Monday, February 9, 2015

Recalling "The Spine" by Michael Spence


This evening, my Poetry Workshop at the University of Northern Iowa had the pleasure of Skyping with the poet Michael Spence, whose 2014 collection The Bus Driver’s Threnody we are reading for class. In the course of that insightful and invaluable conversation, I brought up Mike’s poem “The Spine,” from his first poetry collection The Spine. When I looked for this poem online to show it to the students, I discovered it’s not available in cyberspace. So, with Mike’s permission, I proudly present that poem to the blogosphere.

The Spine
“The fossilised vertebrae of a large dolphin-like
  reptile dating from 150 million years ago were
  recently discovered in this mining town.”
                                    —Australian travel brochure
The icthyosaur,
Like ancient water

It flashed through,
Dried to dust. A few

Pieces of spine
Dug from a mine

At Coober Pedy
Are the only

Remains. They glint
Iridescent

Blue, purple;
Bits of gold fill

Every crack.
The Jurassic

Faded: the reptile
Changed to opals.

Thirty-three
Vertebrae

Like those here—
One for each year

I’ve lived—link
What I think

To how I move.
The chord in their groove

Sends what lightning
I have forking

Through my hands
Into the land.

If my traces reach
The distant beach

Of the future,
The bones I stare

At hold my wish:
To start as flesh

And end as jewel.
The line of fossils

Burns—each gem
A star in the stem

Of the Southern Cross.
We gain by loss.

— Michael Spence, from The Spine (1987).









I have a personal relationship with this particular poem because it was, for me, life-changing with regard to my writing of verse. I was an MFA student at Indiana University in 1987 when I found The Spine on a new-book rack in the IU library. I distinctly recall how this poem stunned me, with its bravura off-rhymes—icthyosaur/water, reptile/opals—and its off-kilter dimeter. This poem opened up a new vista for me. I had a moment akin to Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” the library stacks spinning a bit as I stood, leaning on a shelf, reading “The Spine.”

This was during the “poetry wars” of the ’80s, when the New Formalists were bucking the Free Verse establishment and being called Reaganites. I was personally beleaguered, as an emerging neoformalist myself, in a workshop with classmates who reviled work in rhyme and meter. And it was Mike, on paper, who taught me how to write a poem that was tightly formalist but read like free verse to those who expected free verse. I learned from Mike's poems how to be a tightrope walker—and he’s a master, a damn good one. He can slant rhyme and craft meter like a tenor-sax jazz artist, syncopating silence and staccato sequences.

I hope you’ll check out Michael Spence’s work. The Spine, published by Purdue University Press almost 30 years ago, is still in print. His new collection,  The Bus Driver’s Threnody, is a tour-de-force collection of poems about driving a city bus in Seattle. Other books include Crush Depth, a father-son book that includes poems on life in the US Navy, and Adam Chooses, about which Mark Jarman wrote, these “poems, often cunning experiments in traditional form, dramatize the way experience leads to knowledge.”

Michael Spence is the real deal, friends. You’ll enjoy his poetry, I guarantee.


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Ingat, everyone.  



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