Monday, February 18, 2008

Ralph Gustafson's "Wind Surfacing"

As to yesterday's entry, the poem is from the volume Directives Of Autumn, not The Celestial Corkscrew. It's the lead sequence in "Ogunquit Beach", by Gustafson:


The thousand people are going to die.
The sun is out,

kites are in the sky, coloured,
green with scarlet tails,

the baby in the crawl-crib
squalls at the canine,

quits, chewing the indestructible
plastic ring. Girls rub

oil on against cancer, the
life-guard watches.

All the world thrives, waves
shatter and the beach adjusts.

Danae combs her hair;
Time is in the tower.

Everybody is going to die.

beneath the umbrella the men
slap down cards,

draw, jockstrap
trumps the ace of spades.

It is impossible that blue
sail can stay upright.


Visually, at first glance, the couplets seems to offer the comfort of expectation, a form which often resolves its set-up in the first line with a tidy mini-conclusion in the next. The resolutions which follow often build so that an organic structure is developed, again with expectation and satisfaction. Gustafson turns this on its head. The tension is the timeless poetic "theme" (to be pedantic) of sex vs death, or sex as the obverse heads (or is it "tails"?) to the shady underbelly of the jutting "coign". To add to the quoin-play, the addition often ruins the geometry of assumption. And "Wind Surfacing" is nothing if not ruined beach idyll, the idling throng in their mundane motions a corollary of foreboding as set out in philosophical overview.

The shocking first line is all the more disturbing for being voiced plainly, and with authority. The contrast in line two immediately challenges our sense of resolution and (often) impatient optative entrenchment with defining mood and the pernicious pull to see life as negative-lila surface distraction in need of a tidy chorus of meaning.

"kites are in the sky, coloured" builds on the postive shift in the previous stanza, but many will simply see kites, here, as the usual windswept pennons. Three of the five predominant meanings of "kite", however, are negative: the carrion-hawk; a financial cover for a debt (bargaining our way out of death, in futile fashion, in this poem's allusion); and, a "sharper", again a financial term, as the extended, complex metaphor plays out later in the men's card game.

"green with scarlet tails": filled with life, but already blood-bespattered (the "scarlet tails" detailing a surprise attack by prey? ).

The baby upset at the "canine" .... the dog, yes, but also the "canine teeth", which don't arrive until the 16 month mark, and which, in any event, are deciduous. A prefiguration at one?

Plastic outlives us; the futility of outwitting cancer; the "life-guard" saving lives, or distracted from it with consuming lust? ; "Shatter" and "adjust"; Danae's father is to be killed, and "time" in the tower, here, is a false respite: the oracle has spoken, and fate can only be delayed, not altered; the "thousand people" become "everybody"; "Crosslegged": anger, superstition, acquiescing to an unknown force?; the futility of umbrella-"protection"; Ace-high spade is the highest single card in the deck, but is bested in various games by the the two of hearts, the nine of clubs, etc .... nothing is impervious; and the suggestive last line: a delicate and beautiful image, also loaded with danger.

I could go on in much greater detail, also noting the appropriate vowel ostinatos of "aw" and "ow" and "eye", for example.

This poem, for me, is near seamless in its marriage of technique with meaning, sound with sense, intellect with emotion. The philosophy never overwhelms the images, which are based on multiple concrete nouns and a realized place.

1 comment:

veronius said...

A deft, beautifully felt exegesis. Thanks.