Tom’s Lyric Reserves

A POEM ON THE CAPITOL STEPS

by Mark Fiddes

Amanda is joined by a weak sun

which recognizes yellow

as one of its lost colours.

Her words seed the new blue air

which recognizes hope

as one of its lost languages.

Her voice reawakens multitudes

who recognize a smile

as one of the lost graces.

We believe again as if primroses

were bursting from stone.

Amanda Gorman has become a pop star. Fiddes’s poem, from OTHER SAINTS ARE AVAILABLE (Live Canon), suggests several reasons. All point to a seeming public “fact.” Her yellow outfit confirmed the weakness of the sun. Her words satisfy the need of “the new blue air” to restore hope to its “lost languages.” Her voice meets the need of “multitudes” who have missed “a smile” among their “lost graces.” Given the public job of restoration — of color, hope, reassuring smiles— accomplished by her reading her poem “on the capitol steps, ” the poem is nothing less than a secular if Romantic epiphany: we believe we’ve witnessed an impossible event (primroses have burst from stone).

But of course these are all metaphorical expressions though capable of being swallowed whole.

Fiddes thus responds to a public outbreak of enthusiasm that attended Gorman’s public reading, and the enormity of the event as a public phenomenon seems proportionate to his configuration of the losses — of light, of hope, of human tenderness— it assumed. Fiddes is attending not to Gorman’s poem as a literary work but to the emotional, even spiritual, context. The context includes the emotional needs of a “people” not the structural and historical — political — facts of their daily lives. It’s not too much to suggest that by this reconfiguration of the occasion of the poem, so obvious on social media, in the ”news,” that the poem has a complexity beyond its occasion such that “metaphysical” suggests itself as one of its relevant qualities.

By its difference from the public response , the poem will have a complicated reception. I know people who love ‘it.’ But I’m aware we are not talking about the same poem. One of the obnoxious simplicities of our popular culture is that works of art are by definition open to radically opposing responses— by “open” I mean promiscuously accepting of. This poem seems to me “double” in irreducible ways, so that reading it in its own terms is an event of consciousness, involving the reader in a mindfulness that is perplexing rather than mollifying. That is, the poem draws on reserves that the reader may not be conscious of. The poem belongs to an order of objects that pop culture regularly dismisses for various reasons.

The key phrase “as if” — see the last lines—neatly avoids all this. The poem, solidly even stolidly constructed, views itself as part of a problem perhaps more pressing than the ones the poet Amanda Gorman addresses in her poem. They are indeed pressing issues. And to a suggestive degree the rhetorical build of Fiddes’s poem recognizes that of its verbal inspiration. The title alone evokes a range of perceptions and values that put the reader of Fiddes on her guard. The gap between the poems becomes at this point in need of a conversation that would swamp this fragile bark.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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