Forum
Community Forum
Today's Posts
FAQ & Rules
Members List

Writing
Writing Forum
Recent Posts
Critique Guidelines

Groups
YWO Social Groups
Facebook
Myspace

Chat
 
YWA

Register

Store
Support YWO
YWO Merchandise
The Book Despository
Amazon.com (US)
Amazon.co.uk (UK)
Amazon.ca (Canada)

SBS Mag


Reply
 
Thread Tools
Old 06-16-2014, 12:05 AM View Post #1 (Link) AoP 3: Deborah Digges and the art of contrast in "Vesper Sparrows"
Isis (Offline)
Global Moderator
 
Isis's Avatar
 
Join Date: Dec 2009
Location: Boulder, CO
Posts: 1,732
Points: 30
Times Thanked: 355
It’s been a long time since I did an Art of Poetry discussion, so if you’re not sure what’s going on in this thread, check out the intro to the Art Of series. Then come back and discuss the poem with us!

----

Deborah Digges, 1950 - 2009

I think that the bio for Deborah Digges on The Poetry Foundation website does way more justice than I can do, so I’m just going to quote some below (and link the rest here) and hope that will satisfy the curious, the context-seekers, the biography lovers:

Poet Deborah Digges was born Deborah Leah Sugarbaker in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1950. The sixth of ten children, Digges grew up accompanying her oncologist father on his rounds, as well as visiting a women’s prison where her mother taught religion. Her poetry often recounts episodes from her childhood, as well as her experiences as a young wife and mother. According to James Naiden, who wrote a long appreciation of Digges in Rain Taxi, “Digges is a wanderer in her past, and in those of her many siblings—‘Four brothers. Six sisters.’—and from this draws much material for poems.” But Digge’s poetry is also concerned with the natural world; in her careful lyrics, finely wrought metaphors trace the experience of perception and understanding one’s place in a world of animal and vegetable life.
---

A Sunday interrupted by sparrows

I want to start this discussion with the kind of stuff that should probably go into my journal. Yesterday I was missing home a little bit and Googled “ New York movies Netflix”, knowing that 1) the search engine would read my mind and know what I wanted and 2) that someone else on the internet had thought about great New York movies, gone scrolling through Netflix, and made a list. The internet loves lists. I’m lucky that any time I feel a little homesick I can get just enough of home to be happy I don’t live there right now. And not from my mom’s black and white dog postcards (though I love those too) but from great art and goofy art, high art and low art. No art captures the exact place I grew up. Filmmakers don’t care about the exurbs. That’s what I make art for. But lots of people, viewers and filmmakers, care about New York City, and when I’m bummed out in Colorado that’s enough.

And it’s funny how very disparate works of art play off each other. Last night I watched a dark New York movie about a city that no longer exists, the city when it was Gotham in the 70s and not the Metropolis it is now. And today, flipping through the poetry collection Vesper Sparrows by Deborah Digges, I was caught by the titular poem because of it’s subject (birds, which I love), and a flash of the East River.

It’s also a poem that sent me to the dictionary (or rather, Google again), because though “Vesper sparrows” sounds fantastic – say it out loud! – I wasn’t sure what it literally means. Only what it feels like. It turns out that vesper can point to evening or evening star (from Latin) or perhaps evening prayers, or the bell calling the town to evening prayer. The Vesper sparrow is so named not for its coloration but because it sings in the evening. Sadly, it is not one of the species of sparrow that I once learned to tell apart from the others.

There were a number of moments in the poem that made me feel like the title did, where words were doing more than I expected them to. That’s part of why the poem pulled me in when I focused on it. Just from the beginning familiar words do new things to create an image:

I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine
“Sheathe themselves mid-air” makes the motion of the birds closing up and diving sound elegant and dangerous and calls our attention to how amazing it is. What a feat it sounds like! And to think of a living thing as a sheath for itself, the thing that keeps itself from killing or slicing. Similarly, “ride the light’s poor spine” makes me think not of light rays in the dust but of the white cloud-trails of airplane tracks heading down towards the horizon, and the birds riding it like surfers in a poem about being a teenager. This poem showed me something new in two lines. I hope it shows you something new too.

And with that intro, I’ll let the poem speak for itself from here on out:

Vesper Sparrows
Deborah Digges

Spoiler:


I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine

to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed
urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.

From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried
up the East River to Potter’s Field

as if they were an inheritance,
gleaned of saveable parts,

their diseases jarred and labeled, or incinerated,
the ashes of metastisized vision

professing the virus that lives beyond the flesh
in air ...


............... The first time I saw the inside of anything
alive, a downed bird opened cleanly

under my heel. I knelt
to watch the spectral innards shine and quicken,

the heart-whir magnify.
And though I can’t say now what kind of bird it was,

nor the season, spring or autumn, what
dangerous transition,

I have identified so many times that sudden
earnest spasm of the throat in children,

or in the jaundiced faces of the dying,
the lower eye-lids straining upward.

Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us maternal.

Even the sparrows feel it,
nesting this evening in traffic lights.

They must have remembered, long enough to mate,
woods they’ve never seen,

but woods inbred up the long light of instinct,
the streaked siennas of a forest floor

born now into the city,
the oak umbers, and the white tuft

of tail feathers like a milkweed meadow
in which their song, as Burroughs heard it,


could be distinguished:
come-come-where-where-all-together-

down-the-hill ...

here, where every history is forfeited,

where the same names of the different dead greet
each other and commingle

above the hospital’s heaps of garbage.
From the ward windows, fingerprinted,

from the iron-grated ledges,
hundreds flock down for the last feed of the day

and carry off into the charitable dusk what
cannot be digested.



Discussion

1. The poem starts out with a beautiful, wild image – I think we can all agree there is beauty in the first three lines of the poem. But does it stay beautiful? What would you call the surprise of the contrast between the first image of the sparrows sheathing themselves and the next images, the “rainbowed/ urine of suicides”, the “ransacked cadavers”, the virus, the flesh? Is there beauty in that contrast, and what happens to the more conventionally beautiful images next to the stuff we usually don’t want to see? Where else does this sort of contrast occur in the poem, and what do you think about those sections?

2. As I mentioned in my intro to this poem, the tight language at the beginning does more than make me imagine sparrows flying over the city. Where else do single verbs or images surprise you? Where does the word choice sing? Make you envious? And why? What magic is that one word doing to the poem?

3. I keep returning to these lines:
Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us maternal.
It feels like a hinge in the poem to me, a hinge that I don’t, or can’t, totally understand. How does this tie into the other elements of the poem? What insights do you glean from these lines, or what trains of thought do these lines fire up? I’m curious not so much about conclusions because I don’t have any, but about where these lines make you go, or how you go about connecting them to the rest of the poem. If you happen to have conclusions, though, please share with the rest of the class. We could use it, I think.

4. The poem mentions Burroughs, a late 19th/early 20th century naturalist with an interest in birds, art, and poetry. The bird literature apparently credits Burroughs with naming the species Vesper sparrows, though he got the idea from somebody else. He also wrote an a propos essay titled Birds and Poets, which you can read here. Here’s the opening of the essay, which is what I want to discuss:

It might almost be said that the birds are all birds of the poets and of no one else, because it is only the poetical temperament that fully responds to them. So true is this, that all the great ornithologists—original namers and biographers of the birds—have been poets in deed if not in word.
How do you think this poem fits in with traditions of writing about or describing the natural world? And why do you think many poets reach for birds as a common and beloved image or metaphor?


Further Reading

1. This poem seemed of a piece with a different poem that I read earlier today, and reminded me of a favorite poem that I haven’t read in years. So I’m going to just leave them both here with the hope that somebody likes them. Discussion on connections between “Vesper Sparrows” and these poems would be excellent should anybody feel like it:

Mockingbird by Julie Kane

Spoiler:
That mockingbird could make me paranoid,
the way he's always got his eyes on me
(as if he were a cop in an unmarked car)
from hidden stakeouts in the dogwood tree.
He wants to be the first to grab the chunks
of desiccated fruit from millet seeds;
like Pavlov's dog inside a feather-suit,
he's learned that I appear before he feeds.
I wonder, does he ever take a break,
relax his vigil, watch the butterflies?
Some nights I wake and shudder in my bed,
imagining those fixed, unblinking eyes,
or flash back suddenly to 21,
a pretty girl in crosshairs of a gun.


The Delicate, Plummeting Bodies by Stephen Dobyns

Spoiler:
A great cry went up from the stockyards and
slaughterhouses, and Death, tired of complaint
and constant abuse, withdrew to his underground garage.
He was still young and his work was a torment.
All over, their power cut, people stalled like street cars.
Their gravity taken away, they began to float.
Without buoyancy, they began to sink. Each person
became a single darkened room. The small hand
pressed firmly against the small of their backs
was suddenly gone and people swirled to a halt
like petals fallen from a flower. Why hurry?
Why get out of bed? People got off subways,
on subways, off subways all at the same stop.
Everywhere clocks languished in antique shops
as their hands composed themselves in sleep.
Without time and decay, people grew less beautiful.
They stopped eating and began to study their feet.
They stopped sleeping and spent weeks following stray dogs.
The first to react were remnants of the church.
They falsified miracles: displayed priests posing
as corpses until finally they sneezed or grew lonely.
Then governments called special elections to choose those
to join the ranks of the volunteer dead: unhappy people
forced to sit in straight chairs for weeks at a time.
Interest soon dwindled. Then the army seized power
and soldiers ran through the street dabbling the living
with red paint. You're dead, they said. Maybe
tomorrow, people answered, today we're just breathing:
look at the sky, look at the color of the grass.
For without Death each color had grown brighter,
At last a committee of businessmen met together,
because with Death gone money had no value.
They went to where Death was waiting in a white room,
and he sat on the floor and looked like a small boy
with pale blond hair and eyes the color of clear water.
In his lap was a red ball heavy with the absence of life.
The businessmen flattered him. We will make you king,
they said. I am king already, Death answered. We will
print your likeness on all the money of the world.
It is there already, Death answered. We adore you
and will not live without you, the businessmen said.
Death said, I will consider your offer.

