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  #1  
Old 12-20-2003, 02:09 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Default William A. Baurle

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AT WOUNDED KNEE

Three days and no one comes to close my eyes.
I am as cold and quiet as a stone
on the white ground. I wait and cannot rise.


Death steals less swiftly than a bullet flies:
the ache has time to settle in the bone.
Three days and no one comes to close my eyes.


Because the snow falls and the wind still cries
here I remain like something broken, thrown
to the white ground. I wait and cannot rise,


nor yet lie easy, as a dead man lies,
though surely death has claimed me for its own.
Three days and no one comes to close my eyes.


My spirit beats its awkward wings and tries
to take the air but, like the snow, is blown
to the white ground. I wait and cannot rise

to run like lightning through these winter skies
with ghosts of kin who see how still I've grown
in three days. No one comes to close my eyes.
On the white ground I wait and cannot rise.

Williamb





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  #2  
Old 12-20-2003, 10:06 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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What a hasrrowing story this poem tells! It resonates with me with particular force, because my husband, during World War II, spent two days passing a "body"--one of many--at the scene of a recent tank battle, and on the second day heard a faint "Help" from the green lips of the supposed corpse. He alerted the command post and the medics, and the man survived. Like stories of live burial, accounts of this kind are unbearable, because they evoke the primitive horror of being trapped in the limbo between death and life, without the comforts of either.

The choice of the villanelle as a form for this is the first of this poems's many triumphs: the villanelle may be famous for its musicality and charm, but it's also the perfect form for obsession, espcially when that obsession involves a duality, a choice difficult or impossible to make. The austere, unadorned language the poet has chosen to use is another triumph, and so is the use of repetition (cold, white, snow). The details are few and well chosen: bullet, persistent inability to move, three days.

In the final satanza, the phrase of "to run like lightning" is heart-breaking in its evocation of the young soldier's speed, agility and force, especially followed in the next line by "ghosts of kin who see how still I've grown/in three days." What a wonderful use of enjambment!

The whole poem is a somber triumph. Even the one line about which I had some doubt--"though surely death has claimed me for its own"--has come to feel right, as if the dying man had the right to a formality of phrase not in keeping with the desperate situation that surrounds him. No, I can't find a single nit to pick. But the rest of you, go right ahead!



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Old 12-20-2003, 10:47 AM
David Anthony David Anthony is offline
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Yes, it's a wonderful poem.
I think I'm reading it slightly differently from Rhina, seeing the narrator as dead, not dying, but his spirit's trapped because nobody has performed the last rites. Why not? Because they're all dead, like him. What a world of grief is contained in that simple repeated statement, "no one comes to close my eyes".
David
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Old 12-20-2003, 09:00 PM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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David, I weighed that possibility, which is certainly valid, but decided to take stanza 4 at its word, as I understand it: he cannot "lie easy, as a dead man lies," not "as other dead men lie," and although death has "claimed him," we're not sure it has come to collect its booty. I may be wrong about this. In any case, I find the ambiguity about his state a strength of the poem, not a weakness, in that it earns him our compassion more than death, outright and certain, could do. I thought of the people buried alive in the wreckage of 9/11, and had to stop reading for a while. After the discussion all over, maybe William will enlighten us both about his intention.
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Old 12-21-2003, 02:13 PM
Janet Kenny Janet Kenny is offline
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I have already praised this terrifying poem elsewhere. I tend to share Rhina's interpretation. The living death.

Whichever, the poem is beautifully made and is a powerful aesthetic experience.
Janet
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Old 12-21-2003, 02:50 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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I find this peaceful, and a good part of the reason is the Native-American style of diction. The spirituality here is not Judeo-Christian, rather something other, pagan, where life and death are not so distinct as they are in the Judeo-Christian belief.

