Mary Jo Salter is the recipient of the Theodore Roethke Prize for her poems “Unbroken Music” and “From a Balcony, Lake Como,” appearing in the Fall & Winter 2009-2010 (v4.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest. Read “Unbroken Music,” introduced by the author, below.
The Theodore Roethke Prize and the Richard Hugo Prize are awarded to recognize the best work published in Poetry Northwest each year. There is no application process; only poems published in the magazine are eligible for consideration. Kenneth Fields is the recipient of the 2009 Richard Hugo Prize. For a list of the previous year’s recipients, visit here.
“Unbroken Music” is one of a number of tributes—the others were prose—that I have written to honor my late friend, the marvelous poet Amy Clampitt. Some people really don’t die, and I have found in the years since Amy’s passing in 1994 that she is not only a continuing presence, but an increasingly vivid presence. I was born in 1954. Amy and I met in 1979. As one of her executors, I have by now read journals of hers that go back to the 1940s; in a sense, then, I have finally met her before I was born.
The events in “Unbroken Music,” a poem written in 2007-8 and then allowed to sit for awhile before I sent it to Poetry Northwest, really happened. Of course, it never matters whether the events creative writers record were “really” like that. Nevertheless, it is true that I stumbled on a old journal of Amy’s written in Bellagio, Italy just before I myself went to Bellagio. It is true that I discovered in my walks there an old gravestone whose highly legible epitaph was the solution to a hardly-legible scribble I had found in her journal. Amy had been moved enough by the drowning in 1890 of a stranger that she had recorded its particulars. I don’t believe in fate, but the coincidence of my finding both journal and gravestone made me believe I had no choice but to write about Amy yet again.
The first section of the poem, “Lenox, 2007,” has a title that is clearly my own, but all of the other sections are named after published poems of Amy’s. I don’t want to send the reader on a useless search, so I should point out that a few of the italicized quotations are from her private journals. I hope some of these will be published one day. A fuller account of her life will be available this fall, when her Selected Poems will be published by Knopf. No full biography has yet been written of Amy Clampitt, but the chronology I provide as editor of the Selected may answer some fascinating questions raised by her poems.
-Mary Jo Salter
for Karen Chase and Caolan Madden
IN LOVING MEMORY
SIDNEY HERBERT BRUNNER
OF WINNINGTON CHESHIRE
WHO LOST HIS LIFE
IN SAVING HIS ELDER BROTHER
FROM DANGER OF DROWNING
ON THE EIGHTH DAY OF SEPTEMBER 1890
HIS BODY WAS RECOVERED
FROM THE LAKE ON THE TENTH
AND LAID HERE
ON THE FOLLOWING DAY
THE WHITE FLOWER OF A BLAMELESS LIFE
—Epitaph in a foreigners’ cemetery, Bellagio, Italy
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end
—“A Hermit Thrush”
Amy Clampitt, 1920–1994
1. LENOX, 2007
From an overlooked trunk
in your New England attic,
and bound in a week
for Lake Como, I happen
on your small, marbled notebook
from the same place, begun
the same week of May
sixteen years before.
you’d have three years more.
Surely you thought
you’d have longer: spring
days to clean out
what you never meant,
or meant no one to read
(even us, the ring
of the last ones, the trusted
who sat at your bed).
But then, as you said,
in time everything
we save will be lost.
And who could read your scrawl—
like a lizard darting
from a stone wall?
2. RAIN AT BELLAGIO
Thunder wakes me:
electrical storm behind
the mountains but no
of evidence, no rain, just a flash
of a dream and almost afraid
to look at it
I reach for the little book
I brought on the plane.
Open it and truly
read for the first time.
crackers in bed, pressed
flowers I can’t name
spill from the sheets
of dated poem-notes
moonlight on the wet flagstones
and the picayune
tip 50 cents
apportioned between yourself
and H, your lover
of decades by then.
hopeless really, but ever
Iowa farm girl so
haunted, so imprinted—
old age—by the fear
I didn’t fully know;
still now, surely,
have no right to. Guarded
in what you said
even in solitude; peevish
perhaps but decorous,
you’ve left here only
of Jamesian prose:
To that towering pompous stick
of an academic
she has, Dorothy W.-like ,
given up her life.
To wish them gone is so rude
that one resists it, and
becomes the more put off.
Oh, I can just hear you!
Did hear you, only today,
for the first time
in years, on my laptop
cleverly set up
to obliterate distance:
google, double-click, play
reciting in her proud,
high-pitched, breathy, not
entirely misremembered voice
a poem about the call
of a hermit thrush. Impossible
to achieve back then
the high-tech séance (yours
was the Italy
of the last gettone
jammed in the slot
of the bar’s one phone,
the slow, shrugging Italy
licked for luck onto cards
destined not to arrive
at their destination). Radically
old-school anyway, you
traveled via the QE2
and your manual typewriter.
And your scribble
in journals: what terrible
penmanship, Amy, when
will you learn to correct it?
