Poetry

Catherine Abbey Hodges:
“Glosa on Lines from Peter Everwine”

Comments by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

Poems, like multitasking teenagers, can engage in several conversations at once. They speak to the reader but also to other poets, living and dead. This is not always acknowledged on the page, though it is well understood by poets. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take; and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

In this case, Catherine Abbey Hodges goes out of her way to point us to the work of her friend and mentor, Peter Everwine, in what is both elegy and homage. How appropriate to honor a poet/teacher with this particular, and uncommon, traditional form called a glosa or glossa—which aims to take something good and incorporate it into something also good but different.

Hodges’ newly published book, In a Rind of Light (Stephen F. Austin University Press 2020), her third full-length collection, includes elegies to various people in her life and more than one homage to Everwine, though this is the only glosa. She especially favors the short lyric, characterized by quiet precision, generosity of spirit, and extraordinary attentiveness. Her poems come across as a sort of spiritual practice in which she tasks herself to fight off sadness by focusing on the smallest bit or “rind of light.” That image comes from the final poem, “Even the Poorest Thing,” which also features a dead fly and a tub of blueberry yoghurt, and is a love poem.

In order to attend the world, Hodges seems to stand stiller than many of us and to capture that stillness in her lines—a reminder that poets are, above all else, observers. As she writes about an old dog pressing against her leg: “I felt the vibration I sometimes / feel when I stand outdoors alone // for a long while, something / sympathetic between the earth and / the soles of my feet…”

Though her observations may be large, the objects of Hodges’ attention can be delightfully small. In a Rind of Light contains poems titled “Late Afternoon Meditation on an Open Egg Carton” and “Song of the Hinge.” When the objects are living, they often seem to be watching her watching them. In “September Tarantula,” the speaker finds a spider in her path, notes it is “furred and fleshed like me,” and concludes: “At length, we blessed each other / on our solitary ways, in the wisdoms / of our bodies.”

These characteristics come together in Hodges’ choice of the four lines from Peter Everwine to work into her glosa. As Hodges writes in the notes of her book: “A form from the 14th-century Spanish court, the glosa honors the work of another poet, taking a quatrain from that poet as a cabeza and ending each of four ten-line stanzas with successive lines from the quatrain. Lines six and nine traditionally rhyme (mine slant a bit) with the final line in the stanza.”

The poet best known for this form in English is the Canadian P. K. Page, who wrote Hologram: A Book of Glosas (Brick Books 1994) as a way to honor the poets whose work she loved. Page described how the challenges she discovered writing glosas began with choosing four lines that could be separated and function independently, that were not too difficult to rhyme, and that could blend with her own voice.

So you can understand why Hodges selected this particular Everwine quatrain. The lines make sense as units. The rhymes (much/hush/thrush, double/muddle/rubble, tell/help/himself, bring/wings/sings), all work as full or slant rhymes. Most noticeably, Everwine and Hodges share a common sensibility as poets who take the time to notice something small—in this case, a particular bird picking its way through a rubble-strewn lot.

It requires deftness to work with another poet’s lines and not let them overwhelm the poem. Here, Hodges chooses her own images and never abandons her own voice.

She opens with direct address, the purest form of conversation, and a device that immediately separates the speaker’s voice from that of the quoted poet. The vest works on both a literal and metaphoric level for what she inherited from Everwine and adapted as her own. A vest helps keep us warm, but it does not cover us completely. As she makes clear in the poem, she has wrapped herself in the past while looking for a way forward.

Her transitions to Everwine’s words are so subtle that we have to look back to the cabeza to verify which are his. She integrates their two voices with the rhyming lines at the end of each stanza before clearly separating herself once more at the start of the next with “my gaze,” “seems / to me,” and “what I’ll need to do too.” It is as if she puts on and takes off his perspective, like a vest. We never lose sight of her—her sense of loss and being lost.

The aim of a glosa is not to imitate, of course, but to expand. And Hodges builds on the possibility inherent in Everwine’s quatrain that the thrush poking through “a maze of rubble” is the poet “searching for something to fill himself / before he sings.” Her glosa becomes simultaneously an elegy and an ars poetica, or meditation on poetry.

Aren’t poems, like birds, often described as “lively and precise”? The speaker envying the nimbleness of the bird also could be admiring the ease and grace of the poet whose work she loved. Before she can move on from her “brimming emptiness” and before she can write this poem, she must find her own way through the maze. She begins to do that with the playful teasing about what the thrush is doing there: “you’re the one who put / or found him there in your poem, / and he’s free to leave this one but hasn’t / yet…”

The poem will end and the thrush will leave, but not until Hodges takes the time to notice how “he flares his wings / before he sings”—a bit of radiance that Peter Everwine, too, certainly would have admired.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.