Poetry Sunday: ‘Earth and Sky,’ by Catherine Staples

I experience “Earth and Sky” mostly in terms of the senses of sight and touch, seeing everything just as I remember it from fifty years ago and also feeling the pounding exhilaration of a joyous gallop I’ve never taken. I rode a horse exactly once in my life—one hour of white-knuckled, thigh-clenching terror—but this poem gave me the exhilarating illusory experience of riding fluently, even jumping, in a magical wintry setting. How does Staples accomplish that feeling of being taken along for the ride? One way is in the syntax—the poem’s 24 lines are organized into just two long sentences. Another is in the use of so very many verb forms in place of adjectives (“blinding,” “untranslated,” “draped,” and “rowing” to name just a few). Rendering that uncanny silence and stillness that follows a big blizzard, the scene is nevertheless wonderfully taut and active, not just because of the galloping ponies and the owl that startles up, but also because even static aspects of the scene quicken in those participles and gerunds. Also the inclusive “we” that makes up the poem’s point of view is one that invites us along to share in the speaker’s experience.

Meter has a lot to do with the feeling of being along for the ride. The poem is free verse, but all but three lines have from 9-12 syllables and about 5 beats. The meter alternates between iambic and trochaic, and more than half the lines end on a “feminine” or unaccented syllable. The effect of these metric shifts and especially of so many line terminations that teetering on un-stress, is to mimic the sensation of canter, the feeling of riding a four-footed animal as opposed to the smoother ride in something with runners or wheels. Sound is also handled with great skill, with every line but two (22 and 24) including some species of in-line sonic repetition: assonance, consonance, alliteration, near and full rhyme, or a repeated word. Lines 13-14 and 17-18 end in near rhyme (hills/spill and glitter/river) and words ending in –ing recur throughout the poem. The many repetitions of sound lend a lyric quality and contribute to the overall impression of ecstatic feeling conjured by the poem.

Grateful as I am not to own a snow shovel or ice-scraper anymore, nor to have to use a lighter to unfreeze the door locks before getting into my car, I do miss those mornings of waking up to find my gritty town and bleak fields transformed into something sculpted and perfect, perfectly clean and still. And I miss the exhilaration of forcing myself out into the freezing weather and feeling that flush as the body works hard to stay warm. What a pleasure it was to experience all again so fully in the reading of this week’s poem.


Poet’s Notes on “Earth and Sky”

Horses have shaped me as a poet, their schooling, exercise and care has kept me in touch with the natural world—the wheel of seasons as well as the habits of foxes, deer, and hawks. The places I have sought to map in the world of my poems are, to quote Eamon Grennan, no countries of the mind, but actual places. This particular landscape is located in Willistown, PA. I don’t recall the year of the blizzard, but it was similar in character to the one that hit the mid-Atlantic last weekend, ten inches to two feet deep in most places with wind-drifts far higher. My friend Alison and I were riding out from Mid-stream farm to Radnor’s Hunt’s race course, a coveted place, often off limits, but we took our chances that day and slipped in. To ride out in snow that deep with the wind blowing gusts might have been foolish, but those were two hardy ponies. Neither one of us will never forget that day, the familiar landscapes so utterly transformed they might have been dream versions of themselves—incredibly beautiful and chastening. Those were our pony days


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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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