Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Obscure Toil

Here's a poem from Lucia Perillo's new book Luck is Luck. I read a few poems of hers on Paul Guest's blog, and decided I had to have the book, pronto. I went all the way to New Orleans and unleashed two todlers in the bookstore on the hunch that they would have this book, because I couldn't take the time to call.

This poem is about writing. It's about Emily Dicinson and office supplies and political prisoners. And that great truth--that we're doing this work and maybe no one will remember!

On the Rhythmic Nature of Obscure Toil

So you write one poem, then another,
until your stack is big enough to bind with a black
spring clip. If you were Emily Dickinson
(but there is no chance that you're Emily Dickinson)
you'd have poked a sharp needle through the sheaf.
Then laid it to rest in an underwear drawer
until you died of glomerulonephritis:
a disease, alas, with too many syllables
to suit your common meter. And when sister Vinnie
discovers your cache, whet do you care?
You just wish you'd sat for another daguerreotype
besides that one with your hair so severely parted,
signifying the pre-central plumbing era
and its omniprescent oily scalp.
Then hair mousse comes along
and the thread through the sheaf becomes this spring clip
made by a woman imprisoned in China.
One minute she's dopin Tai Chi in the park,
making Fair Lady wrists when a cop steps up,
calls her pose dissident, and slaps on the cuffs.
Then for all minutes after, she's sticking these wires
into the black triangular piece,
so many per hour her fingers are flayed
like brushed dipped in rust-red paint.
And you, you thought you were just writing a poem
without the crutch of Emily Dickinson's beat,
her thump-thump-thump-thump/thump-thump-thump
that can be sung to "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"
or "When the Saints Go Marching In."
But since you didn't want that to help you along,
you wre just fidgeting, scratching your head,
absentmindedly staring out of the window,
and while you were gone, look:
someone left these bloody prints across the page.

On the cover of Perillo's book are Audubon's shrikes and a green background.

Speaking of obscure toil, for a brief stint I held a job in a special collections library. This was nowhere near as cool as I thought it would be. Everything was locked up in the dark, and you weren't supposed to touch it. Artwork, books, photographs, statues. This library had one of a few (two?) complete folio collections of Audubon's Birds of America. The library stored these books on their sides in the dark, and once a year took them out for viewing in a special room. Anybody could come, but it seems like only the wealthy patrons were aware of it. On those days I wore white gloves for the only time in my life and slowly turned the folio pages, which are quite huge, while people ooed and ahhed over his Wild Turkey (the smaller birds just don't stand out). After an hour my time in the viewing room would be over, and I would shrink back to the stacks, flashlight in hand and forbidded pen and notecard in my pocket to sneak research towards a poem of sorts.

By the way--in this special collections library, the archives of poetry boooks from the affiliated university press were stored on the sixth floor behind a locked metal gate appropriately named "the cage."