Lyricism of a Flighted World: Old Heart by Stanley Plumly

Old Heart

Old Heart
BY Stanley Plumly
(W.W. Norton, 2009)

Stanley Plumly’s tenth book of poetry, Old Heart, is concerned with aging, conversing with canonical poets, and existing in the natural world as well as observing its beauty and brutality. One ought to read Plumly in the summer by a stream or in a field, with nothing but the quiet and sound of distant birds. His work is meditative; this poet is master of the arresting image, creating a world in which organs have lives and birds are strewn along the path.

In many ways, the author enjoys the suspension in space just after the “drop” — his poems have wings, and this is reflected in the way he breaks his lines. His love of the movement enjambment creates and how it raises questions or guides the reader through a poem is apparent in the opening piece:

Inevitably alchemy, the lesser into the greater,
morphing to the pupa stage, the chrysalis,
but faster, the cuticle of skin sloughed off,
regrown, and shed again, each larval, instar
meta phase passing through more molting lives
than saints — five, six times before the final birth,
then into the light, like eyes wadded up, then slowly,
with the blood, wings opening. Opening and closing.

— “Butterflies,” p. 17

The entire section is composed of one line waterfalling into the next; it is reflective of what scholar James Longenbach calls the “annotative line.” In his critical text, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press, 2007), he explains this as cutting a grammatical unit, thus annotating a line in ways the syntax could not otherwise provide. Such movement takes the reader through the image, that beautiful and painful moment, and then slows down with a break in pattern — the paratactic repetition of “opening and closing.” This gives a sense of breathing to the poem.

The poem ends with the lines: “intensity at once-in-a-/ lifetime brighteness, Brightness at the flower/ finding food, inside the maul and marl of the mouth —”. Here is the annotative line at its most extreme — broken in the midst of a hyphenated phrase, breaking a trio of alliterative words in the following line before ending with a kind of opening punctuation.

This ending on the emdash also recurs in other poems, such as “Still Missing the Jays”:

Such crows, such ravens, such magpies!
Such bristling in the spyglass of the sun.
Yet this one, new in the world,
softer, plainer, curious.
I tried to match its patience, not to move,
though when it disappeared to higher ground
I had the thought that if I opened up my hand —

— “Still Missing the Jays,” pp. 32-33

These emdashes are reflective of that opening, emphasized by using that specific word at the end — a kind of likeness of the body (“the maul and marl of the mouth —” and “opened up my hand —”) and the way the poem expands into the world, allowing for possibility.

“Still Missing the Jays” is preceded by another piece that is titled “Missing the Jays”; these poems work in sequence as conversation and meditation, hence rendering an effect or a feeling similar to that of a commonplace book. This first longing calls upon the ghost of Emily Dickinson:

What’s missing, morning after morning,
are their shrill, swift barkings-down,
their shkrrring blue-flight strike alarms —
or later, from the thawing underbrush,
the clicking metered phrases Emily
Dickinson calls civic in felicity.

— “Missing the Jays,” p. 30

Here, we imagine Dickinson at her window, looking out upon the yard, considering the ways in which birds become a metric unit for Dickinson, a way of calling out to the world. Plumly’s world is beautiful and brutal; the lines “their beauty to the cardinals, / brighter than blood in the veins / of red maples” give that intake of breath, the kind of image that is so exactly precise and painful at the same time.

Plumly’s convergence of the flighted world with an address to other poets reappears in one of the book’s final poems, “Audubon Aviary.” It is a work that evokes Audubon’s drawings and follows the tradition of Keats (a poet whom Plumly knows quietly well), writing letters to his brother in Kentucky:

…“I cannot help thinking
Mr Audubon has deceived you,” Keats
writes his brother in Kentucky…
“I cannot help thinking Mr Audubon
a dishonest man,” who’s sold George
Keats an interest in a boat
already lying on the bottom in the mud —
art, again, indifferent to the life
inventing it. To see alive a great
white heron in the stillness of its pose,
to watch a spectral whooper
lift into its dance, or a rare
snowy owl glide among the trees
is to almost miss the moment
and have to bring it back
diminished in memory.

— “Audubon Aviary,” p. 83

Once again, the author takes us to deep disappointment, mired in a boat that will not rise, a great man who suspects another great man of dishonesty, and moves that poem into a kind of catalog of Audubon’s birds, both moments flourishing upon the opportunity that art takes — a relationship between the poet and the observed, between the actual moment and the moment relived.

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