In loving memory
of Sidney…of Stanley…who?
A graveyard you visited
near here, apparently.
You took the time to
copy the epitaph
whole, and almost
An hour has passed.
Three a.m. The storm’s
now moving in on
the villa you stayed in
and pounding the moonless
hissing, a long-playing record.
3. THE HORNED RAMPION
Bookmarked—by violets, I think—
the page of field notes is itself
a plot of withered, once-wild jottings
to make sense of later rock rose (pink)
candy tuft erinus alpinus
wood sage? cistus (shrub) nightshade
with tiny white clusters myrtle daphne
What’s this then? horned rampion
Oh! it’s her first thought for her last
enraptured botanical poem a spiny,
highly structured, blue-purple star
Phyteuma Bellflower family:
rare at first sighting, the rampion
would be rampant just days later. This
was the wildflower she’d plant
as if by happenstance at the end
of the poem, where a volume
of Encyclopedia Britannica
(frequent companion, from which whole
paragraphs were duly typed
and inserted into correspondence
she hoped was edifying) falls
open at random—was she lying
to get at something true?—upon
its genus, species, and illustration.
For her, the trouvé had been old love
reopened daring words still quivering
but who’d believe her notebook fallen
open to the seed of her poem
about another book fallen open?
4. A SILENCE OPENS
Down at the lakeside, pleasure boats like toys
are glinting, tethered to their tinkling buoys
like spinning tops at last come to a stop
but for the slightest bobbing…as I’ve followed
my nose, the scented hedgerows, to end here,
unable to botanize; can hardly tell
one boat from another. Educata
one of them is called: I write that down,
absurdly, and with a heavy skeleton key
issued to the lucky ones like me
let myself out the gated come-and-go
Eden to Pescallo. A fishing village
sloshed at the margins, wind-and-grit-eroded
cobbles boldly throwing back the sun.
Chastening, and happily so, to stumble
like Alice (in your favorite book) upon
such rough, offhand perfection, facing page
of privilege, steep alleys flanked and straitened
by fitted jigsaw walls from which fiori
spontanei sprout sideways from the mosses
that seem to mortar one rock to another
in matrices, in story upon story. At a wrought-
iron gate, I glimpse it now: can see beyond
your phrase truncated entrance to the olive
groves of Pescallo whose mystery made me wish
you’d lived to finish, start, a poem about it.
What life isn’t truncated, a path
that vanishes to a point of no perspective
upon itself again? The silvered heads
nod on the olive trunks; are ancient, wise,
indifferent as I turn to cross another
threshold of surprise just up the road:
the planted slabs of a little cemetery.
Come in. No gate, no lock, and as if these
lines were chiseled just for me: IN LOVING
MEMORY OF SIDNEY HERBERT BRUNNER
OF WINNINGTON CHESHIRE Look! AGED 23
WHO LOST HIS LIFE IN SAVING HIS ELDER BROTHER
FROM DANGER OF DROWNING Yes, this is the one
HIS BODY WAS RECOVERED and was tossed
the wreath WHITE FLOWER OF A BLAMELESS LIFE.
No wonder you had copied it all out
in spidery haste, the prairie-poet drawn
time and again to drownings—of fishermen
in Maine; of the broken, heavy-lidded, stone-
pocketed Virginia Woolf who blamed
no one; of Keats at 25, whose lungs
filled with a choking liquid, and who called
out famously to erasure Here lies One
Whose Name is writ in Water. And here’s the flip
side of serendipity (my guide
thus far): it’s this, the accidental horror,
young life cut short, the petrifying thing-
not-supposed-to-happen. But what was?
You and I used to say there was no fate,
only “the coincidence factory,” and so what
to make of this?—that our young hero’s corpse
surfaced in 1890 on the date,
the very date, September tenth, when you
would meet your death in Lenox, a hundred four
years later? Nothing. Happenstance. As is
my coming on it, noting it, or opting
to remember him or you; to use my life
to set these words still quivering to paper.
After all that, you didn’t quote it. Laid
poor Sidney so deep in your final book
that nobody reading faceless in their nook
outside the walls, the name and birthplace of
the Englishman who drowned there could unearth
a shard of identity. Homage instead
to wordlessness, to the silent, stubborn worth
not only of the forgotten but of forgetting.
I’m packing up. Taking a cue from love
as defined by you, or in a phrase of letting-
go that itself was soon shucked off: such
infinitudes of things that lived—
for them, a memory-virus in our blood
that surfaces to scar us, disappears
awhile, is survivable. Who will trouble
to cobble together what we did or said,
how will they choose? Finally unable
to salvage one word more, I see ahead
only to Lenox, to returning all your green
thoughts to their resting place. Amy, where
could I pick your flowers, take up your snakeskin
of Eden left behind but in the fierce
desire to live my own days, light as air?
Mary Jo Salter is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of six books of poems, most recently A Phone Call to the Future (Knopf, 2008).