Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]
by Karen Volkman (b. 1967)
Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea
ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,
a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare
bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.
It is a pleasure to see contemporary writers skillfully exploring the sonnet form. Karen Volkman is a master at taking the sonnet structure and like e. e. cummings, mold it to her will and keep it fresh and exciting. I like her playful bending of words, in particular the turning the word vowel into a verb at the end of this poem. It rather struck me that maybe I had never really considered what underlays the term. So I looked it up. A vowel is a speech sound that is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction and is a unit of the sound system of a language that forms the nucleus of a syllable. It is therefore in speech, by its very definition a verb and action. How brilliant an insight by Volkman, that in this case her blue, where nothing was ever as it claimed to be, forms the nucleus of this snapshot of her creativity.
I have read this poem over 10 times in the past couple of months. Each time I read it, it has this uncanny ability for me to think about something completely different. Volkman’s flow of words do not create a specific image or emotion in my mind, rather its like a shimmer, the suggestion of a skin, that allows my mood at the moment to interpret or enjoy spontaneously. I am in awe of writers that have that ability to share something so intimate as their own inner life, without infringing on our own ability to let our imaginations fly unfettered.
Volkman shared a sliver of insight into her writing on Poetry Out Loud:
“I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to allow readers to discover different and more complex ways of engaging experience, including the experience of their own inner lives, partly by surprising them into developing new modes of response in their reading, new freedoms.” Karen Volkman
Volkman and I are contemporaries at least in terms of age. She would have been even younger than I when the golden age of space exploration and maned space missions were the grand spectacles of awe on our black and white televisions. Time magazine was the weekly vehicle by which the amazing colors of space streamed into my living room, with pictures freshly minted from astronauts circling the earth, sending back photos of our blue egg.
I have no idea if Volkman sees the ying and yang between the two poems I have shared from her work. The second explores in my mind the sun around which the earth spins, and which is the source of energy that fuels all life on this planet. I particularly like her imagery that the sun “wakes the waters” and at the end, is the “blue begun.” In Volkman’s mind, none of what I see in her writing may exist, but she is the most beneficent of artists to not impose too much on the mind of her readers that we cannot create within her sonnet’s structure our own mystery.
It is hard sometimes to wrap ones head around the seemingly daily disasters, whether geopolitical or environmental or just good old-fashioned crazy people, that seem to dominate the daily news cycle. Poetry, for me, is an invitation to contemplation, meditation, a welcoming to experience a quieter place, where the mind can remind itself, that life on this planet is special.
[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]
by Karen Volkman
She goes, she is, she wakes the waters
primed in their wave-form, a flux of urge
struck in oneness, the solid surge
seeking completion, and strikes and shatters
and is its fragments, distinction’s daughters
and now, unholding, the cleave and merge
the hew and fusing, plundering the verge
and substance is the scheme it scatters
and what it numbers in substantial sun.
Her hands hold many or her hands hold none.
And diving the salt will kiss a convex eye
and be salt fact and be the bodied sky
and that gray weight is both or beggared one,
a dead dimensional, or blue begun.
Karen Volkman, “[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]” from Nomina. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Volkman