Monica Wendel for Word for Word Poetry, July 16th, 2013
Featuring a Tribute to Marie Ponsot
The dragon, it is said, combines feared elements of all the beasts: it is snake-like, it is clawed, it is winged. Not content to stalk one race or nation, it appears in mythologies across the globe. Huge and powerful, and it is also beautiful – witness medieval paintings, or the paper dragons weaving their way through Chinatown streets on the New Year. Like a poem, it is an awe-inspiring thing that humans created.
In the final poem of the evening, “This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo,” the readers of Marie Ponsot’s work invoked a “running dragon.” It appeared not as an image in a poem, but as a way of reading and listening. One person read the first two lines; the next read the next two; and on and on the poem snaked through different voices, like a puppet held aloft by many hands.
This moment epitomized the tributes that came earlier in the evening, when a range of poets took to the stage to share anecdotes about Ponsot and read from her work. Scott Hightower, a former student of Ponsot, began the evening with the poem “Real Estate, Kripplebush, New York.” As her student, he said, he learned that “thinking itself is a political act,” which seemed ironic while considering the poem’s last line: “I wake to walk here, walk to learn my bounds.” Is Ponsot advocating a constrained existence? Looking broadly, boundaries are important in Ponsot’s writing, which frequently uses strict forms such as the sonnet and sestina. These forms “create an almost bodily pleasure in the poet,” Ponsot told the New York Times in 1999. “They are not restrictive.”
The next poet, Sapphire, echoed Hightower’s characterization of Ponsot as a gifted teacher and mentor. “I love you. I just love you,” she gushed. The purpose of a teacher, Sapphire explained before reading Ponsot’s poem “Late,” is not to provide answers, but to raise the question: could things be different? I thought of this question during the next poem, “Reading a large serving dish (Greek, ca. 400 BC Art Institute of Chicago),” as “white-faced” Persephone rose beyond suffering “carrying a vegetal cross,” in Ponsot’s rendition of the Greek myth. This poem was read by Jackson Taylor, who described Ponsot’s philosophy that the “duty of the poet is to the welfare of the poem.”
Melody Compo, a student of Scott Hightower who assisted Ponsot in organizing her papers, read next, followed by Jean Valentine. One of the many pleasures of the reading was the diversity of voices joined together in praise of Ponsot. Compo is a young poet, while Valentine has been an important voice in poetry for decades. Together, they represented how Ponsot’s audience spans generations. Underscoring this point, Alan Felsenthal, the final reader before the intermission, read Ponsot’s poem “Take My Disproportionate Desire,” which was published for the first time in 1957 through City Lights Bookstore.
After the intermission, Lee Briccetti, Jason Schneiderman, and Edward Hirsch all offered memories of Ponsot before reading from her work. Briccetti praised Ponsot’s deep soul, moral engagement, and intellect, while Schneiderman offered a kind, humorous anecdote about a letter of recommendation that reflected those same traits. Edward Hirsch spoke of the relationship between Ponsot’s use of poetic forms and her storm within; Ponsot, he said, is candid, self-reliant, and wild. The use of form, which tempers the wildness within her, is also a method of discovery.
Jamie Stern, reading Ponsot’s “Explication De Texte,” urged us to find the “barren pear that bears fruit.” “There is always light in the world,” she said. This doesn’t mean that the light is imaginary; instead, it comes from “keen and honest observation.” Ponsot, she said, is a poet of unspun words, avoiding fruity phrases. Michael Broder, a former student of Ponsot’s, read next and offered his experience of learning to observe. In class, he said, they heard the poems before they saw them, and “to learn [was] to hear.” He has used this in his own teaching, he noted, before reading “A Tale Told by Atheneus (Venus Callipygus).”
Rosemary Deen broke from the precedent before her, reading two poems, “Wearing the Gaze of an Archaic Statue” and “Levels,” instead of telling an anecdote. These poems encompassed all of the praise that came before; they were observant and intelligent, complex yet clearly stated. The evening closed with “This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo,” read by a multitude of readers:
Describing the wind that drives itAt the end of the poem, a standing ovation erupted. And then, like a cloud, the crowd that had gathered – both within and outside the Reading Room’s borders – evaporated.
Cloud rides between earth and space
Cloud shields earth from sun scorch
Cloud bursts to cure earth’s thirst
Cloud – airy, wet, photogenic – is a bridge …
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review, 2013) and the chapbook Call it a WIndow (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU, where she was awarded both Goldwater and Starworks teaching fellowships. Her poetry has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Lamba Literary Review, Nimrod, and other journals. The former writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida, she currently lives in Brooklyn and works as a visiting instructor of composition at St. Thomas Aquinas College.