30 September 2014

Beyond the words: Reading Beverly Eckert's poems... and wondering

A poem is like maple syrup.

No, I'm not talking about being sweet, or even sticky. I'm talking about concentrated. Intense. Essential -- as in having the quality of "essence" -- something basic and important. Poem-as-syrup is part of a metaphor I use when talking about different genres. A novel is like a tree: expansive, sprawling, complex, grand. A short story is like a leaf: compact, almost like a miniature tree, but self-contained and unique in its own way. But a poem... ahh, the poem. It's like maple syrup because it is intense. In one drop it can tell the story of the whole tree, and not just the tree but the sunshine that warmed it in the summer and the cool nights that colored its leaves in the fall.

A poem, at the end of the day, is many things. At its most basic level, it is a collection of words and their meanings. But the words carry more than their own weight. Because of this, a poem is also the emotions the words arouse. It is the images they conjure. A poem shows the power not only of words as words, but words as rhythm and rhyme, of lines and verses that speak through their length and shape as well as their content.

All of these thoughts came to mind as I read one of Beverly's poems from her high school years at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart. I'm working on a chapter about these important years in her life, and I've been lucky enough to get copies of some of her poems and other writings. They are wonderful ways to catch a glimpse of different aspects of her character, her state of mind, her emotional journeys. The poems are sometimes straightforward, sometimes enigmatic, sometimes both.

Knowing much of the story of Beverly's life and of her husband Sean's, one verse in particular from one poem has stood out, made me wonder, haunted me even. And one line, that stretches across the page, like a snake. It is from the poem "The Ash Tray," about the vision she has of a snake rising from an ashtray, full of menace. She wants it to go away. "Go back where you came from," she says.

                 But it began to hiss
                 And the hissing began to form
                 Words like----smoke;choke----coughing----coffin-----breath

The more I've worked on putting together a story of Beverly's the life, the more I've come across moments that can only be described as strange, unsettling, inexplicable. In this case, it was the writing of a simple poem during emotionally turbulent teenage years. A simple poem that today, after the passage of time and the unfolding of events, seems to convey more than words and their meanings. It carries a hint of mystery, a touch of the ineffable.

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