Tuesday 17 November 2009

Stanley Plumly

Another November, another workstorm... Seeking refuge with some online poetry bowsing last night, I came across this, by an American poet I had never heard of, Stanley Plumly:

"Another November"

In the blue eye of the medievalist there is a cart in the road.
There are brushfires and hedgerows and smoke and smoke
and the sun gold dollop going down.

The light has been falling all afternoon and the rain off and on.
There is a picture of a painting in a book in which the surface
of the paper, like the membrane of the canvas,

is nothing if not a light falling from another source.
The harvest is finished and figure, ground, trees lined up against
the sky all look like furniture --

even the man pushing the cart that looks like a chair,
even the people propped up in the fields, gleaning, or watching
the man, waving his passage on.

Part of a cloud has washed in to clarify or confound.
It is that time of the day between work and supper when the body
would lie down, like bread, or is so much of a piece

with the whole it is wood for a fire. witness how
it is as difficult to paint rain as it is this light falling across
this page right now because there will always be

a plague of the luminous dead being wheeled to the edge of town.
The painting in the book is a landscape in a room, cart in the road,
someone's face at the window.

Impressed and intrigued, I looked for more, and came up with these:


Some--the ones with fish names--grow so north
they last a month, six weeks at most.
Some others, named for the fields they look like,
last longer, smaller.

And these, in particular, whether trout or corn lily,
onion or bellwort, just cut
this morning and standing open in tapwater in the kitchen,
will close with the sun.

It is June, wildflowers on the table.
They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
with the whole day ahead of them.
They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley,

day lilies, or the clustering Canada, large, gold,
long-stemmed as pasture roses, belled out over the vase--
or maybe Solomon's seal, the petals
ranged in small toy pairs

or starry, tipped at the head like weeds.
They could be anonymous as weeds.
They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,

toadflax almost, the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have "the look of flowers that are looked at,"
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.
I remember the summer I picked everything,

flower and wildflower, singled them out in jars
with a name attached. And when they had dried as stubborn
as paper I put them on pages and named them again.
They were all lilies, even the hyacinth,

even the great pale flower in the hand of the dead.
I picked it, kept it in the book for years
before I knew who she was,
her face lily-white, kissed and dry and cold.

The Crows at 3 A.M.

The politically correct, perfect snow of Vermont
undulant under the lightly bruised, moonlit-backed-
becoming-storm-clouds slowing then speeding just above
the line of blue spruce on Mt. Mansfield here in
what I’m told is the state’s “cloudiest county,”
vaguely an analogy for the plate tectonics of the blankets
constantly shifting from the left to the right side
of my body, pulling the heart, until by dawn I’m holding on,
waking with the cold, somehow looking at my hands
that, in the pearl dark, look like the first fall castings
of the sycamore, those pocked dry leaves
that were my mother’s final hands: sallow
dying coloring, mapping liverspots, rootlike
veining texturing the underdermal surfaces. The test,

writes Fitzgerald, in an essay called “The Crack-Up,”
of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold
opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain
the ability to function. He couldn’t, he says, so he cracked
like a plate. He is trying to update Keats’s
notion of “Negative Capability, that is
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
& reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go
by a fine isolated verisimilitude
caught from the Penetralium of mystery,
from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
When I heard the crows, like raven-geese, rending the dark,
filling the falling snow with wings,
I thought, for a moment,
they were speaking or singing.
Crows at the hour — Fitzgerald again — of the dark night
of the soul, Poe-like crows chasing back and forth
in a quandary or a quarrel, up and down the Gihon.
Then they disappeared, let me drift back into sleep
to find my hands holding my mother’s hands as if to help her
rise from the cold dead dream light of Vermont.
Stevens’s some twenty blackbirds differ only in their scale:
the beauty of inflections and innuendos,
shadows passing out of hearing, out of sight,
but no less present in the settled order. Thus the river’s moving,
the blackbird must be flying, two half-knowledges
or halves of one knowing. Those who love us who now live
in the air live in a loneliness we sometimes imagine.

I think he's good, and he's entirely new to me. Any observations? Can any of my American friends tell me more?


  1. Wikipedia has a bare-bones biography (he's 70 years old, a professor of English). The Wikipedia entry also has pointers to more of his poetry – see the Publications and External Links sections.

  2. Thanks Alan - and I see Crows At 3am was published in the New Yorker, so he must be pretty well known...

  3. He's written a book about Keats praised by Christopher Ricks: _Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography_:

    "Stanley Plumly's profoundly humane evocation of Keats's life and his immediate afterlife is better than magisterial, for it is masterly."

  4. Is masterly better than magisterial? I'm not sure of the scale. Where does 'majestic' figure?

    Could one say, for example, "It is better than magisterial, but worse than majestic, and about on a par with magnificent, for it is masterly"?

  5. Beans and bloody puddy
    Bacon, egg and toms
    Well fried bread, and coffee
    Gladden weekend morns.

    Perhaps I lack talent.

  6. Could be...
    Thanas for the link Dave - I've printed that off for later reading. And I think, Brit, there is a nuance between 'magisterial'and 'masterly', the former suggesting something more detached and aloof, the latter more hands-on. Well, in this context anyway...

  7. I like the second one very much. Incantatory but everyday. Thanks Nige, it's one I shall return to.

    I wish someone would put together an anthology of 20th century flower poetry. Or has someone already?

  8. Perhaps Mr Ricks is using "magisterial" metaphorically in its pharmacological sense (OED: = magistral adj. 2. Obs.: Of a remedy: sovereign, supremely effective.): a supremely effective work (perhaps a remedy for others' (mis)takes on Keats) by one who in addition shows a mastery of both the accounts of Keats's life and the readings of his poetry. Or what Nige said.

  9. There's this fine 'public' poem too.

  10. He's actually quite well-known in the poetry community, if not more broadly. He was a finalist for the US National Book Award in 2007; his well-received biography of Keats was published in 2008; and he was named Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland this year. He is a very lyrical poet whose work frequently focuses on flowers, birds, trees, and other elements of the natural world.

  11. Like you, I did not know of Plumly until today. So glad you posted your discovery. My life seems richer.