Poetry Sunday: ‘Word Pond,’ by Susan Kolodny

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Penetration of the subconscious—here represented as water—is important in “Word Pond” and a theme that recurs in Kolodny’s remarkable first book, After the Firestorm. In another poem from the book, the speaker begins “waist deep” in the Pacific and winds up on a cliff “two thousand feet above” it, so powerfully drawn that she must, like Odysseus’s sailors, physically restrain herself from its lure (“Sirens”). Creativity is an act of remembering which sometimes requires full submersion and poses the risk of drowning.

As her notes mention, Kolodny is a practicing psychoanalyst and psychotherapist and the author of a book that ponders the links between human psychology and creativity. In her poems, the revelation of layers of consciousness is less an excavation than a cultivation of the attentiveness that brings nuance into focus, the kind of attention and patience that permits subtleties to float into view like the exotic fish that often turn up as images:

………………………………………….I float
Among jewelfish that dart and glide—
Opalescent silver, orange and melon green,
Parabolas of color in space—among these shapes
I drift.  (from “Lagoon”)

Kolodny’s signature technique is Imagist, and as the lines above make clear, her language, spare yet saturate, can glow with jewel-like lucidity. The speaker here is part of and immersed in the water but also (“Delusions of snorkel”) separate from it. A world of life exists above, below, and at the edge of her peripheral vision. We are made aware of what the speaker sees and does not see in the protected lagoon and further beyond the barrier reef. At first she feels safe, but then she begins to sense danger, “the savage things that lurk / beyond.” The tropical fish return in another poem, “Black Carp,” but what “lurked” before now swims into full view:

.   .   .   torn silk,
spilled ink upon the water,
glimpsed, you swim
into memory.   .   .
Glimpsed, you recur.

Memories are a source of creative potential as well as of menace, and the poems in After the Firestorm are full of shadows and light, echoes of echoes, a dark carp among brightly-colored fish. In “Koi Pond” the speaker notices fish near the surface, vivid as Matisse cutouts:

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat, 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple

But in the layers beneath them,

like a subplot or motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned
.  .   .   living in the shadow.


The relationship between memory retrieval and creativity is explored in “Word Pond,” whose 16 lines are characteristic of Kolodny’s poetry in their taut suspension of few sharply drawn images such as the mossy pond and the broken watch. “Word Pond” describes the hard work that must be done to foster creativity, and it enjoins readers to “[g]o back, past the curtain of details, the wall / of chores, the grimy surfaces that obscure.” The object of the search is “the word pond,” symbolized in the poem by an actual pond the speaker found when she was seven years old. The pond is the crucial source and font of the speaker’s creativity, and yet in the daily round of life’s everyday responsibilities, she continually forgets and must “refind” it. And like the siren waters of the Pacific, it is a thing that once found becomes compelling, a thing that one must

[k]neel beside, brace yourself against
Falling into, and reach into—fingers, wrist,
Arm, shoulder—down, and down.

Penetration of the subconscious is both feared and sought and is what Kolodny works through with some of her patients in the poems in the second section of her book. Her speaker here experiences its danger, along with its vital relation to creativity. A delicate balance keeps the artist teetering on the edge, and so it is no accident that we often find this speaker often near or immersed in water, a metaphor for consciousness and the way its layers can be pierced and apprehended, both a threat and a powerful lure.

Creativity, then, is ultimately an act of retrieval and of remembering. The process requires patience and learning how to listen and watch (as when snorkeling) for what may float into a field of vision newly cleared. It is hard, sometimes distasteful work: there’s “snail slime” and mud and the surface may be “scummy.” You may penetrate the mystery only to find another mystery, here the memory of a lost watch that stops time. The trick is to “reach” rather than falling headlong into the subconscious. The ultimate fear is of drowning, but what this poem teaches is that an artist must make the journey inward and then go deep if she is to find anything of value.



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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  • marianne sippel September 25, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Just beautiful. I completely understand it. Thank you.

    Another Poet.