Full disclosure: I’m not a great fan of poetry. There are those poems, often read long ago, that have embedded themselves in my mind, whose rhythms come to me at the oddest times. They’re a motley lot. Some of them, like Chesterton’s “Lepanto” or Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” I know I oughtn’t to like. But I do.
Or one of my favorites:
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table …
Should I be so fond of T.S. Eliot? I know he wouldn’t have liked me. (His anti-Semitism is notorious.) Yet at times, before the Internet made nearly everything you wanted to read instantly available, I’ve longed to reread and taste once more the wry, astringent lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
I’ve even enjoyed “The Waste Land,” once I quit trying to figure it out and just let its flow of language and images wash over me.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
But contemporary poetry, by present-day writers? I don’t catch much of it. But at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop two weeks ago, when I shared a podium with poet Jeff Gundy, I began to have the feeling that maybe I’m missing out on something.
Jeff’s poetry really grabs me.
Maybe it’s because it’s suffused with religious concern. (Not quite a la T.S. Eliot, though–Jeff comes out of the Mennonite tradition.) Maybe it’s that I just like his style: quiet, powerful, resonant, the mysteries in the depth of his poems evoked through deceptively simple, clear language. Or–this just might have something to do with it–that the first of the poems he read at our shared reading on the night of Tuesday, July 10, was about UFOs.
It’s called “Scenario.” It appeared in Jeff’s collection Deerflies (2004).
The aliens arrive, saucers white and gleaming like sails.
Their instruments are excellent, and they all speak several
Of our tongues. Still, they confess to struggles with translation.
They bring peace, but not the peace we have imagined.
They have a story we must learn, a story that drives them
Through the galaxy. There was a child, a king, prophets,
plagues, a horrifying death, and a word more precious than
the world. They do not tell this story start to end, the word
resists all of our tongues. Red wolf racing in the dim forest?
someone asks. A vole in the meadow grass, meeting his beloved?
No. They beg for patience. They are sure we can learn,
we can know as they know. In the meantime, they bring
other gifts. Centuries pass. They talk, and we listen, when
we can. Millions die in plagues they insist were accidental
and tragic. The gleaming towers they build for us stand empty,
the wide spirals they insist must crown each tower screw themselves
enigmatically into the sky. They cannot go back, their ships
burnt dead by the deeps. More were to follow but none arrive.
They grow melancholic, distracted. They live for centuries
but do not breed – something in the sun, they believe.
We have the word, they die insisting, the only word,
the child told us there was no other word. They speak
the word, dying, reluctant, desperate. We listen. Nothing
changes. We bury them according to their ways, face up,
lightly covered, not too deep. When the child returns
in glory she will save us, they told us many times,
if we are covered lightly and not buried too deep.
Hmmm. What are we to make of this?
A parable of the European colonization of the New World? (“Millions die in plagues they insist were accidental and tragic.”) But then why are the extraterrestrial Columbuses abandoned castaways, unsupported by their fellows, blocked from returning home? Are their “gleaming towers” intended to suggest Babel, which also screwed itself “enigmatically into the sky”? “Red wolf”? “A vole … meeting his beloved”? What’s that all about?
And what of the fertility-killing sun? Shades of the UFO-linked “Shaver mystery” of the 1940s, in whose fertile mythology the “Elder Gods” abandoned our planet to escape the toxic rays of a dying sun? Those who remained, the “dero” (short for “abandondero”?) turned into monsters.
And how about “Scenario’s” final stanza? (This question is addressed to those who’ve read Journal of a UFO Investigator. For those who haven’t, I won’t say more lest this be a spoiler.) Jeff hadn’t read my novel when he wrote “Scenario”; I didn’t know his poem until two weeks ago. Was he reading my mind? Was I reading his?
Or were we both quarrying the same spot in our shared human unconscious, from which all the true poetry comes?