How Death was restored to his people:

At first the smallest creatures began to die--
bacteria and certain insects. No one noticed. Then fish
began to float to the surface; lizards and tree toads
toppled from sun-warmed rocks. Still no one saw them.
Then birds began tumbling out of the air,
and as sunlight flickered on the blue feathers
of the jay, brown of the hawk, white of the dove,
then people lifted their heads and pointed to the sky
and from the thirsty streets cries of welcome rose up
like a net to catch the delicate and plummeting bodies.




2. Another bird poem from the same collection that I really enjoyed: Darwin’s Finches

3. And for the interested, ”Pulled by the hair: Deborah Digges and the power of myth”, and essay/review on Deborah Digges as a poet, teacher, and mentor by one of her former students.

4. Similarly, you could read more in this review/rememberance in Rain Taxi.
  
						Last edited by Isis; 06-16-2014 at 12:13 AM.
					
					Reply With Quote
Old 06-16-2014, 08:59 PM View Post #2 (Link)
lalodragon (Offline)
Global Moderator
 
lalodragon's Avatar
 
Join Date: Jan 2011
Location: To the laboratory!
Posts: 1,982
Points: 30
Times Thanked: 193
I really like the ending. That's a shining spot, I finally start to see what the poem was headed for, and how the birds and hospital and city connect.
But other than that... I think I should like the poem, its medical references, the downed bird, and I don't I don't I don't. I took this book out of the library in spring thinking that, from her bio and titles and certain images, I would love this. And I returned it after just a few poems because it left me cold. I get nothing from Digges.
Try to say why, but I'm unsure myself.

I feel nothing special towards birds, and I've spent little time in any city. So I feel disconnected-- in the section on 'nesting in traffic lights', what should I be feeling? worried, nostalgic? 'birds belong in the woods'? Sad and unhappy, I know that. In fact the dusky sadness of the poem grates on me. I can hear that sadness but I can't feel it, like a customer complaining to me at work (and I nod and hurry them out), like butter spread too thin and I don't even want to eat that toast.

The second line has a beautiful cadence. I don't get anything from the first three lines, though, but what they say: small greybrown birds landing on the gutters. Blame me for not watching birds enough. I don't think the first three lines are beautiful, though they're very well-crafted, pretty, they sound well-- they should be so beautiful.

The line and stanza breaks cut up the imagery for me. I had to read the poem three times before it hung together: once as I normally read, once painfully carefully trying to ignore the breaks, and once tightroping between. This alone could account for my dislike, it's so stressful!
Line breaks weren't, for once, as troubling as stanza breaks. I like the idea of couplets but more like a ghazal: pearls on a string, a digestible chunk. In this poem I felt like the couplets made it too long, and broke it up. Each image covers so much space on the page, nothing is coherent, nothing is powerful. Does this bother anyone else?
Spoiler:
It's especially prevalent in this section:
Even the sparrows feel it,
nesting this evening in traffic lights.

They must have remembered, long enough to mate,
woods they’ve never seen,

but woods inbred up the long light of instinct,
the streaked siennas of a forest floor

born now into the city,
the oak umbers, and the white tuft

of tail feathers like a milkweed meadow
in which their song, as Burroughs heard it,


could be distinguished:
come-come-where-where-all-together-

down-the-hill ...
which gets this quadruple-whammy. I don't have strong connections to birds or the city but I see birds as part of the city, and I'm not sure what to feel here (regret that the city exists?). Then the image is spread so long, so broken, that I never see the whole thing. And, meanwhile, being situated by the hinge (see below) ensures I'm confused from the start.

Fear needs its metaphors.
I’ve read small helplessnesses make us maternal.
In contrast, the hinge you mentioned, unexplained. I see it there like a brick. I can pick it up and pound at it and sprinkle it out over the rest of the poem-- yes I see helplessness, I'm not entirely sure about fear. I don't connect the metaphors to dying children, but then I suppose the birds are metaphors for children, something? The hinge seems to be in the wrong place. It doesn't reference the lines around it.
Even the sparrows feel it,
nesting this evening in traffic lights.
When 'small helplessnesses make us maternal' the 'small helplessnesses' then become 'it' which makes the birds maternal-- what is 'it'? Not their helpless babies, if 'it' caused them to nest in the first place. So what is the vague helplessness coming from, that permeates the poem?

