafts of a poem from one of last year's notebooks. Below those images is the poem as it reads today.

note: click on images to enlarge








A Resolution (from the shrapnel of April)

To raise in May the willow’s froth of green
And the magnolia’s white white shatter

To ponder how your hands draw me (as the sun

Draws tulip shoots, forget-me-nots)

To hear close unseen, heavy wings

In the stir of light on water

Will we whisper under the spring-thin moon?
Will we whistle and lament?

I’ll unclench my hands for your sweet eyes,

I'll scald my tongue on you.

9 comments:

Gazetteer said...

Beautiful.

I see the first scan as the first time in the cage, maybe indoors, in deepest darkest January.

GM said...

You're so damn organized. My book is just line after line of notes and then I compose on the screen, drawing from the notes.

So I'll never have this progression thing, unless I collate all the various printouts and hand edits I do on each version.

I just can't just quality unless I see it in a serif font.

G

MackJohnny said...

Thanks, Ross. The first scan was after a 40 minute walk to work in May.

George, I think that's the first time in my life I've ever been accused of being organized. (I just find that doing it the way I do it helps when I start to overwork a poem — I can go back and see where I went off the rails.)

Brenda Schmidt said...

Your notebook certainly is neat, quite unlike the inked chaos that is mine.

ZW said...

A timely post for me, John. I'm somewheres between you and George. I usually hammer out a messy draft or two (or more if I'm away from home) on paper, occasionally working from notes, but usually not, then start mucking about on the computer, sometimes keeping versions, but more often than not losing track of what I changed when. I say timely for me because the last couple of days I've been making pretty substantial revisions to a poem I've been writing since 1998 ("Cormorant" from Fool's Errand. Maybe it's because it's one of the longest poems I've written, but I've had a helluva time finding the thing's finished form. This is the exception for me; most of the poems I'm happy with resolve themselves within 2-10 drafts--but most of the poems I'm happy with are between 4-20 lines.

In case anyone's curious, here's some variants over the years, including a prolix and now quite embarrassing early draft. Most of the poems I wrote back then I've abandoned, but this one keeps peckin away at me.

Z

Killing Birds (Jan. '99)

I was sitting on the dock
toes dangling in the water
when the black bird glided down
and flared before landing on the pond.

It was a cormorant.
I'd never seen one inland
before, so it took me a moment.
But it was a cormorant alright.

Knowing to keep an eye open
for fish-eating fowl,
I went into Dad's shop
to see what should be done.

He handed me the Crossman
and told me to scare the thing off.
I went back out proudly,
having been given a real target to shoot at.

Dad has always been protective
of his fish. He carved that pond
out of the soft red earth, watched it fill,
and stocked it full of rainbows.

And even though they all died out
and native speckled took their place,
they were still his trout, dammit!
His to feed, catch, and eat.

We used to receive regular visits
from Great Blue herons,
majestic monarchs of sea and air,
but, being birds, none too bright.

It wasn't their killing of trout
that bothered Dad. It was the wastage.
Herons have eyes too big for their gullets,
and left impaled speckled corpses floating in the shallows.

Those were Dad's trout, dammit!
so he borrowed a neighbour's shotgun.
When the heron came back, Dad
pulled the great blue king out of the sky.

He strung the corpse up high
in the green branches of the big spruce
because he'd heard it was the thing to do
to keep others from the pond.

Blue gave way to black
under the auburn glow of August,
and the monarch's once proud crown
became a nesting ground for blue-bottles.

The sight of it frightened me.
It was too high up to smell,
but I could smell it,
and the stench of it sickened me.

I couldn't say anything to Dad,
but he finally realized his
decomposing scarecrow was a blemish,
a fetid and malignant fetish.

He brought the stinking idol down
from its coniferous crucifixion,
and gave it proper burial
so the dogs couldn't pick its bones.

I thought of this as I walked out with the Crossman.
I hoped I could scare the cormorant off.
I waved my arms menacingly, and
yelled as I'd heard my father yell.

The cormorant floated placidly,
making of me a fool in my own eyes.
So I put the butt to my shoulder, lined up the sights,
and shot the bird right in its behind.

Startled, it flared its wings,
but instead of flying off, dove down,
disappeared in the cool hazy blue,
and resurfaced at the other end.

We played out all the scenes and acts
of a poorly written farce--
each one was the same as all the others--
until I gave up and went back inside.

Dad came out with red in his eyes.
He'd get rid of that goddam bird!
He put the canoe in the water,
and set out after his nemesis.

Every time he got close, the cormorant
dove and came up again at the other end.
I watched from the shore as the bird
made of my father a fool in his own eyes.

He beached the canoe angrily
and told me to shoot the thing.
I aimed and fired a pellet
right into the feathered breast.

"No, not the body."
I stared at him. He took the rifle
from me, loaded up, and aimed.
The pellet caught the cormorant in the neck.

This time it didn't dive.
Its body shuddered and only its head
made it into the protective water,
like an ostrich's in the sand.

