The Always Song (from Slaves to Do These Things)
The month is April.
Writing from an old house
in front of a prairie and
a forest whose name
walks through tall brown grass,
I could say
much about the part of not knowing,
of tracks and traps, temptations
that charm with wooden waves
of ceilinged sight.
But I am savage, outside.
Never once did pools of light
sway this way.
In aubergine moons, I lift
the width of my wrists, I hallelujah
a terrible god, raining
bits of paper
turned to lost voodoo and orchestras
until I come of age,
smothered by years of breaking loose
clouds of longing against
every loyal thing,
measuring my wildness by the muddy sky
I stood beside, to this night.
“April” may or may not be “the cruellest month;” it is certainly part of what is now cliche. The trouble with cliches is that they cannot be so easily dismissed. Our understanding has to start somewhere. Our speaker, even in “writing,” is doing this from an over-familiar location: “an old house / in front of a prairie and / a forest whose name walks through tall brown grass.” This is Americana, and it isn’t all bad: the forest seems to be mysterious enough, a place worth exploring.
But if you really start hunting – emphasizing the “not-knowing” – the inadequacies of the forest become all too clear. What seems to be hunting (“tracks and traps”) has been prearranged into “aisles.” The “wooden waves of ceilinged sight” could describe the forest as well as the house. Our speaker’s vision is limited, and she’s willing to admit it. That means we need a new starting point. Instead of our speaker merely speaking, she declares who she is (“I could say” / “I am”) and denies that light has ever been partial to her understanding. This too is a starting point from cliche: it still takes the forest very seriously, focusing on the darkness, and introducing a pagan ritual that smacks of conventionality (“hallelujah”/”orchestras” – Handel’s “Messiah?”). Two concepts emerge that break from the second sentence: blood (“the width of my wrists”) and destruction (“bits of paper”) – ignorance is dangerous on a personal level. Knowledge appropriate to one’s age is imperative.
The speaker’s coming of age breaks from house and forest by recognizing both “longing” and “loyalty.” Properly speaking, she didn’t have the latter before: to know only one thing is not loyalty, for there is no possibility of disloyalty. What she sees now is that she has been “smothered” by her own behavior, that she has been able to create things that float (“clouds”) but has sent them simultaneously using and opposing what was loyal (“against”). There is no break from the smothering: that’s life, that aspect of what is cliched holds. The knowledge is in the “measuring.” Our speaker may still be “savage,” but her loyalty to the “muddy sky” implies a largeness of vision not found in the poem before. Not only does the sky encompass house and forest, setting at the least a higher ceiling, but “night” has to end sometime. Hope is cliched, until actually had.