Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘A Bell Buried Deep,’ by Veronica Golos

 

A Bell Buried Deep

Feasting on the aftertaste,
I weaken first,
rise, stand at the window –
my pale skin flushed in the North Carolina light.
The old wood planks moan,
the white bedspread ripples like new snow,
our white sheets are the color of white beneath white –
and you, your brown skin against the sheet,
our marriage the color of syrup.

I lift my eyes and am chastened
by the angry heartbreak this world can bring.
The treetops are tender green –
and what is the color green but everything washed clean,
even the tiny, blue stone cemetery
where my son remains…
does not rise even after this, his eleventh year.
He is blue in the ground, his light-blue bones,
the midnight cap of his hair, his infant smell –
a bell buried deep, where he was in me,
ringing, ringing.

My god,
love making
can redeem
but does not release
pain! I do not forget

my periwinkle boy, my blue berry, my demon –
all his names in a world pulsing with names,
wild christenings in the air –
as the blue-green vein of my wrist beats,
the memory of him, our pale-boned boy,
drives me back to our bed
to touch you, his dark father,
with my grief full of tongues,
full with his name.

First published in Rattapallax and reprinted with permission of the poet.

 

http://womensvoicesforchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/V_10_MP31.mp3

Click play to hear Veronica Golos reading her poem, “A Bell Buried Deep.”

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Golos_4-20-15Veronica Golos Book Cover_10-3-15

Veronica Golos is the author of Rootwork: The Lost Writings of John Brown and Mary Day Brown (3:A Taos Press, 2015), Vocabulary of Silence (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the New Mexico Book Award, and translated into Arabic, and A Bell Buried Deep, co-winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize (Story Line Press), and to be re-issued by Tupelo Press. She is co-editor of the Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art and the Poetry Editor for The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

 

Notes on “A Bell Buried Deep”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

[Editor’s Note: A reader wrote last month to suggest that my remarks should follow the poems to allow readers to form their own views before reading my own, so I’ll try the new format for October and ask readers to give feedback as to which format they prefer in future columns.]

I heard “A Bell Buried Deep” for the first time at a poetry workshop run by Tupelo Press in Truchas, New Mexico, in the fall of 2012. Veronica Golos was on the faculty, and she read the poem in the library, a spacious, high-ceilinged room filled with books and light. Over the past three years I have thought of it often, and now when I read “A Bell Buried Deep” on the page, I find I can still hear Golos’s voice [you can, too, in the audio clip included above] and see the flame-filled person speaking these lines.

What makes this poem so memorable? Maybe it’s the subject I impute to it—loss of a child—and the remarkable way the poem transmutes the speaker’s grief into a life-force of desire for the “you” in the poem, her lover and marriage partner. This is powerful, brave material with universal resonance. But another reason is the subtle craft with which the poem triggers all five senses to generate a powerful somatic experience that lodges itself in the bodies of its readers and listeners. My discussion focuses on the sense of sound, but you will see how the poem offers up a rich stock of images that in many iterations also invoke taste (“aftertaste,” “feast,” “syrup”), smell (“infant smell”), touch (“tender,” “ripple,” “skin against”), and sight (“white beneath white,” “brown skin,” “tender green,” “light-blue bones,” “blue-green vein”).

Poetry, we are told, springs from an oral tradition, with the first poems being chanted and sung long before they were written down. Patterns of sound alone (in orchestral music, for example) can evoke strong response, but when such sounds are combined with images that also engage the head and the heart, their power to move the listener is redoubled. I think the source of this poem’s power comes from the way it sonically extends its central visual metaphor of a buried bell—extends it in the many, many repetitions of sound that recall a bell’s tolling.

The sound repetitions begin with the b-sound consonance in the title, “A Bell Buried Deep,” and continue throughout the poem. Let’s look at just the first four lines:

Feasting on the aftertaste,
I weaken first,
rise, stand at the window –
my pale skin flushed in the North Carolina light.

Here, “feast” near-rhymes with “taste” and “first” and again with “rise, st” and “flushed,” with the last two providing examples you might miss if you do not hear the poem read aloud. At the same time, “feasting’s” long-e sound sets up assonance with line two’s “weaken” and also includes a nasal (“in”) heard again in “stand, “window,” “skin,” “in” and “Carolina.” These sounds, along with many others later introduced, come back again and again in subsequent stanzas. For example, stanza two’s “chastened” is a sort of wonderful sonic portmanteau that packs up both a near-rhyme with “feast” and the nasal “ing” sound, both found in the word “feasting.” Another striking example is the near-rhyming “blue-green vein” with its many subsequent echoes, including the almost-oxymoronic “christening” and “demon.” If you go through the poem word by word, you will discover many such phonemic repetitions. As with any repeated unit of sound, these—like a meditative “ohm”—have an incantatory effect. In this way Golos supersaturates the sound pool of her poem with syllables that echo and re-echo to create an acoustic sound chamber that reminds me of the pealing of many bells.

Also contributing to the power of this poem is its attention to line breaks. Let’s look at the first six lines of stanza three:

1          My god,
2          love making
3          can redeem
4          but does not release
5          pain! I do not forget
6          my periwinkle boy, my blue berry, my demon –

Because line 4 breaks where it does, we are free to read more than one meaning into the word “release;” it can mean “does not release pain” but can also refer to release that follows (or in this case does not follow) love making. In a similar way, “pain? I do not forget” can be read another way besides the obvious “I do not forget my periwinkle boy.” Read as a unit, these words powerfully communicate the idea of a terrible, more abstract pain (pain!) the speaker can never forget. The great poet W.S. Merwin is famous for using line breaks in this way, so as to generate multifarious meanings.

The grammar and diction of the poem are deceptively simple, telling the story of a speaker driven into the arms of her lover by grief for a son who has died. But “buried” beneath its pellucid surface are many complexities of sound, image, and meaning that give the poem its resonance. In being so keenly alive to the five senses, the poem intensifies the experience of maternal loss and grief, and it haunts me in the lacunae of my cells. I’ll never forget the image of a beloved boy as a bell buried not just in the ground but also deep in his mother’s womb and of the boy as “blue,” an image I’ve used in my own poems about a son born without breath or cry and only a faint pulse to tie him to this world.

 
Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen October 4, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    This is a lovely powerful and memorable poem but I LIVE for your poetry seminar every Sunday.
    Pat

    Reply
  • Gail Willis October 4, 2015 at 10:56 am

    I concur with the reader who suggested putting the commentary after the poem. I very much appreciate Rebecca Foust’s reaction and explication of the poems she selects, prefer to let the poem speak directly to me first. Poetry Sunday’s are one of my very favorite segments in WVFC.

    Reply