Amy Clampitt’s Selected Poems

Selected PoemsAmy Clampitt was born in Iowa and raised on a farm, but the poetry collection that would bring her genius to the public’s attention, The Kingfisher (published in 1983, when she was 63 years old), draws mainly from her experiences in Maine. “For the Ocean, nothing / is beneath consideration,” she says in “Beach Glass,” but so too for her poetic mind, which roams over Maine’s landscape “engaged in the hazardous / redefinition of structures / no one has yet looked at.”

My introduction to Amy Clampitt came from a solitary poem anthologized in a college course book. That poem was “The Cormorant In Its Element,” and its sheer lyrical exuberance, bursting from every line, captivated me. Just figuring out how to read it aloud, where to place stresses and intonations, is a challenge and a delight, and a first-time reader is liable to be so engrossed in the imagery and lyricism that the poem’s turn, from bird to man, will seem even more startlingly abrupt. Its most immediate debt is to Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poem “The Windhover” is Clampitt’s inspiration – or rather blueprint – and whose “sprung rhythm” provides the unusual meter; as such, as beautiful as this poem is, I don’t consider it an ideal representation of her particular style. For that, I turn to “The Woodlot,” also from her Kingfisher collection.

The Woodlot

Clumped murmuring above a sump of loam –
grass-rich, wood-poor – that first the plow,
then the inventor (his name plowed under
somewhere in the Patent Office) of barbed wire,
taught, if not fine manners, how at least to follow
the surveyor’s rule, the woodlot nodes of willow,
evergreen or silver maple gave the prairie grid
what little personality it had.

Who could
have learned fine manners where the air,
that rude nomad, still domineered,
without a shape it chose to keep,
oblivious of section lines, in winter
whisking its wolfish spittle to a froth
that turned whole townships into
one white wallow? Barbed wire
kept in the cattle but would not abrade
the hide or draw the blood
of gales hurled gnashing like seawater over fences’
laddered apertures, rigging the landscape
with the perspective of a shipwreck. Land-chained,
the blizzard paused to caterwaul
at every windbreak, a rage the worse
because it was in no way personal.

the involuted tantrums of spring and summer –
sackfuls of ire, the frightful udder
of the dropped mammocumulus
become all mouth, a lamprey
swigging up whole farmsteads, suction
dislodging treetrunks like a rotten tooth –
luck and a cellarhole were all
a prairie dweller had to count on.

the inventor of barbed wire was lucky
finally in what he found himself
remembering, who knows? Did he
ever, even once, envision
the spread of what he’d done
across a continent: whale-song’s
taut dulcimer still thrumming as it strung together
orchard, barnyard, bullpen, feedlot,
windbreak: wire to be clambered over,
crawled through or slid under, shepherded –
the heifers staring – to an enclosure
whose ceiling’s silver-maple tops
stir overhead, uneasy, in the interminably
murmuring air? Deep in it, under
appletrees like figures in a ritual, violets
are thick, a blue cellarhole
of pure astonishment.

It is
the earliest memory. Before it,
I/you, whatever that conundrum may yet
prove to be, amounts to nothing.

The poem functions as a retrospective, a meditation on the prairie life Clampitt left behind and its influence on her development, but this is not made explicit until the final stanza, whose insights must be applied on a rereading. Placed in the context of Kingfisher, a reader cannot help but find the sudden shift to a prairie grid of little personality jarring, but this is mitigated somewhat by the abundance of sea imagery. The winter air, unobstructed by mountains, whips itself into a froth and turns “whole townships / into one white wallow,” just as gales “gnashing like seawater over fences” give the landscape “the perspective of a shipwreck.” (And pause to admire that beautiful line about weather whose rage is “worse / because it is no way personal.) The boarders of memory are not discrete; the imagery of Maine colors the memories of Iowa, just as barbed wire is powerless to contain the winds. With consummate skill, Clampitt simultaneously evokes a landscape and dramatizes the process of remembrance, which she (correctly) posits is a sine qua non of selfhood.

Clampitt is a challenging poet (like Eliot she provides helpful footnotes for many of her poems) but even when the trail of sense is lost a reader can luxuriate in her use of language, as lyrical as any of the 20th century’s major poets.