The Kindness of a Poem – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 19 – Part Two of Two – Michelle Poirier Brown, nêhiýaw-iskwêw and Métis Poet, Features the Poem, “Mood Indigo”, by American Poet William Mathews (1942-1997)

American poet William Mathews (1942-1997). Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation.

Mood Indigo

From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled
brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink
lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales

like low clouds, and from the squeak and suck
of the well pump, and from the glove of rust it implied
on her hand, from the dress parade of clothes

in her mothproofed closet, from her tiny Philco
with its cracked speaker and Sunday litany
(“Nick Carter,”  “The Shadow,” ”Sky King”);

from the loosening bud of her body; from hunger
as they say; and from reading; from the finger
she used to dial her own number; from the dark

loam of the borrowed fields and from the very sky—
it came from everywhere. Which is to say it was
always there, and that it came from nowhere.

It evaporated with the dew, and at dusk when dark
spread in the sky like water in a blotter it spread, too,
but it came back and curdled with milk and stung

with nettles. It was in the bleat of a lamb, the way
a clapper is in its bell, and in the raucous, scratchy
gossip of the crows. It walked with her to school and lay

with her to sleep and at last she was well pleased.
If she were to sew, she would prick her finger with it.
If she were to bake, it would linger in the kitchen

like an odor snarled in the deepest folds of childhood,
It became her dead pet, her lost love, the baby sister
blue and dead at birth, the chill headwaters of the river

that purled and meandered and ran and ran until
it issued into her, as into a sea, and then she was its
and it was wholly hers. She kept to her room, as we

learned to say, but now and then she’d come down
and pass through the kitchen, and the screen door
would close behind her with no more sound than

an envelope being sealed, and she’d walk for hours
in the fields like a lithe blue rain, and end up
in the barn, and one of us would go and bring her in.

William Mathews from the New Yorker, July 10th, 1982

(To read Michelle’s first post in her two part series please click here)

I lived with Mood Indigo, the poem above, by the American poet William Mathews, for several years. Lived with it in that it was taped to the wall of my bedroom in the apartment in Vancouver’s West End where I stayed on weekdays when I worked as a federal treaty negotiator. I shared the apartment with another woman, who mostly kept to her room. In the four years I lived there, I only twice saw her walk from my bathroom, the one with the tub, to her room. I never saw her eat.

The apartment was sparsely furnished. A small table with two wooden chairs, a futon, an Ikea chair and a floor lamp. I knew no one in Vancouver other than my roommate and my colleagues at work.

It was a time of quiet. On a work trip to Terrace, I discovered the magazine Shambala Sun at the news stand downtown. After reading it cover to cover, I restricted my reading. Aside from reading what was necessary to do my job, for 18 months, I read only dharma. For amusement, I played solitaire with a deck of cards I left on the table. And I walked. I lived at English Bay and often walked the Stanley Park seawall. At night, I began my walks going east, towards the Burrard Bridge, sometimes crossing the bridge and going as far as Jericho Beach.

It was a simple, if austere, four days of every week.

For reasons I don’t remember, when I started this commuter lifestyle, I put only one thing on my walls: a typed-out copy of  Mood Indigo, a poem I had found years before in the July 10, 1982 issue of The New Yorker. It was taped in my bedroom, near the door. I would pass it every time I came or went and often stopped to read it. Every time, it felt fresh. Our relationship was not habituated and memorized, it was companionship. It was comfort.

Partly, it spoke to faint memories. While radio shows on a “tiny Philco” was before my time, my childhood included times playing in a hayloft and there was a village water pump across the road from my grandmother’s house. I spent my teen years in a small prairie town and dated a farm boy.

But the magic wasn’t in just the setting. The poem addressed something in me. It spoke to me as if I was that girl and the poem itself had young pink lungs and an inclination to come and find me. Its diction had a foreign/familiar American flavour, but there was a universal invitation in the sound effects of William Matthews’s word choices. The juxtaposition of “hayrick” with “prickled,” “chortled,” and “slurped” marked the beginning of a charm that tumbled along in “squeak,” “suck,” “well-pump,” “glove,” and “dark loam.”

If those consonant clusters were a playful look across the room, each time I got to “the very sky,” the look crossed the room and took my hand.

I had my own sorrows, felt windswept inside, and preferred my own company. I knew I was utterly unlike the girl in the poem. All the same, the poem was kind. Again and again, it brought me in.

Note: William Mathews was an acclaimed American poet who wrote eleven full-length poetry collections and was nominated for the Pulitzer prize posthumously in 2005 and won the National Book Circle Critics Award for Poetry in 1995 and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1997.

Blog Post by Michelle Poirier Brown, September, 2023

One Comment

  1. Posted September 23, 2023 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    So beautiful Michelle to read of this time in your life and the poem that was a companion even though you were utterly unlike the girl in the poem.

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