It floated in the middle of the pond
and didn't seem to move.
My father went out in the canoe
to bring it back to land.

When he fished it out,
I saw it puke up yellow-green and bile rose
to the back of my own throat,
but I swallowed it down, bringing tears to my eyes.

Dad dropped it on the ground,
cloudy-eyed, but breathing.
"Only one thing we can do."
He brought the paddle crunching down.

He buried the stubborn black bird
so the dogs couldn't pick its bones.
The fish swam safely in the cool deep water,
and no more cormorants came.


A CORMORANT (Feb. 2004)

From the dock I watched it circle
slow, drop lower, flare, then plop
onto the pond’s calm water:
cormorant; crow duck; sea raven;
lawyer; nigger goose; shag;
Phalacrocorax Auritus, this black
omen, wonted haunter of tide flats,
beaches, wharves, (perched
on channel stakes, wings out-
spread), left its castle of sticks
and shit to harry tame trout. I knew
Father would want it out; he forgave
no trespassers poaching his stock,
had even, with a neighbour’s
shotgun, brought down a Great
Blue, tied its carcass high in the tall pine
by the pond, a lesson to would-be
interlopers to leave be what they can’t
well swallow. (The average trout, see,
is more than a mouthful for herons
to down. So the toothless bird, stilted
in shallows, speared rainbows
and left their corpses to bloat.) As a memo
this was an ephemeral flop. The heron
started to stink and rot up there
on its conifer cross—poor fisher
king!—feathers fell from its blackened
skin. Father cut the withered monarch
down and buried it in compost
where the dogs wouldn’t worry its bones—

This crow-duck was clearly unwelcome. I whooped and yelped as best I could,
but to a lone cormorant, inured by constant
combat with gulls, terns, gannets and whatnot,
such a wretched show of aggression
was a deterrent as effective as water.
It ignored me, floated there calmly, placid,
oblivious.
I went in to Father’s shop
and got the Crossman off its hook—
back on the dock, butt squared
to my shoulder, sights aligned, I pulled,
and plunked the dumb thing
in the rump. It half-lifted and extended
its wings—and didn’t fly off, but dove
down into the water, popped up
at the opposite end of the pond.
Thus began a boring poorly-penned
farce—each scene a carbon copy—
as I nagged that damn shag
from one end of the pond
to the other, tagging its backside
with lead.
I gave up and went in— Father came out grim-faced, launched
our tin canoe and shoved off after
his uninvited guest.
This play had the same
inept author (each time Father drew
near, the lawyer dove and bobbed up
in a different spot), Father acting the part
of the gull. He beached, beet-red, said
shoot the goddamn thing. I fired a pellet
smack in its breast—it dove and popped up.
Father grabbed the toy gun, loaded,
took aim, pulled, and caught
the cormorant flush in the neck. Its head
jerked down, but the bird didn’t dive.
Father scooped the wounded thing
with his paddle-blade. It puked
mustardy stuff, guano streamed
from its anus. Bile rose in my throat
but I swallowed. Back on land, he beat it
dead with the paddle. We buried the sodden
black bird in compost to keep the dogs
from its bones, and no more cormorants
came to our pond.


A CORMORANT (Apr. 04)

From the dock I watched it circle slow,
drop lower, flare, then plop
onto the pond’s calm water:
cormorant; crow duck; sea raven;
lawyer; nigger goose; shag;
Phalacrocorax Auritus, this black
omen, wonted haunter of tideflats,
beaches, wharves, (perched on channel
stakes, wings outspread), left
its castle of sticks and shit to harry
tame trout. I knew Father
would want it out; he forgave no
trespassers poaching his stock, had even,
with a neighbour’s shotgun, brought down
a Great Blue, tied its carcass
high in the tall pine by the pond,
to teach would-be interlopers
not to kill what they can’t well swallow.
(The average trout, see, is more than
a mouthful for herons to down. The toothless
bird, stilted in shallows, speared
rainbows, abandoned to bloat and float.)
As a memo this was an ephemeral flop.
The heron started to stink and rot
up there on its conifer cross—poor fisher
king!—feathers fell from its blackened
skin. Father cut the withered
monarch down to bury in compost
where the dogs wouldn’t worry its bones—

This crow-duck was clearly unwelcome. I whooped and yelped as best I could,
but to a lone cormorant, inured by constant
combat with gulls, terns, gannets
and whatnot, such a wretched deterrent
proved no better than water. It shunned
me, floated there calmly, placid, oblivious.

I got the Crossman off its hook
in Father’s shop. Back on the dock,
butt squared to my shoulder, sights
aligned, I pulled and plunked the dumb
thing in the rump. It half-lifted, extended
its wings—and didn’t fly off, but dove
down into the water, bobbed up
at the opposite end of the pond. Thus
began a boring poorly-penned
farce—each scene a carbon copy—
as I nagged that damn shag from one end
of the pond to the other, tagging its backside
with lead.

