Thursday, May 12, 2011

What I'm Reading: On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year

68º ~ storms are creeping up on us today, just as the floodwaters start to recede, no major accumulations expected at least, all green things are thriving where not drowned out

It's a slow re-entry to poetry, my friends.  As most of you know, teaching can sometimes consume one's life, and when the semester ends there is a long list of tasks that have been put off.  I've been inching my way through the task list and getting my head cleared for a summer of poetry.  Tonight is graduation and tomorrow I'm off for a bit of a family trip.  (Sadly, C. will remain at home since he's still got a month of school to go.)  When I return next week, I plan to start a draft-a-day challenge.  I think, 10 days this time around.  We'll see.

For now, I must report on the latest book I've been reading:  Lee Ann Roripaugh's On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, which is simply a delight.  This is another stunning volume put out by Southern Illinois University Press, and, according to her bio at the University of South Dakota, this is Roripaugh's third collection of poems. 

Normally, I'm ambivalent about epigraphs; however, in the case of On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, the epigraphs work perfectly.  The first is from the opening of Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, which explains how Shonagon came to record a journal of her personal observations of "odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material."  The second is from Murasaki Shikibu's The Diary of Lady Murasaki, in which the narrator observes a winter scene and then muses on the changing seasons and wonders how her life will turn out.  For those unaware, both of these books are from Japan from the 10th/11th centuries.  The epigraphs set us up for a book of close observation of the natural world along with a speaker unsure of the future. 

Like Sei Shonagon in The Pillow Book, Roripaugh writes list poems such as "Sqalid Things," "Luscious Things," "Salty Things," and "Things that Cause a Feeling of Chagrin."  These are my favorite poems in the book, although Roripaugh does intersperse them with other more narrative work to break up the pace of the book.  The resulting work is an exploration of themes of love, longing, desire, and a speaker on the cusp of something turning, something changing, as the title of the book states.  In the poem "Notes on the Cusp of a Dangerous Year," we discover "Thirty-seven, the year Lady Murasaki called / the dangerous year, approaching . . . ."  And so, we have the sense of the speaker aging without having settled into a steady life.  In fact, one of the last poems in the book "Chambered Nautilus" explores the speaker's need to change apartments every few years in an attempt to start over, to begin fresh, to make sense of the past.  She states:

[T]he new apartment is a puzzle
I reassemble--from old scrap parts,
the accumulated detritus

from all my past selves--into somthing
that's new and hopeful, that denies defects,
or at least disguises them as being
something else...

This is one of the rare poems that focuses on the speaker's indoor life.  Most of the poems are set outside, if not in a rural environment.  Throughout the book there are exquisite descriptions of insects that are used as extended metaphors for the speaker's own desire.  She sees in the insect world, an abundance of species willing to hurl themselves towards death in the name of desire, and she doesn't shy from using lush adjectives and intense sound play in her descriptions (oh, poet after my own heart).

For example, here's the opening of "Disconsolate Things."

The dull dusted thud of powdery moths,
somewhat like the weight 

of a fat summer raindrop, striking their
plump, furred bodies up

against a lit windowpane--the muffled
sound, a strangled

rupture, like hot bright kernels of popcorn,

blooming into stark white clouds.

Everywhere in the book, Roripaugh celebrates insect life.  There is the celebration of sex in pollination that echoes the speaker's own desire, and for most of the book that desire remains unfulfilled so there is a heightened sense of longing and need.  In "Marvelous Things" we get "The scree of insect song scrimshawed into // the night's horizon."!  Then, in "Cecropia" (the silkworm moth), we get this:

To even try to describe the terrible voltage of
those pheromones--emitted in pulses
plagiarizing the human heartbeat's blank iambic

a few hours before dawn--would be to fully understand
raw need, desire's soft dank underbelly.

And later in the poem:

His antennae hear the scent like drumbeats,
like the hot siren glitz of electricity sizzling

the nervous system awake until the body is transformed
into an incandescent singing hum
that flies alight, weightless without the burden of too much


This, I think, is the heart of the book, the speaker's desire to shed all the thinking about relationships and just sink into the pleasure of sex.  This is complicated by the fact that the speaker's lover is absent, and one gets the feeling that there has been a breakup, although that is never spelled out in the book. 

Lest you think the book is entirely of the natural world, I should mention that one of the things I admire most about the work is that Roripaugh acknowledges and marries the urban world with the natural world.  While I haven't quoted any of these lines, there are moments when Hy-Vee and I-80 intercede on the plants, insects, and birds, when the speaker is shopping for groceries or in the car and yet she always returns to the natural world to record her sense of wanting and waiting for whatever is coming next.

I'll leave you with the end of the last poem, "Things that are Filled with Grace."  The poem ends with a question and, perhaps, a more hopeful glimpse of the future.

How do bees
know which egg to select for their new queen,

nurse bees ladling
royal jelly over the larva once
she hatches, sealing

shut the royal chamber with wafers spun 
from wax and silk?  They

let her slumber for seven days before

she's reawakened:
a lambent, ambered incandescent bride
and queen, obsessed by

a hard-wired and fearless desire to throw
herself at the sun--
fierce and elusive in her skyward flight.

Support a Poet / Poetry
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today
On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year
Lee Ann Roripaugh
Southern Illinois University Press, 2009


Charlotte Pence said...

Thank you for posting this. You gave me some good ideas as I transition into the summer.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Charlotte, Yay for transitioning into summer!!!