The Bigness of Small Poems – # 42 in a Series – Ellen Doré Watson – She Wants Eager

American Poet Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – )


Nightsmell of sweet-aged wood, and curtains
are a breathing. Wet palm of wave gentle-slaps
thighsand. Not like yesterday’s brutal. The ribs
of the room with their generous. Resting places.
I understand where charity comes from but clarity?
(No no-see-ums here in the white float of almost
sleep.) Looking for a word, I’ve stepped into a boat.
I want eager. Pray me. Astonishment. I’m courting
the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish.

Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – ) from pray me stay eager Alice James Books, 2018

All in one book of poems –poem after poem for readers (and so key for poets) on how to think differently about abstractions! And how better than to title a number of these poems Field Guide to Abstractions. This title already makes the point: go beyond abstraction to the detail, the image. As American poet Ellen Dore Watson has done in her wonderful poem above from her recent 2018 collection pray me stay eager.

I call her poem wonderful for lots of reasons. First, the way she takes an abstraction like word (gargantuan abstraction) and gives us rich images and then shows us that the word she is targeting is astonishment. Itself a huge abstraction. But already she has placed images provoking astonishment in her almost-sleep room. And then she has her punch-line fun: Astonishment. I’m courting/the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish. How she embodies the astonishment in an astonishingly effective way! How she makes it mean something. The astonishment of seeing underwater fish.

Second, I call this poem wonderful because her use of craft (word choice, syntax, line breaks) adds an element of magic, the surreal – creates a sense of astonishment inside the poem! The way she turns adjectives into nouns. The abrupt unexpectedness of that amping up the poem’s energy. Not like yesterday’s brutal. The ribs/ of the room with their generous. And the line breaks.  The richness she creates with her poetic lines that can be read on their own in spite of the enjambments. Some examples: Nightsmell of sweet-aged wood, and curtains. And then even though in the second line are a breathing is connected to the line above, the second line can be read like this and still make a strange sense: are a breathing. Wet palm of wave gentle-slaps.

Third, the surprises in this poem make it wonderful!  After all the lovely kinetic energy in the first four lines we suddenly get this strange intellectual question in line five. We are hyper-spaced from matter to mind! And then what the heck; no no-see-ums! And then she reminds us this poem is titled word after all and there she is stepping from that abstraction into a boat! And she’s looking for fish. Well, not really, she’s looking for astonishment!

Watson, the translation editor of The Massachusetts Review and director of The Poetry Center at Smith College, has released five full-length poetry collections in the past twenty-one years. But its not through any of these I discovered her. I first came across Watson through her translations of the celebrated Brazilian poet Adele Prado.

What a story: how Watson as a young woman tracked down Prado in Brazil, learned Portuguese, translated Prado’s poems and made a life-long friend. I was so pleased to meet them together in Toronto a few years ago when Prado won the Griffin Prize for distinguished service to poetry. I had met Watson before this through the US-based Colrain Manuscript Conference where she acted as one of the editors. Her editorial input along with feedback from US poetry publishers put me on track to have my manuscript published a few years later.

Here’s a poem of hers from an earlier collection. She does not keep her body far from her words literally and figuratively. She is a  pied-piper wooing us into the physicality of our one and only world!

Dogged Hearts

Hobbled by crab-apples underfoot, my body and I
flop into the car not all together together and struggle
to find post-Yoga lithe. The back road offers a crone
– I can only use the word – beholding the dead deer
at her feet. Then a woman in a wheelchair whooshing
like the breeze down a blue ramp. Chugging toward
school, a rail of a boy whose gait says Any smaller
and I’d disappear. Fingerprints in motion, fleeting
disclosure. In town, a girl in the crosswalk – like her hips
are a gift. A mangy man outside the bank cradles
a guitar as if he just landed a whopping fish. How
inhabit this flesh we didn’t choose? Love something.

Ellen Dore Watson (1950 – ) from Dogged Hearts, Tupelo Press, 2010

What a praise poem of our wonderfully imperfect world. And out of the dense materiality of the poem comes such a surprising and unexpected telling moment at the end, her intellectual (thinking) response/question: How/ inhabit this flesh we didn’t choose? Love something. How she moves from the dense particulars to a wide-focused expansion fueled by a great abstraction: love!

And now, back to her latest collection, look at what Watson does with a zeppelin-sized abstraction wrapped up in three letters: awe:

Ode to Awe

 I was going to say
way outsized
excitement, but out-
side says it better:
pond of stars framed
by a circle of high boughs, the sound
of ice-calving, even
the rumbling volcano
that stayed shrouded
our whole two days.
A Russian fox, trusting
humans to remove
a jar from her head.
Tree-shapes pleading
or thrusting, it doesn’t
take a Sequoia
to stop me. I disagree
with the dictionary—
it’s not fear, but a brief
release from it. In –
human. Bison. Big
water. Light arriving.
If I ever see God,
it’ll be out of doors.
I turn the mat around
to say welcome
as I leave.

Ellen Doré Watson from pray me stay eager, Alice James Books, 2018

I know how easy it is use abstractions in an unthinking way; a short hand that can often lessen a poem’s emotional power. But Watson’s new book puts me on notice to be an abstraction-buster as much as possible! And to place my welcome mat facing the world! Yes!



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