Pushcart 2014: David St. John, “Late Oracle Sonnet” (Poetry) from Kenyon Review, Winter 2012

1) Up late last night up late now this morning
2) The new clover whitening the hillside
3) The glass empty on the zinc counter
4) Also the white thimble of coffee awaiting you
5) The cello she once painted turquoise & black
6) Nobody cares nobody moves nobody thinks

I have to admit, I’m at a loss as to what’s going on here. I’ve got at least two sets of imagery competing for my attention, and I’m not sure how they fit together – or if they are meant to fit together at all. This is going to be a very odd post, a thinking-out-loud sort of thing. I welcome insight, if you happen to have the Winter 2012 Kenyon Review handy (I wasn’t able to find the poem online in any form).

Whatever it is that I’m missing, I’m intrigued. Starting from the obvious, it’s a sonnet, but only in that it’s 14 lines. There’s no rhyme scheme at all, and I don’t see any pattern to the italics that fits with one of the standard sonnet forms (though I’m obviously no expert). I wonder if the 13th line is a “turn” – the change mood – or just another image. So I’ll accept it’s a sonnet based on 14 lines, but I don’t see any clues there; formalists might be able to help with that. But let’s move on for now.

Aside from the sonnet form, the two stand-outs are the numbered lines, and the italicized lines. Again, I’m at a loss. Important moments in a life? Too few for years, too many for decades. It seems more than anything else like a frozen moment in time, all these images bombarding the senses: visual (clover, the glass), memory (the cello), a sense of social existence (nobody moves), taste. Why are the lines numbered? What’s the significance of the italicized lines? I don’t sense any pattern differentiating them from the non-ital lines.

So I’m left with a string of images, and they seem to belong to very different poems.

My first impression on reading this was of an old-fashioned country sickroom where someone had just died – the clover, comfrey, “the spray of iris” (that could refer either to a pattern in the upholstery fabric or to an actual spray of flowers), and, at the end, the corpse. That’s where I first thought, “Oh, this is about a death” but it’s likely I’m taking “corpse” too literally. Still, it brought me to a distinct scene: the morning after the death of a woman who used comfrey and anise seeds to counteract an illness, or perhaps to counteract the foul taste caused by the illness or its traditional medical treatment.

But there’s a whole other set of images that has nothing to do with that: zinc countertops (I didn’t know zinc had succeeded granite to the throne of the kitchen remodelling hierarchy) and espresso. How chic. But also rum and rhinestones. I’m a little behind in the hip trends department; have these moved up in the world? But – what do these have to do with the woman chewing anise seeds to get the bitter taste of illness out of her mouth?

Then I go in a whole other direction: a hangover from last night’s rum? No one moves or speaks because no one can, and everyone prefers it that way. The thimble of coffee becomes irony – like that’s gonna help – and the images are spinning around the dizziness. There must be a drink made with rum and anise seeds, and we all know that corpse feeling. But this feels so… trivial. Unless the speaker was drinking because “she” left, and the mix of images is a mix of what the speaker sees, and memories.

The image most striking to me was “the cello she once painted turquoise and black.” Who would paint a cello, let alone paint it turquoise? I stand corrected: not only can you order a turquoise cello (or a pink, purple, or green one) from the UK, there’s a Colorado music school that features one on its website (I modified that photo to use as art on this page).

Color plays a big part in this poem, but most of it is white or something in the pale range. The white clover, the white thimble, zinc countertops (silver, shinier than white, but still essentially without hue), opal ink. And then there’s the turquoise cello – a bit of color in an otherwise colorless existence? And the iris spray across the couch: iris can be a color as well as a flower, a purplish color; is this more of the color splash?

Does turquoise-and-black have some significance? I think of it as very 50s, possibly art-deco (or art nouveau or whatever it is) but my artistic knowledge is limited. A quick google turns up dozens of different interpretations, and I have no way of knowing which is authentic – or, if there could be such a thing as an authentic interpretation of the mystical power of a stone or color. In any event, I’m left with a “she” who is quirky and irreverent around musical instruments (I’ll give “her” the benefit of the doubt and assume the cello was worn or damaged beyond repair before “she” got her hands on it – or maybe it was an act of rebellion, an artistic statement?). “She” is not in the poem – no one is, really, it’s a poem devoid of people.

Yes, a poem devoid of people – there’s the “you” the coffee awaits, and the “no one” who doesn’t speak or move or think, and “she” who painted the cello – and perhaps has opal ink scrolling her skin. I wondered about opal ink; that interested me, since I think of opal as very pale (it isn’t necessarily) rather than inky (but ink can be pale), and with that lovely pearlescent quality. But what does that mean, scrolling her skin? Her skin growing paler as death takes over? Or something else?

Again to the google: turns out opal ink is a thing – you can get markers with opal ink, that there’s a tattoo parlor in Portland (not mine, the other one) named “Opal Ink” which would fit nicely with “scrolling her skin”. My image of Portland somewhat unites the hip and the hippie, for that matter: comfrey growing in the back yard, zinc counters and an espresso machine in the kitchen.

But the emptiness is so central to this poem, I keep coming back to it – a blank window, a coffee that waits, an empty glass, no one moving, speaking, thinking… so I’m again back where I started: loss. “She” is gone, and all that remains is the turquoise cello.

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One response to “Pushcart 2014: David St. John, “Late Oracle Sonnet” (Poetry) from Kenyon Review, Winter 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: W. S. Di Piero, “There Were Such Things” (Poetry) from Zyzzyva, Spring 2012 | A Just Recompense

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