I knew the words would be waiting for me,
how various sounds play in the mouth and mind,
each time a different estero in my heart
like your bracelet’s lost coral scale, your bone hairpin,
the lipstick smudge sliding off torn tissue
a special event each time, thing by thing,
word by word….
The Poetry Foundation webpage for Di Piero talks about his “gritty realism” and “colloquial language and diction”. I wondered if I got the name wrong, because I see anything but grit in this poem (available online): more magic than realism, and language far more mysterious and delicate than colloquial.
Absence is central to the poem. I get a clear sense of loss, of the speaker talking to someone who is no longer in his life, but is remembered by everyday objects: a hairpin, a lipstick-stained tissue, a bracelet. Isn’t that how it is; we can cultivate our jewelry chests and our appearance, but it’s the silly little things, what we might call flaws, that endear us to others.
The scene is at some kind of water: all the birds mentioned are shore birds, waders, and “estero” is the Spanish word for “estuary” ( interestingly, it’s also the Italian word for “foreign” and Di Piero’s most recent collection, TOMBO, is partly influenced by Italy – he translates Italian poetry – but I don’t think that’s relevant, or, at least, is only relevant as an interesting association).
Then there’s the turn:
Where were you that day? Why weren’t you with me?
But what waited there was something else.
Here’s where loss, absence, kicks into high gear, as the leopard sharks are the “swimming absence of words they drove away.” I can’t articulate exactly what that means, but it’s one of those things that’s incredibly beautiful and meaningful, even unparsed. Maybe the couple, the speaker and the absent woman of the lipstick-stained tissue, are the sharks who drove the words away in their relationship. No more creatures ” waiting in their familiar names”: like the birds, the coral scale, she is another word he thought would always be there – but is not.
Like the earlier poem “Late Oracle Sonnet“, I wonder if I’m reading too much into semantic meaning and not enough into something else – in this case, sound and rhythm; Di Piero’s interview with McSweeney’s, although not covering this poem, indicates his fondness for rhythmic patterns: “mixed tones, jumpy cadences, sound-speeds.” I read this several times aloud, and each time I admired the plaintive questions in the middle as a pause point. The turn really turns there. But I notice more imagery than rhythm in this poem. Sometimes I even see a tragic accident: the lipstick smudge not on a torn tissue, but blood on torn flesh, the bracelet missing a scale because it’s damaged, the hairpin a real bone jutting out, perhaps the victim of the sharks, the umbrella bones all that is left and that is why she was not with him that day… what was that story from earlier in the week? Imagination? Sometimes mine scares me.