Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Metaphors, symbols and myths are not arcane distortions, peculiar to poetry. They are part of thought and speech, sometimes buried like the fact that focus is Latin for a hearth, and sometimes as explicit as the names for hardware: an elbow, or a male-to-female connector. Katrina Roberts considers the ripples of significance surrounding the names for tiny bones in the ear:

MALLEUS, INCUS, STAPES

Six months in utero

my boy's bones begin in middle ear

to harden so sound can conduct:

hammer, anvil, stirrup --

the three smallest of bones though names conjure

bulk and heft (metaphors

make miracles visible)

-- thought's farriers; a word's trickle or timpanic

blow means bones to strike,

taut membranes struck

and that which gently cups beneath to let

language gallop -- so sense,

though not yet his, may be

conveyed. Heartbeats like hooves. I whisper, "Listen!

symphonic we're waiting for you."

The associations of horsemanship and hammering express both wonder and anxiety.

In myth, a hero is a totem animal -- bull or dragon or bear -- and resembles or becomes that animal. So Jay Parini, remembering his mother's storm-dark stories about crows, associates her power with the storm, and with those dark, powerful birds:

THE CROW-MOTHER TELLS ALL

The empty oil drums rattled in the yard

that day in Scranton, and the ham-red hills

would shudder in the distance, thunder-chilled.

My mother shucked a dozen ears of corn,

feeding me stories of the swoop and killings

I could say by heart and still can say.

She hovered in the dust-light, railed

as porch lamps flickered and the power failed,

but not in her. The boom-and-tingle of the storm

was half by her imagined. Hanging on the hard

wings of her apron, always in her sway,

I listened as the green ears all were torn,

her face by lightening cracked and clawed,

her laughter tumbling, beaked and cawed.

In these poems, just as in conversation, the symbolic nature of language expresses mixed emotions, fears and desires, mighty or subtle, the unending stream of connotation.

(Katrina Roberts's poem can be found in her book "The Quick: Poems." Univ. of Washington. Copyright 2005 by the Univ. of Washington Press. Jay Parini's poem can be found in his book "The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems." George Braziller. Copyright 2005 by Jay Parini.)

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