I gave up and went in—Father
came out grim-faced, launched our tin
canoe in pursuit of his unwanted guest.
This play had the same inept author
(at Father’s approach, the lawyer plunged
and popped up well astern), Father
acting the part of the gull. He beached,
beet-red, said shoot that goddamn
thing. I fired a pellet smack
in its breast—it dove and popped up.
Father grabbed the toy gun,
loaded, pulled, and caught the bird
flush in the neck. Its head jerked
down, but the bird didn’t dive. Father
scooped the wounded thing with his paddle-
blade. It puked mustardy stuff,
guano streamed from its anus. Bile
rose in my throat but I swallowed.
Back on land, he beat it dead
with the paddle. We buried the sodden black
bird in compost to keep the dogs
from its bones, and no more cormorants
troubled the peace of our pond.


CORMORANT (revised Aug. 05)

From the dock I watched it circle slow, drop
lower, flare, then plop onto the pond’s calm
water: this cormorant, crow duck, sea raven;
this lawyer, nigger goose, shag; this devil
in life’s tree devouring time, this hook-beaked
black archaic bolt of snake-necked death,
this wonted haunter of tide flats, beaches,
wharves—perched on stakes, wet sable wings spread
like a fabulous cape—this one left its castle
of sticks and shit to harry tame trout.

I knew Father would want it out; he forgave
no trespassers poaching his stock, had even,
with a neighbour’s shotgun, brought down a Great
Blue, tied its carcass high in the tall pine
by the pond, a lesson to would-be
interlopers to leave be what they can’t
well swallow. (The trout, you see, were more than
the heron’s gullet could handle, too much
for its instincts and eyes to resist, so
the toothless bird, stilted in shallows, scissor-
speared rainbows and left their corpses to bloat.)

This crucifixion was an ephemeral
flop. The heron started to stink and rot
up there on its conifer cross—poor fisher
king!—feathers fell from its blackened skin. Father
cut the withered monarch down and buried
its ragged remains where the dogs wouldn’t
worry the peace of its bones—

This crow-duck was thus unwelcome. I whooped
and yelped as best I could, but to a lone
cormorant, inured by constant combat
with gulls, terns, gannets and whatnot, such wretched
aggressive show deterred the bird no better
than water. It ignored me, floated there
calmly, placid, oblivious.

I went
in to Father’s workshop and got the Crossman
off its hook.
Back on the dock, butt shoulder-
squared, sights aligned, I pulled, and plunked the dumb thing
in the rump. It half-lifted, water-walked
and spread its herald wings—then didn’t fly,
but dove into the teeming trouthouse, popped
up at the pond’s far end. Thus began a dull
and poorly-penned farce—each scene a carbon
copy—as I nagged that damn shag from one
end of the slough to the other, tagging
its backside with lead.

I gave up and went in— Father emerged grim-faced, launched our tin
canoe and shoved off after our guest.
This play
had the same inept author (each time Father
drew near, the lawyer submerged and emerged
in a different spot), Father acting the part
of the gull. He beached, his face blotched red, his
blue eyes flashing death. Shoot the goddamned thing,
he said. I fired a pellet smack in its breast—
it subbed again. Father grabbed the toy gun,
loaded, cocked, took aim, pulled, and caught the crooked
neck. The head jerked down, but the body bobbed.

With his paddle’s blade, Father scooped up
the floating shroud. It puked mustardy stuff,
guano streamed from its anus. Bile rose
in my throat, I choked—and I swallowed.
He bludgeoned it dead with the paddle.

We buried the sodden black bird in compost
to keep the dogs from its bones, and no more
cormorants troubled the peace of our pond.

MackJohnny said...

That's a short story, Zach, not a poem. Try it as prose, it feels way too forced in the form it's in.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Zach, I think it would work wonderfully in the form of a prose poem, though this certainly works. Are the last four lines necessary? They're a bit summary-like and somewhat constrictive, closing the poem too tightly. The poem would be far more powerful if it ended with "and I swallowed."

ZW said...

Thanks, Brenda, that's an enormously helpful suggestion.

I've thought about prose for this piece, and it's something I've done with other narrative poems that weren't working for me in verse, but the "forced" aspect you identify, John, is I think something that has to be maintained--tho I'd identify it as "heightened artificiality"--as a formal perquisite of this particular poem. And it's something that can only be maintained in verse. Anyone know Jeffers' long narrative poem "Roan Stallion"? I'm not saying I think my still-unfinished piece is in the same league as it, but like mine RS is a highly artificial, heavily symbolic, poem. It's a short story, too, but really couldn't be told in anything but Jeffers' relentless long line. Jeffers kind of bugs me sometimes, but there's this unapologetic raw archetypal power in his best stuff (and RS is definitely one of his finest) too--a power that would be neutered I think if the "flaws" of his style were ironed. So anyway, I'm aware of the "risks" (awful term) my poem takes--similar risks, but in a different direction, to the ones John's poem takes--but I think ultimately it's worth it. Or at least I hope it will be if I ever finish writing the goddamn thing.

Anyway, sorry for taking over the thread, eh.

Anonymous said...

Hi, why oh why do i like the first, (is this the embarrassing one?) version best?

Yvette