Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rustin Larson's The Wine-Dark House: "The Des Moines Rising at Bentonsport"

The Des Moines Rising at Bentonsport

               River, quarter mile wide here, brown
               as motor oil.  Currents swirl an Amoco cup,
               suck it down (fifty-three miles up
               from the Miss) near a clinically dead town.

               Foam dots the ripples like globs of spit
               below the maples.  Cottonwoods skirt the bank
               as if calling the other side for thanks
               or help.  And orange in the leaves, orioles perhaps; it's

               a difficult song, full of the confluence
               of failure and rotten luck and grace
               like undertow shadowed by the crusted iron

               crisscross of a bridge.  And brown moths dance
               on the childish weeds of the bank, a face
               on each wing, and water inches in like prairie fire.

Fourteen lines.  

Do we have a sonnet here?
  • Fourteen lines
  • Rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE = an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet
  • No clear meter or syllable count
We can call this a "modern" sonnet or a "contemporary" sonnet, the traditional form being used to structure meaning (stanzaic octet and sestet) and to emphasize that meaning (through rhyme).  The looser rhythms of the poem, like most comtemporary sonnets, keep the poem from sounding archaic.

The first eight lines (the octet) describe the "clinically dead town," and the last six lines (the sestet) describe the "rotten luck and grace" of the town.  The tone of the poem is one of frayed cuffs and past memories--and O God! the river's rising as "water inches in like prairie fire."

The poem reminds me of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Karl Shapiro's (1913-2000) poem Christmas Eve: Australia.  In the poem, Shapiro juxtaposes the subjects of the birth of Jesus Christ with images of soldiers at war.  He juxtaposes images of the Australian landscape, flora, and fauna with the man-made subject of war.   Soldiers discuss past Christmases and the current war (WWII), and the poem ends with the couplet regarding the words and attitudes of the soldiers: "And sick of causes and the tremendous blame / Curse lightly and pronounce your serious name."
Both sonnets contain images of the natural world contrasted with the destructive images of humanity: to quote American poet e.e. cummings (1894 1962), "pity this busy monster, manunkind."  Shapiro's sonnet reflects the more traditional rhythms of the modern (rather than contemporary) era, but both Larson and Shapiro reflect on man's impact on the world and also the magnificent, objective indifference of existence to mankind.
The more I dip into and read Rustin Larson's The Wine-Dark House, the more I see a poet who speaks with a voice of innovation and new vision, and who also speaks from the platform of studied prosody.  With a light-handed, self-effacing style, Larson delineates our "wine-dark house" and the heady, bloody flow of our lives.

If you read and buy poetry, look for The Wine-Dark House at your local bookstore.

Copyright 2010 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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