Poetry Sunday: “Conservatory,” by Idris Anderson

[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First Published March 24, 2019]


The Conservatory

Every cup of sugar borrowed from a neighbor
dissolves and disappears, never, as far
as I know, returned or reconstituted
as purple cane, as a maple in cold spring

dripping sap. The conservation of matter
doesn’t mean the mail-order toy truck
with the miniature motor can be disassembled,
and you can put the motor in this time

the right way by reading the directions—
that slip of paper printed and folded
in Japan—that you didn’t read before the screw
split the wood. A hard lesson, one of the earliest,

no one but experience teaches. Things
that are done can’t be undone, except
for changing your mind about matters
that matter, like race and politics, like love

and death. You can’t stop the shooting
of young black men by young white
policemen, not in Missouri, Carolina,
or New York, but you can think

a different way and maybe, slowly, you can
change the world, though not tomorrow.
And you can’t bring the one you loved
back into your arms; that physical loss

aching under your breastbone is, I assure you—
in spite of the persistence of your longing—
permanent, but you can think of words
once dropped into air, the shape of a gesture.

Isn’t this what art is, lines and spaces,
even the empty spaces, notes suspended
between measures, canvas showing through
the drama of color, the breathless blankness

where everything is happening? These are
the matters that matter that are not ephemeral,
that sustain and hold you together when
you and the world are falling apart.


First published The Hudson Review, November 2018, and reprinted here with permission of the author.

Idris Anderson’s second collection of poems, Doubtful Harbor, was selected by Sherod Santos for the Hollis Summers Prize, published by Ohio UP in March 2018, and is available for order here. Her first collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s Knee, was selected by Harold Bloom for the May Swenson Award, published by Utah State UP. She has won a Pushcart, a Pushcart Special Mention, and the NY Yeats Society Poetry Prize. She has published poems in AGNI, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, Hudson Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mudlark, The Nation, Ontario Review, Paris Review, Plume, Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, ZYZZYVA, and other journals. She has received grants from NEH to study lyric poetry with Helen Vendler at Harvard, Greek tragedy at Stanford, and Virginia Woolf in London. She has a PhD (in Shakespeare) from the University of South Carolina and an MFA from Warren Wilson. She recently completed residencies at MacDowell and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was born and grew up in Charleston, SC, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area two decades ago. She is fond of walking and sleeping with her two Westies, tending her bonsai trees, and traveling, recently to London, the Greek Isles, Paris, Normandy, and Brittany.


Poet’s Note

I was in a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts when the story broke on April 4, 2015. A North Charleston, SC, police officer, Michael Slager, had killed a black man, Walter Scott, stopped for a broken taillight. The details of the murder—for that’s what it was—are horrific. Walter Scott was shot in the back as he was running away. Initially, the policeman was exonerated (as usual) because he claimed he was threatened. The policeman’s version of events differed significantly from details captured in a video taken by a bystander and not in police hands for several days. When I began writing the poem on April 8, I knew that I didn’t want just to retell the story but to follow the idea that what’s done can’t be undone. I wanted language and clips from various narratives to take the poem wherever it would lead, from the most ordinary, like borrowing a cup of sugar, to loss of life and love. I let it meander and slip, collect and shift. I was surprised that the refusal of the scientific idea of the conservation of energy led to the idea that art is the ultimate, only place that conserves or reconstitutes. Only then did the poem have a title, “The Conservatory.” I shouldn’t have been surprised at this conclusion for two reasons: because I was at that moment in an artist community where we were all making art and because so many of my poems are muse poems, ars poetica, the poem about itself, this time as it conserves what otherwise would be lost—sweetness and pain, history, memory, love. Michael Slager, was ultimately, more than two years later, convicted on second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison, one of very few white policemen convicted for the murder of a black man or boy.

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