Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Walk Through the Memory Palace

Since I have in the past year been trying to put together my own collection of poetry, having accumulated an unwieldy number of individual poems over the years, I have paid close attention to the shape of collections I have read. Some books, whether chapbooks or full length collections, are tightly thematic. They follow a narrative or closely linked series of narratives about films, fairy tales, or the lives of famous people from the past. Others, including the nascent collection I have been piecing together, seem more like a bouquet, hastily gathered and given unity only by the act of arranging itself, like random snapshots belatedly turned into a film, taking their shape only after the fact.
Pamela Johnson Parker's chapbook, A Walk Through the Memory Palace, winner of the first annual Qarrtsiluni Chapbook contest (see link below), seems to possess a sure sense of its shape, though its subjects range widely, from the apparently autobiographical, to mythological and literary poems, sparked with multiple allusions, to richly woven paeons to the natural world. Somehow, though the topics go beyond the personal, the chapbook takes on the shape of a woman's life, the title crowning the collection with purpose, despite the book's multifarious moods and themes.
One poem in particular, "Some Yellow Tulips," catches my attention. I include it in full below:

Some Yellow Tulips

Old Mrs. Sonnenkratz, there in her yard
Bent over like a bulb herself, works hard

To edge her sidewalks, salt the slugs, and spray
The aphids from her roses. Every day

She’s pruning, pulling, plucking, weeding out
The strays that might be festering. No doubt

She loves her lawn, loves order, symmetry
Of seedlings, herbal borders; she would be

Ruthless to seeds gone volunteer, to Queen
Anne’s livid bruise, half-hidden in its green-

White froth of lace. Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves. A jagged scar
Runs up her forearm, where the numbers are.

The tulips, like her, blowsy, need to go;
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s on her radio.

She thinks, Acht nicht, acht nicht, nacht musik
Their leaves are lances, and they slant, oblique.

The tulips stems outlast their showy flowers;
For years she plants by day and, at night, cowers.

The yellow of the petals starts to burn;
Perhaps the worst of absence is return.

She smokes and shakes and smokes. Each flowerbed’s
As neat as graves. She stubs out ash. The heads

Of these tulips wore bright turbans, tight-wrapped
And now unwrapping. In Berlin, she was slapped:

Sie ist ein Jude… Dry-eyed in Dachau, how
She’s crying over bulbs bloomed too far now.

In a world of absence, presence leaves a scar.
Each tulip’s ravelled to a six-point star.

(for Lilo Mueller)

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial

Written in orderly couplets, the poem embraces the strength this form offers. The lines are clipped as topiary bushes to fit the inevitable end rhyme, yet remind one of Bishop or perhaps Hopkins (think "Spring and Fall"!) in their subtle emotional power.
The poem begins with a mildly critical and perhaps even disapproving tone, but morphs to a power statement of the futility of any effort to erase the past or the threatening future of mortality we all face with our present rituals. Loss enters into all our enterprises, and the poem muses, "Perhaps the worst of absence is return."
This poem about the Holocaust is one of the few that manages to universalize that event without trivializing it--a delicate balance to be sure.
I recommend this book to you, and also the journal Qarrtisiluni, and plan to send an entry of my own this year to its chapbook contest, the yoga sequence, if all goes well. Here is a link that will tell you more about that contest:
Enjoy, and visit Qarrtsiluni, which is always interesting.


marly said...

Hmm, I like couplets. I like this poem, too. The "brown/around" rhyme doesn't work too well because the sense of the second line isn't as clear as it ought to be. But I like it.

Can't help but think of Plath as well, who did so much with tulips, mental disturbance, and the idea of Jew and Nazi (whether we like what she did with that idea or not.)

I'm glad you did this!

Robbi N. said...

Yes. I thought about Plath too.
Thanks for telling me about the opportunity!