Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Hermit Crab by Stephen Burt

That shell is pretty, but that shell is too small for me.

Each home is a hideout; each home is a secret; each home
is a getaway under the same hot lamp, a means
to a lateral move at low velocity.

I live in a room in the room
of a boy I barely see.

Sometimes the boy & his talkative friends raise
too-warm hands & try to set me free

& I retreat into myself, hoping they place
me back in my terrarium, & they
do, with disappointed alacrity.

Scatter patterns in sand, adnates, cancellates, gaping
whelk husks, a toy tractor-trailer, cracked
and dinged, beside the spine of a plastic tree,

the helmet-shaped shelter of a shadow cast
by a not-quite-buried wedge of pottery . . .

if I have a body that's wholly my own
then it isn't mine. For a while I was
protected by what I pretended to be.

--The New Yorker, 8/5/13


Was hem-hawing through a back issue (8/5/13) of the New Yorker today and came across this poem, intending just to glance over just to tell myself I'd read it... The first stanza was inviting. The second stanza bunged me up: especially disliked the way-too-blatant "each home is a secret." Was prepared to yawn and flip on. But... the THIRD STANZA! "I live in a room in the room / of a boy I barely see." Experience through a scrim (either physically or metaphysically) is something seemingly simple, but I don't see it a lot; Ted Hughes does it regularly, which is one reason I like him so. For instance, in his "A Short Film" from "Birthday Letters," the ending:

And how that explosion would hurt
Is not just an idea of horror but a flash of fine sweat
Over the skin-surface, a bracing of nerves
For something that has already happened.

Hughes's overlapping of time is more complicated than what Burt is doing in his simple lines indicating overlapping physical circumstances, but the effect is similar. (The Hughes poem that most exemplifies what I'm thinking of... I can't think of! The speaker is a falconer. I can't find the darn poem anywhere!)

Anyway, Burt's 3rd stanza made me immediately get over the clunky beginning (and the follow-up 4th and 5th stanzas, which are pleasant but not magnificent -- the "disappointed" hands putting him back is interesting; I first read "disappointed" as "disappointing"-- maybe even MORE interesting, the speaker's desires dual that way, both wanting and not wanting to be engaged).

With the "Scatter patterns..." stanza, the poem takes off. I don't normally like show-offy-ness like "adnates" and "cancellates," and I still don't know what these words mean, but it doesn't matter. From here to the stunning "For a while I was protected / by what I pretended to be" end, the poem's taken on a brilliant life of its own.

I've been through a long dry stretch of limbo for the past few months. Not in psychic pain, not scrapping after jobs. (Nothing like the hell of 2 years ago.) But also a pleasure-less stretch. Burt's poem gave me a THRILL for the first time in ages. And shook something up. I read it this morning when I had nothing to do at work. And right after, left for lunch, with this in my head:

Time as tantra, as tribute, as taunt
Mantra in memory of dances not taught

Now, that's nothing but a ditty. But a ditty that's also a portal. (I walked around for the rest of the day thinking about Place and Black Holes and Hourglass and such. Which is way better than thinking about how irritatingly stupid students are...)  AKA: Burt's poem got me briefly back in touch with my soul.

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