This poem frustrates me so much. God. It's technically perfect, it deals with the right things, it's got this fashionable sadness and maybe a back-to-nature kick, and I do not connect with it at all. Does it lack a human touch, maybe? The hospital patients who finger the windows are ghosts or corpses, and they are the only human thing in the poem.
It's not only that, though. Nothing in this poem reaches out to me at all. It's a locked grey door and it's infinitely frustrating.
  
						Last edited by lalodragon; 06-16-2014 at 09:05 PM.
					
					Reply With Quote
Old 06-21-2014, 04:20 PM View Post #3 (Link)
Isis (Offline)
Global Moderator
 
Isis's Avatar
 
Join Date: Dec 2009
Location: Boulder, CO
Posts: 1,732
Points: 30
Times Thanked: 355
Man, I admire the care with which you read and take apart poems - I always learn something from reading your analysis, even if (especially if) it's wildly different from how I read or felt about the poem.
Originally Posted by lalodragon View Post
I feel nothing special towards birds, and I've spent little time in any city. So I feel disconnected-- in the section on 'nesting in traffic lights', what should I be feeling? worried, nostalgic? 'birds belong in the woods'? Sad and unhappy, I know that. In fact the dusky sadness of the poem grates on me. I can hear that sadness but I can't feel it, like a customer complaining to me at work (and I nod and hurry them out), like butter spread too thin and I don't even want to eat that toast.
This is a really understandable and sort of poetic description of what you felt while reading.

I think I might be feeling the wrong thing (if that's possible?) in response to images like "nesting in traffic lights". It's some symbol of helplessness or of dying, possibly, the sparrows out of place, especially after the previous section of the poem and after the hinge. But I tend to see that as life perversely asserting itself. It bums me out to see animals try to adapt to the massive changes we've forced upon their environments, especially because so many get pushed out in the process, but I always feel sort of satisfied and excited when a few succeed and manage to squeeze out a living in paved-over environments. I definitely bring that to the poem, and I'm probably interpreting a bunch of the images as less melancholy than intended.


Originally Posted by lalodragon View Post
Line breaks weren't, for once, as troubling as stanza breaks. I like the idea of couplets but more like a ghazal: pearls on a string, a digestible chunk. In this poem I felt like the couplets made it too long, and broke it up. Each image covers so much space on the page, nothing is coherent, nothing is powerful. Does this bother anyone else?
Spoiler:
It's especially prevalent in this section:which gets this quadruple-whammy. I don't have strong connections to birds or the city but I see birds as part of the city, and I'm not sure what to feel here (regret that the city exists?). Then the image is spread so long, so broken, that I never see the whole thing. And, meanwhile, being situated by the hinge (see below) ensures I'm confused from the start.
In some sections I think the couplets work well - I like how they break up the images at the beginning of the poem and create some surprises and contrasts. I think that happens most clearly here:
love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine

to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed
urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.

From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried
up the East River to Potter’s Field

as if they were an inheritance,
gleaned of saveable parts,

their diseases jarred and labeled, or incinerated,
the ashes of metastisized vision

professing the virus that lives beyond the flesh
in air ...
It's not just the thing in the first three lines that I mentioned above, but sort of unexpected elaborations on the cadavers carried, their fate, what is carried away afterwards.

But I also had trouble with the section you quoted, partly because of the transition into the italic quotes/birdsong. Re-reading that section now I feel like it's still not clicking in my head, like I'm getting moments of the image but not the whole thing at once, and I don't think it's the hangover making that happen. It might be the way the sentence is broken up both by commas into many clauses and by stanzas into many breaths. I don't think the same sort of tumbling confusion would happen if the sentence were simpler, grammatically (even if it were as long).

Also, I feel like now I need to go and comb through a bunch of my couplet-poems to make sure that kind of image-confusion doesn't happen!

I'm really interested in discussing this more:
Originally Posted by lalodragon View Post
I don't think the first three lines are beautiful, though they're very well-crafted, pretty, they sound well-- they should be so beautiful.
When does something go from being well-crafted to beautiful? Is there one of those that works better in a poem, drives a poem forward better?
  Reply With Quote
Reply
Thread Tools

 


All times are GMT. The time now is 08:09 PM.
Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7 - Copyright ©2000 - 2017, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.
All writing Copyright © its author(s). All other material Copyright © 2007-2012 Young Writers Online unless otherwise specified.
Managed by Andrew Kukwa (Andy) and Shaun Duke (Shaun) from The World in the Satin Bag. Design by HTWoRKS.