Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Daily Poem Project, Week 5

This week's vote for the Daily Poem Project took place this morning (Tuesday, May 9). The poems in question were those on Poetry Daily from Tuesday, May 2, to Monday, May 8.

This was another close vote, but with only two poems in contention: "Thighs," by C. K. Williams, was in first place with seven votes, while "Swimming in the Woods," by Robin Robertson, came in a close second with six votes. They thus garnered the majority of the votes between them; the other five poems received a total of nine votes in all. "Fragment," by A. E. Stallings, from week 1, remains the only poem to have won an absolute majority of the votes for its week. (This week, I also especially enjoyed Christian Wiman's "The Secret" and Timothy Steele's "Starr Farm Beach"; the latter's reference to swifts is a joy to this swift-watcher.)

The poems by Williams and Robertson are astonishingly different. Robertson's title captures quite a bit of its paradoxical, almost surreal power; in fact, it is short enough to quote the whole poem here:

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun re-made her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

The poem moves from a rather concrete image described through metaphor (the light flickering through the leaves onto the woman's body makes her appear to be moving through water) to several other relationships between woman, woods, and water in such a short space that it is dizzying. I found myself gasping with the vertiginous speed with which the wood goes from literal to figurative and the water goes from figurative to literal, with at least one allusion to classical metamorphosis dropped in for good measure. It was that gasp that convinced me to vote for this poem.

I also gave "Thighs" serious consideration, though: Williams eloquently and vividly (even painfully) juxtaposes two thigh injuries: one to an unidentified NBA player with "a 'Charley-horse,' we called it when I played, it did hurt,"; the other to "a taxi driver in Afghanistan, a small man, five-two, arrested by mistake, hung by his wrists, and . . . / tortured" (yes, Williams's lines are that long). The taxi driver died as a result of being tortured (I found some information about this death on the web); the NBA star returned to the next game and was at "eighty percent."

Williams handles this challenging and provocative material skillfully; the long lines work very well, and he balances the poem's five stanzas by beginning and ending with ones about the basketball player, with three poems about the taxi driver in between. If I did not vote for it, it was because of that gasp at the end of Robertson's; in a sense, "Thighs" is an exceptionally strong poem, but it also seemed a bit predictable, and hence less successful. As I wrote in my notes before the vote: as a document, it is excellent; as a poem, it is very, very good.

Still, as with Abraham Sutzkever's poem in week three, I was not surprised that this poem won the vote: Williams has some incredibly powerful material here, and he has handled it with tact and precision. As I wrote about Sutzkever: "It's hard to beat a poem that takes on such issues in such a grounded, memorable way."

Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)

No comments: