Here are some of the adjudicators’ comments on Patricia Young’s “Anniversary Poem.” You’ll find the poem itself in Issue 136, fall 2015:
This poem had me at “the bus driver’s cursing in a language/so luminous with rage we understand every blue letter word.” The poet is able to give us this moment without having to cite the particular blue letter words. I also like the metaphor of looking out the back of the bus as the poet looking back on his or her life and the moments that define a relationship.
The opening (“It doesn’t matter where I go”) and the tone in which the Eastern European incident is described with its resignation and dull wash both segue powerfully with the rest of the theme (“we’re forty-five, we’re sixty-eight, but no matter, day will lurch into night… the bus will continue down the road”) making the poem effective (if discouraging) for me.
Why return to this place and time so often? I am encouraged to read the poem repeatedly and ponder. The phrasing and lining are perfect; every word counts. The experience grows from one moment to a lifetime: “We’re twenty-two,/we’re forty-five, we’re sixty eight, but no matter,/…” The poem’s final line marks the occasion for infinity.
I like this unconventional take on an anniversary poem, in which the mundane collides with the existential—and the way the language, those long, paired lines, recapitulates the sense of time elapsing, and the idea of unlikely juxtapositions (yoked pairs) across time and space.
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I happened into a conversation with a parish priest at an event I attended recently, and when he asked about my work and I told him that I had for many years edited a literary magazine publishing fiction, poetry, and talk about writing, he used the opening to confess that he had no time for poetry: it was too annoyingly difficult. He recalled his school days and the many dreary and discouraging discussions about the meaning of poems, meanings the poet, in his view, had been at pains to obfuscate. He did admit, however, to a love of the long familiar songs of his Church, and I tried to say that maybe his difficulty with poetry was that he hadn’t spent enough time with it, had, perhaps, felt too much anxiety about the sense of a poem instead of opening himself to its music and imagery, to the emotional response it evoked. What I was trying to suggest, however ineptly (or presumptuously!) is that mystery, or ambiguity, is often a poem’s great gift.
I had this earlier conversation still in mind as I got ready to put some questions to Patricia Young about her 2015 Occasional Verse prize-winner, “Anniversary Poem.” The poem announces its occasion in the title, and yet what follows is not about an anniversary in any of the usual senses (of a marriage, say, or an event of state). But the poem seems to move on two planes. There’s the immediate occasion (a donkey cart upturned in the road and blocking traffic, including the bus in which the speaker of the poem sits with the someone implied by the use of “we”) and the more profound occasions it somehow evokes. Why has this incident lodged in the speaker’s memory? Why is she recounting it now and to whom? And why does the bus, as its diesel engine sputters and combusts and sends it lurching off down the road, seem all at once to be travelling through time as well as space. This mystery is what drew us into the poem’s embrace. Though we had intimations, none of us felt like we fully understood the poem’s inner workings. Still, we were all powerfully unsettled and moved.
Kim Jernigan: Patricia, I’m wondering if you can begin by saying something about the sort of effects you were after in this poem in particular?
Patricia Young: I’m never sure of the effects I’m after in a poem as I’m writing it. I just sort of follow the images, and, in the case of “Anniversary Poem,” a memory as well. The tone of lassitude probably evolved out of the imagery, and, again, the memory.
So the incident described is one taken from life?
It was very much from life. My husband, Terence, and I were traveling in the former (communist) Yugoslavia around 1990, just before war broke loose. It was late afternoon, overcast and everything seemed unbearably strange and bleak. We were on a bus, jet-lagged, on our way back to our hotel but unable to stay awake. We were literally falling asleep in our seats when all of a sudden the bus jerked to a stop and there before us was a donkey, a farmer, and an upturned cart of hay in the middle of the road. It might have been a scene out of the 17th century. No one knew what to do and so the bus, and all traffic, remained at a standstill for a ridiculously long time. The scene, which I describe in the poem, seemed to encapsulate everything Terence and I were feeling about the country at that moment—its grayness, its glumness, our overwhelming tiredness. We’ve forgotten many things over the years but for some reason we’ve never forgotten this incident with the farmer and his upturned cart. It’s stuck in our minds, and we’ve often referred to it as a kind of shorthand for despair. I should say too that it wasn’t all grim in Yugoslavia—there was dancing and poetry and we met many wonderful people . . . (in retrospect, I think our exhaustion was the primary factor that coloured our perception of the mishap on the road).
The closing lines (“…the dead will chatter into/the vanishing point, the bus will continue down the road.”) seems to suggest that the particular anniversaries of a life are just part of a long continuum in which humans, their individual griefs and joys, are of little consequence. Is the poem in some sense, then, an anti-anniversary poem? A poem that laments rather than celebrates?
I think what I was trying to get at (if indeed I could be said to be trying to get at anything!) was the sense of time in a long marriage, or, as you suggest, a continuum. I wasn’t after celebration or lament, I don’t think. I was just trying to say something about a long relationship. Time gets weird and confusing the longer you live. Of course any relationship, no matter how long, has to end in death (hence the vanishing point), but perhaps something goes beyond death . . . hence, the bus continuing down the road.
I called the poem “Anniversary Poem” simply because I wrote it last spring around the time of our wedding anniversary, always a reminder of how much time has passed.
I think the adjudicator who notes the poem’s “unlikely juxtapositions (yoked pairs) across time and space” was onto something with that phrase “yoked pairs”—the horse and cart of the central incident, but also, perhaps, other kinds of pairs?
I like that—yoked pairs—especially since the poem is about two people moving through time and space.
What cherished poem by another poet has continued to haunt you down the years and why? (I assume there are many, but pick one that you encountered early on in your reading experience.)
A poem I read in an anthology many years ago but have never forgotten is “Of Politics and Art” by Norman Dubie. It is now accessible on the internet:http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/099.html.
I find so moving the juxtaposition of the scene in the schoolroom, the children gathered around the young teacher dying of tuberculosis, with the “cold frightened whalers” looking into the “ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow’s/One visible eyeball . . .” Heartbreaking, too, to think that humans have been killing these marvelous creatures for centuries. It’s the kind of poem you can fall into again and again.