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The Wheel of Light

September 15, 2017

While at Hendrix, I stayed in an apartment in “Murphy House” that was set up for visiting writers, and both floors were full of books donated by authors who had come to campus, including one from the Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation, Hope Coulter. Entitled The Wheel of Light, it’s a volume full of contrasts. My four favorites span its range.

The first poem that made me want to turn the page down (which I couldn’t since it wasn’t my book; I had to go find some sticky notes) is “Leaving the Museum,” which begins with:
“It’s nearly closing time, and the entrances that invited me,
door after door, decline to present themselves as exits.”
The speaker of the poem is trapped until “as in a storybook/a passageway unfolds.”
I often feel that way in museums, especially art museums (she describes Monet’s haystack, which also makes me think about The Thomas Crowne Affair). They’re like mazes, one wonder leading to the next, until you find yourself in the middle of a strange hallway with no art and no idea how you got there.

The poem I appreciated because of recent experiences is “Speed.” Before this last year, hobbling around with a cane, I didn’t appreciate the speed with which Kenyon students move. Although they’re polite enough when they think about it, if I’m not careful about making sure there’s no student within 10 feet of a doorway, they’re likely to knock me over, so unconscious are they of anyone not prepared to move at their accustomed speed. I’m like the old woman in this poem:
“And when you fall behind a car that pokes along,
you say, ‘It must be someone old,’ and when you pass,
confirm it: some old woman
who surely knows
her days are drawing short
proceeds like a queen on a flowery float,
dispensing time like petals left and right,
as if she’s got a million
hours to squander.”

There’s a poem about people being “invited…to imitate a duck” and their enthusiasm: “It was amazing how willing people were….One man had been waiting for years,/it appeared, to quack at his wife.”

The poem that struck me most–because it’s a villanelle, because it reminds me of my daughter’s fear of sharks, and because it seemed so timely, during hurricane Irma, is “Beach Song,” which I will share here in its entirety:

The thing you fear is not what does you in;
we worried over sharks, not hurricanes.
The unexpected gets you in the end.

The monsters of the deep loomed large back then,
and we missed other dangers, signs less plain.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.

Would something come and tear us limb from limb?
Although we shivered, pictured blood and pain,
imagination failed us in the end:

we scoured the surface for three-sided fins,
not noticing the skies were rearranged.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.

We warned the children, scanned the waves again,
dreading a smash of jaws that never came.
You can’t foretell what gets you in the end.

The menace wasn’t what it might have been—
a darkened cloud, a breeze that would not wane.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.
The freak disaster gets you in the end.

The obsessive quality of a villanelle works well with this subject, doesn’t it? It makes me think of the modern superstition about saying “nothing else can go wrong,” for fear something else will.


Have you ever thought you’d hit rock bottom only to have something else happen? Did you actually say nothing else could go wrong before it. . . did?


10 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    September 15, 2017 9:01 am

    Yeah, I don’t say it can’t get worse any more. In 2009, we had a horrible run of events:

    -I was unemployed, and had been for almost two years.
    -We flooded, lost most of our possessions and were displaced for five months while everything was repaired.
    -Kent was laid off.
    -One of the other homeowners in our condo association sued everyone, which meant we couldn’t sell our place because of the threat of a lien.

    That was bad. The last 12 months are running a close second and have possibly edged out 2009:

    -Kent got laid off 14 months ago.
    -He was diagnosed w/ a basal cell skin cancer.
    -His mother’s health has spiraled completed down, and she’s gone from living fully on her own in her own home to being in bed or a wheelchair in a nursing home–that happened over the course of about five months.
    -Our house got hit by lightning.
    -Our foundation is doing wacky things that may cause structural (i.e. expensive) issues.
    -I was diagnosed with melanoma.

    It can always get worse.

    • September 15, 2017 5:20 pm

      And the terrible thing about your examples is that you’re by no means alone in these kinds of miseries. Too many people in our country are out of work, flooded, or living in nursing homes (with politicians trying to take away their means of support), just to pick out three.

  2. September 15, 2017 9:05 am

    This recalled for me a forgotten poetry writing class I took in college with a visiting poet/alum, who had assigned us to write a pantoum, which I think of as an extra-obsessive villanelle, and was definitely the most challenging thing I have ever had to write for any reason. Someone raised a concern that the subject matter for such a form would be necessarily limited. “Nonsense,” said the poet. “All poetry is about obsession.”

    • September 15, 2017 5:22 pm

      Ha! I like your description of a pantoum as an “extra-obsessive villanelle” and what the poet said to you, although I think it’s easy to say “all poetry is about…” and fill in the blank with “love” or “death” or “nature” or even “obsession” and sound deep.

  3. September 16, 2017 11:37 am

    There is something magical about exploring book collections put together by other people. Why are they always so much more interesting than our own? I know just what you mean about art galleries and your mention of the Monet haystacks immediately makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem which begins, ‘There is a certain slant of light’. For me it decribes Monet’s work precisely.

    • September 17, 2017 12:03 pm

      Some of the interest of this collection was that all the authors had visited the college. One of the people who works for the Murphy Foundation, Henryetta, gave me a tour of the bookshelves and we talked about which authors we’d met and who was nice in person. Kevin Wilson, for example, who wrote The Family Fang and Perfect Little World, is evidently very nice.

  4. September 20, 2017 11:19 am

    I can’t get out of my head that you went to Hendrix. and my feeling that I keep telling you that I know two students there and that I wish I had warned them to go see you and introduce themselves! As if, their being there would be me by proxy. Sigh…

    Love your poetry posts. 🙂

    • September 25, 2017 5:53 pm

      Sometimes the world of liberal arts colleges IS very small! I like your description of thinking about this.

  5. September 20, 2017 11:55 am

    Like Care, I also love your poetry posts. Despite my fervid and lifelong claim that I love poetry, I don’t seem to currently make any time for it at all in my reading life. Your posts give me about as much poetry as I get these days. Thank you for that!

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