Humbling Back


Of the several fine stanzas submitted to close our Canto, I chose Berwyn Moore’s:

But now you humble back, the music lost
along the bank, the horses chuffing clouds,
caves quiet. Your gypsy soul sighs almost,
almost—but we all descend, don’t we, cowed
by hunger, thinning hair, and years varicosed
with backfired plans. Let’s rest, let’s disavow
our pockets of bone, voices from the past.
Let’s sink into our own delight at last.

Moore’s stanza deftly echoes and intertwines motifs from throughout our canto. In a footnote, she credits W. B. Yeats, and her stanza’s dramatization of how human frailty can engender wisdom is indeed Yeatsian—as demonstrated by Yeats’s own “Men Improve with the Years,” that begins: “I am worn out with dreams” and ends this way:

Delighted to be but wise,
For men improve with the years;
And yet, and yet,
Is this my dream, or the truth?
O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!
But I grow old among dreams,
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams.

The complete poem can be found here.

In its “almost,  / almost,” Moore’s stanza shares Yeats’s lament for the energy of youth—and the realization that his dreams rest with him, permanent though worn. Moore’s gift for images: the “horses chuffing clouds,” her deft transformation of noun to verb: “years varicosed / with backfired plans” fuse body and soul, leading to triumphant rest. Resignation turns to hard-won happiness.

Second place is a three-way tie between stanzas by Jordan Sanderson, Charise Hoge, and Patricia Smith. Here is Sanderson’s:

The sun did its rising while we packed.
We needed to get on the road, but it
Would not have us. The bees were distracted.
We tried to dress, but our clothes did not fit.
Honey combed our mouths, kept us off track.
The directions were lost in a postscript.
By the river we found a saxophone.
Inside it were new bodies, a new home.

The closing image is astonishing in the way it returns all the strivings of the poem to what might well be judged its start: the instrument that voices genius music from an obscure interior.

Here is Charise Hoge’s stanza:

A faded bloom deserts its host, descends
below; falsetto notes cascading there.
A praying mantis our lamenting rends
unnecessary. Restlessness of air
drops chatter crumbling trail around a bend
… where I am sleeping in a shelter. Bare
and seasoned feet will rest a thousand nights
off pavement sheets, by forte rise to write.

These lines voice our canto’s notes of necessary and natural loss, gracefully reprising melodies: the “seasoned feet” that have renounced shoes, the “thousand nights” of ancient stories that redeem the future, the impetuous strength of art.

Smith’s stanza serves as an eloquent farewell letter to our canto, now complete:

No one proclaimed, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”
Come join our caravan of dreams, yes, do.
Find dimensions and spaces till now unknown.
There are fences to scale, grand vistas to view,
connections to craft—create them just so—
and cadenced stops to orchestrate too.
Our journey now over, must such good things end?
Our spirits elated as our stanzas blend.

Here is our canto, its provisional title made permanent:

Caravan of Dreams

The trip begins without a sign that’s hung.
The mark may lie within your palm a line
a psychic knew before your time was sung.
She saw the span of dissonance: you pine
to scale a chart, depart where others clung;
refuse the map, forget reviews unkind.
My year of birth your cry of “Something Else!!!!”
A gypsy soul keeps nothing on the shelf.
(Charise Hoge)

Refuse the map. Forego the sturdy shoes.
Shrug off the ragged water of the past.
Your antipodal star riffs like the blues.
Step double-time across the bones and vast
landscapes of asphalt and stubble. He woos
you still, and waits, declares he’ll be the last.
His words flutter like ashes in the wind.
For once, run away, free, undisciplined.
(Berwyn Moore)

The sky was appaloosa, the town paint.
The electric train plucked by, and the sky
Was bone, and the wind fluted through its flank.
We emerged like half-notes from a horn sighed
Onto the slick stave of the riverbank,
Where even in our rapture we were shy.
A song yanked at our mouths like a bit.
Stampeding, we embraced its roan beat.
(Jordan Sanderson)

Accelerato, adagio—our soul
vacillating, forever wondering
what movement or coda might make the whole
emerge as that resolute rendering.
Welcoming transformations—staccato,
legato—all the while probing dreams
dreamed in the depths of our mind and heart,
curious—Are we ending … where to start?
(Patricia Smith)

We said things like, “That’s some beautiful land,”
Before we dreamed we were awake. We said,
“Caves are rhetorical questions about lost hands.”
“Descent is the last good word,” we chanted.
Up the road, an ice cream truck played canned
Music. Its shrill sweetness went to our heads.
Ants gravitated to the melting song.
We trailed after them. We could not go wrong.
(Jordan Sanderson)

But now you humble back, the music lost
along the bank, the horses chuffing clouds,
caves quiet. Your gypsy soul sighs almost,
almost—but we all descend, don’t we, cowed
by hunger, thinning hair, and years varicosed
with backfired plans. Let’s rest, let’s disavow
our pockets of bone, voices from the past.
Let’s sink into our own delight at last.
(Berwyn Moore)

Thank you, Lord Byron, for the enduring design that guided us. And thank you, poets, for banding together for our caravansary, in which (to quote one of Paul Michelsen’s fine stanzas from this week) “the words that we heard flew away like birds, and the birds that we heard flew away like words.”

For next week, let’s try a briefer project, one that I call “poemization.” Often we’ve seen a story or novel re-emerge as a film. What if the process were taken in an opposite direction, with prose compressed to poetry? In audience size, this might mean diminishment—but in audience quality, perhaps the opposite. I consider this activity principally a homage to the original and rightful author, but also an experiment in accelerating a narrative’s trajectory. I’ve done this with (or to) a number of Anton Chekhov’s stories (as translated by Constance Garnett). “The Lady with the Pet Dog” begins this way:

Once I’d seduced her, there was no hurry.
I cut a slice of watermelon, ate it deliberately.
Afterwards we walked on the esplanade,
her white dog trotting behind us.
The shore seemed dead. A single boat rocking
a sleepy light, the sea’s muffled sound,

What begins as casual summer seduction becomes something much larger, outfacing and supplanting the speaker’s home life—his wife and son—and driving him towards the woman whom he now recognizes as no mere distraction, but his one true love. He travels to the woman’s town, tracks her to an opera house. Here are my version’s last two stanzas:

At intermission Anna’s husband went out
and I approached, said “Good Evening.”
She sat staring—I stood, afraid
to sit down beside her. Together we jumped
at the blast a horn made tuning up. She rose
and hurried toward an exit. I followed, past
chests wearing badges, racks of jumbled
fur coats, the smell of stale
tobacco, a dozen bored conversations.
At the last place in the world, the entrance
to a narrow, gloomy staircase, she stopped
and we kissed, like man and wife,
like tender friends.

This is how we found ourselves in love
with no escape, the end still far
from our reach.

(The entire poem can be found in my collection, Possession, published by Red Hen.)

For next week, I propose that you “poemize” (or begin to poemize) a novel or short story. Do this in 20 lines or less, in verse formal or free or somewhere in between. Be sure to identify the text that you are working from. Submit your efforts no later than midnight Eastern Time on Saturday, August 29.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Angela Ball is a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of five poetry collections, including, most recently, Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds.


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