Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dragonfly (page 3)


The second poem in the book is also dedicated to Marty. As I said in an earlier post, "I thought of Dragonfly," when I was putting it together, "as a kind of long letter to Marty about things I wanted him to know as he entered his adult years."

Gallery of the Mind
— for Marty
You'd stare at Richie Rich, your Playskool pull toys,
the hamster's Habitrail, anything brightly colored,
for long minutes then gaze intently at a blank

wall. You were just five. Could you have known
those ghosts (Richie Rich dressed in teal)
were only after-images, topsy-turvy

colors? Or were you looking for a place you knew
just had to be? Where cabins sailed in tornadoes,
and a marionette some whale swallowed could become

real. If only you didn't have to blink
your eyes or breathe, you could funnel the world
into shapes on the wall, a photo gallery

of the mind. Your hamster Goggles before he died.
Your mom and I dancing a tarentella
to divorce. Your grandmother, sheets

drawn up to her chin, the night we smuggled you
into the cancer ward — you were Batman,
it was Halloween. If only the moments

would freeze on the wall, you could soar above it,
like Peter Pan swooping over London's
lights. Glitter sprinkled on black cloth.



Page 3

Marty, around age 6 or 7 in the poem, was a quiet child. His mom and I noticed during this time that he would stare, for long periods, at images full of color (for example, Richie Rich, dressed in red in some comic book). Then he would transfer his gaze to a blank wall. We eventually asked Marty what he was up to, and it turns out he had, all by himself, figured out how to impress, so to speak, an image onto his retinas so that he could subsequently see it as an afterimage on the wall, in colors complementary to the original.

When I began writing this poem, probably almost a decade later, in 1986 or 1987 when I started working on my MFA, it occurred to me, in hindsight, that perhaps Marty was symbolically (or perhaps actually) playing this afterimage game to escape his life, which was quite difficult at that time, with deaths (of a beloved pet and then his grandmother) and impending disaster (the rocky marriage of his parents teetering on the edge of collapse). That's the seed of the poem.

On craft: the poem shows the writerly influence of my teacher Yusef Komunyakaa as well as one of my favorite poets at the time: Sharon Olds. For example, the phrase "a photo gallery / of the mind" sounds a bit like Komunyakaa; when I was writing this, I probably didn't know I was imitating, but there it is. A pale imitation of Yusef's manner, though, I should add. The breathless, hurried enjambments are probably influenced by reading Sharon Olds: "at a blank / wall"; "topsy-turvy / colors"; "could become / real"; "London's / lights." Quite definitely my attempt at a bravura image as an ending is derived from Olds's style.

In poet circles, you often find people saying they no longer like the poems in their early books; in my case, that's not so true, generally, but this poem is definitely stale for me. My technique has moved quite a ways away: I am much more aware, more deliberate about line breaks, and I have developed phrasing and language that are more acutely my own. In other words, as poets say, I found my voice (probably two decades ago, in 1989 or so).

DRAGONFLYFIRSTCONTENTSPREVIOUSNEXTLAST
   


NOTE: about the afterimage thing, try it yourself: have a piece of white paper handy, then stare intently at the green, leaf-like form in the middle of the image at left. Do this for at least one minute, maybe even two. Quickly turn your gaze to the white paper. Now relax. The afterimage should coalesce, but only if you don't push it hard.

You can also research this cool optical effect on YouTube, where there are quite a few videos that demonstrate it, such as "Jesus Illusion" (black and white) and "Cool color illusion" (obviously not black and white!).

So what did you see in the afterimage? What did the green "leaf" turn out to be? Tell me — and everyone — in a comment below. Hint: Anglo-Saxon for "language."

I do hope your new year is unfolding happily. Be well.

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