November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
In the episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mary’s apartment building was on fire, she grabbed, as I remember, the golden “M” that hung on her wall. I’ve often wondered just what, in a similar situation, I’d reach out for, other than my loved ones, my laptop, and as many photo albums as I could carry. Any extras would depend on the impulses of that particular moment.
What follows is a list of what the me of this particular moment would take if told that she’d be stranded on Neptune for a few years. These aren’t necessarily the poetry collections I deem the best, but they’re those that I’d want to spend the most time with. (That explains the preponderance of Collecteds and Selecteds. Even though I prefer more cohesive books, the more of these will be welcome, under the circumstances.)
The order, because I’m indecisive, is alphabetical.
1. John Ashbery, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1986). He’s spawned so many imitators (myself, at times, included) that I’ve even mistaken his own poems, read blind, for Ashbery imitations. But when he’s good, there really is no one like him for oneiric zaniness and startling lucidity.
2. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, ed. Robert Hass (Ecco, 1995). The first poem I remember writing was a haiku, and the best of these (i.e., nearly all in this collection) radiate outwards like those famous ripples from that famous just-jumped-in frog. To paraphrase Bashō, “Even on Neptune / Hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Neptune.”
3. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927 – 1979 (FSG, 1984). The purity and directness of her poems — their simple complexity and complex simplicity — continues to teach me craft and heart.
4. Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions, 2010). I’ve been late to buy this one, I’m ashamed to say; it hit my shelves just days ago and remains only briefly browsed. I couldn’t bear to leave for Neptune without packing its box of unfolding promises.
5. Don Coles, The Essential Don Coles, ed. Robyn Sarah (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2009). Like Ashbery, Coles is fun to imitate, but no one does Coles like Coles. In both style and substance, he’s at once instantly recognizable and always surprising. And how could one not spend time thinking about time without Coles as a companion?
6. Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems (University of California Press, 2006). I’m finally starting to get him. On Neptune, I’ll finally have time to fill the vast Creeley-shaped absence in my poetry consciousness.
7. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems (Little, Brown, 1960). Part of me is still in a high school classroom, reading “I could not see to see” for the first time, and reeling.
8. Robert Hass, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems (Ecco, 2010). He’s got the balance between intellect and emotion down pat, and he remains the poet to whose work I return most often, especially when I want to write. And on Neptune, I will want to write. Or, at least, I will want to want to write.
9. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems (Everyman’s Library, 1995). These ones, I’ll read aloud.
10. John Keats, The Complete Poems (Modern Library, 1994). Shelley was my favourite Romantic in Grade 12, but I’ve grown into Keats, whose maturity in both craft and insight makes one wonder what other marvels he would have written, if.
11. Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans., The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (Vintage, 1989). I’ll need some angels up there, some of those specific abstractions whose virtues I’m always extolling. Not to mention the very tangible panther and that life-changing torso.
12. Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (Harper & Row, 1981). This tattered volume has been with me the longest, since the expedition to Powell’s Books in Portland at age sixteen when I cleared their entire Plath section. In my deepest despair and greatest anger at my predicament, she will show me how the right words — felt, not thought — offer fierce joy.
13. Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind (Vintage, 1971). To help me meditate on the “[n]othing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Perhaps on Neptune I’ll finally have the time and mental clarity to puzzle out the knottiest of these — and, if not, I’ll just bask in their intoxicating mystery.
Stephanie Bolster’s fourth book of poetry, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, just appeared with Brick Books. Her first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s Award and the Gerald Lampert Award in 1998, and her work has been translated into French, Spanish, and German. She edited The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008, and co-edited Penned: Zoo Poems. Raised in Burnaby, B.C., she has taught creative writing at Concordia University since 2000 and lives in Pointe-Claire, Québec.