He is in the world between the living and the dead; in another world, watched over by "ghosts of kin." He is still conscious, of course, so he cannot be dead; he's as good as dead to the living, however. As good as living to the dead. I don't find this paradox harrowing, but reassuring. Soon he will "run like lightning through these winter skies." He is patient, as only one who knows nature can be patient.

Beautiful, William.
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Old 12-21-2003, 05:54 PM
Alder Ellis Alder Ellis is offline
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The recent discussion of this in the Metrical Poetry forum seemed to lead to the "trapped spirit" interpretation -- William noted the fact that his starting-point was a photograph of a corpse (Big Foot's), and there was some implication, as David indicates, that the ritual closing of the eyes was necessary to free the spirit from the body.

Rhina's interpretation hadn't occurred to me until she put it forth here, but it works beautifully too. Score another point for this remarkable poem.
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Old 12-22-2003, 04:50 AM
Jim Hayes Jim Hayes is offline
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This is a truly wonderful poem exploiting the potential of the form when such a powerful repetend as Three days, and no one comes to close my eyes is employed.

At the risk of sounding over-effusive, I haven't read a better villanelle. Congratulations to Willam and many thanks to Tim and Rhina.
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Old 12-23-2003, 08:47 AM
Wild Bill Wild Bill is offline
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When this first appeared, I critiqued the third stanza as "wretched" - a rhetorical excess by which I earn my nickname, I suppose. I still believe that weak causality between the snow falling and the man's remaining on the ground mars the poem, but wretched it is not. This is a wonderfully lyrical piece that pays belated homage to those slaughtered at Wounded Knee. I fully agree with Rhina's characterizing it as a triumph.

------------------
Bill
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Old 12-24-2003, 10:41 AM
William A. Baurle William A. Baurle is offline
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Thank you sincerely, Rhina, for your time and for your engaging commentary on my poem.

You mentioned before that "poems are smarter than we are, and know what they need to be even before we do." I might carry that a step further and suggest that maybe a poem knows what it wants to say even more than the author does. That would seem the case with this poem, the more I read comments about it and the more I read it over and examine it.

David's interpretation is pretty much dead-on in so far as what I consciously intended with this poem, and AE is right in pointing out that originally, the speaker of this poem was Big Foot, the leader of the band of Miniconjou Sioux who were killed at Wounded Knee, and the idea for the poem came from the well-known photograph of his frozen body lying in the snow, but after a while I decided to try and make the piece speak for all of the victims in general, rather than from just one. I considered posting a link to the picture here but decided I'd better not. It can be found easily enough. Anyway, it's one of the most arresting and disturbing photos I've ever seen.

But as the poem went through its many changes (though never changing from a villanelle into something else) I think I managed to alter any and all of the lines which descibed the speaker as being irrefutably dead. I can easily see how you, and others, arrived at your interpretation, and at this point I welcome that interpretation, and I feel that I should be terribly grateful for it, as well. I am hoping now that the poem might be able to work on both levels: as the voice of the living and of the dead. Essentially, the speaker is in a sort of limbo, a twilight between life and death.

I think that two of the word choices, both of which have been validly criticized, were ultimately chosen to further this sense of ambiguity: "grown" and "surely".

I suppose I want "grown" to convey a sense of the dying as a slow and very gradual process, both symbolically because of the speaker's inability (and reluctance) to pass into the "spirit world", and because of the literal slowing, weakening, and freezing of the body.

As for "surely": I think that very often we use the word "surely" to indicate that we're really not so sure at all, as in "surely you can't be serious?" Yes, it's formal, but perhaps it's meant to indicate that the speaker isn't actually certain of whether he is alive or dead?

(And Bill, I really do see your point about "Because...", and I am presently wracking my brain to try and come up with a better way to work that stanza.)

Rhina, I want to thank you for honoring me with your time and your words, which have encouraged me beyond measure.

I want to thank everyone else for their comments as well, and Tim, of course, for selecting my poem, and I apologize for this long-winded post.

Bill



[This message has been edited by Williamb (edited December 24, 2003).]
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