On the Thread of Language

The Kingfisher

by Amy Clampitt
Knopf, 149 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Amy Clampitt writes a beautiful, taxing poetry. In it, thinking uncoils and coils again, embodying its perpetual argument with itself. The mind that composes these poems wants to have things out on the highest premises; refinement is as natural to it as breathing. Like all poetic minds it thinks in images, drawn here from an alluring variety of origins—nature (from Iowa to Greece), religion (from Athena to Christ), science (from geology to entomology), art (from manuscript illumination to Beethoven), and literature (from Homer to Hopkins). Clampitt is unself-consciously allusive; the poems are rich with geographical and literary texture, a texture that supports and cushions and gives body to the meditation—sometimes eager, sometimes resentful—that forms the main strand of each poem.

Clampitt’s poems, the best ones, are long, as painful ruminations have to be. Clampitt is a woman in middle age contemplating, in retrospect, a difficult Iowa childhood and adolescence, a move East and travels in Europe, and, in the present, love and friendship, periods of happiness on the Maine coast, and recently the death of parents. This life is very discreetly presented, in ways almost bare of anecdote; and yet the intensity of response in Clampitt’s language suggests a life registered instant by painful (or exalted) instant. If Iowa has not had a poet before, it has one now.

Here is Clampitt’s Iowa, its frightful weather (blizzards in winter and tornadoes in summer) vengefully and exactly drawn:

…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…
Against
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, suc- tion
dislodging treetrunks like a rotten tooth—
luck and a cellarhole were all
a prairie dweller had to count on.

Such “description” has in another sense nothing to do with Iowa weather and everything to do with the barbarism of farm life, unaesthetic and uncivilized, presenting itself to the child Clampitt as one full of male wolfish spittle and female udders of ire, where one hid out and hoped for the storm to pass without tumultuous dismemberment. Against all that inexplicable violence, there occurred, the poem concedes, occasional moments of sweetness, experienced perhaps in the undergrowth of a woodlot:

…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.

That a poem beginning with the barbedwire fencing in an Iowa woodlot should end (after its savage weather report in the middle) with the philosophical conundrum of identity, is surprising, but only until one sees how typical such a proceeding is in Clampitt, where one thing is sure to lead to another. I take “The Woodlot …

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