Poetry Sunday: “Survival: A Guide,” by Cleopatra Mathis

Survival: A Guide It’s not easy living here, waiting to be charmed by the first little scribble of green. Even in May the crows want to own the place, and the heron, old bent thing, spends hours looking like graying bark, part of a dead trunk lying over opaque water. She strikes the pose so long I begin to think she’s determined to make herself into something ordinary. The small lakes continue their slide into bog and muck— remember when they ran clear, an invisible spring renewing the water? But the ducks stay longer, amusing ruffle and chatter. I can be distracted. If I do catch her move, the heron appears to have no particular fear or hunger, her gaunt body hinged haphazardly, a few gears unlocking one wing, then another. More than a generation here and every year more drab. Once I called her blue heron, as in Great Blue, true to a book— part myth, part childhood’s color. Older now, I see her plain: a mere surviving against a weedy bank with fox dens and the ruthless, overhead patrol. Some blind clockwork keeps her going.   book_of_dog_poems_by_cleopatra_mathis_1936747804From Book of Dog (Sarabande Books, 2012), reprinted with permission of the press. First published in The Georgia Review. Order Book of Dog here.   Cleopatra Mathis, born and raised in Ruston, Louisiana, of Greek and Cherokee descent, is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Book of Dog, published by Sarabande Books in 2013. Her work has appeared widely in magazines and journals including The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Three Penny Review and anthologies and textbooks including The Best American Poetry, 2009, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, The Extraordinary Tide: Poetry by American Women, and The Practice of Poetry. Prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA grants, the Jane Kenyon Book Award in 2001 (for What to Tip the Boatman?), the Peter Lavin Award from the Academy of American Poets, two Pushcart Prizes, The Robert Frost Resident Poet Award, a Fellowship in Poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center, The May Sarton Award, and four Individual Artist Fellowships in Poetry from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey State Arts Council. Cleopatra Mathis is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor of the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College, where she founded the creative writing program in 1982. Her website is cleopatramathis.com.   Notes on “Survival: A Guide” [caption id="attachment_99736" align="alignleft" width="175"]Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor[/caption] I met Cleopatra Mathis in the summer of 2014 when she came to Franconia to welcome me to the Frost Place, where I had the great luck to live as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence for two months. There are many reasons I’ll count that summer as one of the best of my life, but one was staying in the farmhouse occupied by Robert Frost and his family for many of his writing years. Cleopatra had warm memories of her own residency there some years before, and she showed me the best place to work in the morning (front porch with its stunning view of the White Mountains) and afternoon (screened-in porch in the back), the room where Frost had slept and written, and the living room whose floor and walls she had papered with poems from an early manuscript. Her reading at the Frost Place conference that summer was very moving, and I saw her one last time when the residency closed with my reading at Dartmouth, where she teaches. “Survival: A Guide” is free verse, divided into two equal stanzas that tell about a first-person speaker watching a heron, the same one she’s watched over a period of years. In stanza one, the heron is motionless, but its stasis is at the center of much movement and life: a “scribble of green,” cawing crows, lakes sliding “into bog and muck,” and noisy ducks. Also alive and in motion is the speaker’s mind, sometimes taking note of  minute visual details of the heron and other times distracted by ducks and by the speaker’s own memories.  Each stanza follows a similar pattern that seems first to focus on the heron the way a camera does, then in its final lines to focus inward on the person taking the shot. A closer reading, though, reveals many clues about the speaker long before she openly muses about what she sees. From the reference to “more than a generation” we know she’s been watching the heron for twenty years or more and can surmise someone of at least middle-age. Assignment of female gender to the bird suggests that the speaker is a woman. Not one to sugar-coat things but also not bitter, the speaker opens the poem with a complaint that even as it is uttered admits to being susceptible to “charm,” and she tells us outright that she “can be  distracted” and “amus[ed]”(10-11). Her sense of humor flashes in the lines about the heron frozen in a pose so long that the bird appears “determined to make herself into something ordinary” (7). Read More » Next Page: Stanza Two and the Image of the Heron

Join the conversation

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

  • DPIR – Poem-a-day // Cleopatra Mathis | The Frost Place April 29, 2019 at 1:58 pm

    […] Read her poem, “Survival: A Guide,” here. […]