Poem of the Week | April 22, 2008

This week’s poem is “Song of Songs,” one section of a long poem called “The Yellow Valley” by Stephen O’Connor. It originally appeared in TMR 30:4 (2007). O’Connor has published three books: Rescue (fiction and poetry), Will My Name Be Shouted Out? (memoir) and Orphan Trains (history). He teaches in the writing MFA programs of Columbia and Sarah Lawrence.

“Almost all of the nineteen poems in Yellow Valley came to me during one of the most extraordinarily productive periods of my writing life. My family and I had gone to France for a month, and our schedule did not allow me the stretches of uninterrupted concentration necessary to continue working on the book I had been writing. At the same time, I had begun to feel constrained by the intellectual and verbal habits I had developed over the previous decade. So I decided to conduct an experiment: I would write at least fourteen lines of poetry every morning, and none of it would make any sense. I saw almost instantly, of course, that everything I was writing was making a fair bit of sense, but since I was producing a great deal more than fourteen lines a day, and since all of it was feeling fresher and more true than anything I had written in years, I was content. I wrote a new poem almost every morning during that vacation. Most of the imagery in the poems was, naturally enough, suggested by the countryside in which I was staying, with the title image coming from the valley of un-harvested wheat over which I would look every morning as I wrote.”

5. Song of Songs

Sixty years after, and it was all the same:
There, the low stone wall where she sat and wept.
And there, the hibiscus flowers rocking outside
the kitchen door, the mimosa blushing in the fog,
and even the piano, although its keys were pillowed in dust,
and made sounds like coins rolling down a pipe.
Sixty years of nightmares had made no difference:
The one in which she buried him alive,
the whole village standing around the rain-slick pit,
indifferent, saying nothing, watching;
the one in which he slit her mother’s throat.
He had played Chopin for her, and brought her handfuls of coal.
You must read Seneca, he had said, when you are older.k
And Marcus Aurelius. His evergreen uniform,
his cropped blond hair, the commanding officer who shouted,
Put out your lights or I will shoot through your windows.
Her dolls had been sent back to Düsseldorf,
the dining room chairs burnt in the fireplace.
Henri, her brother’s classmate, shot in the woods,
driven through the village in the back of a truck,
never blinking, even as his head bounced against
the metal bed. And leaflets dropping from the sky
(possessing one was death; she had hundreds),
pink and green tracer bullets rising into rumbling black.
There had been other men, other deaths, children,
a city of glass and ash, a house under an enormous maple.
But still, she had sat on the floor in the room over the garage
while he played Chopin, sunlight glinting in the hairs on his hands.