75 at 75: Sarah Lindsay on Amy Clampitt

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Sarah Lindsay writes about a reading by Amy Clampitt. The audio was recorded live at 92Y on March 7, 1994.

Posted on Feb 24, 2014

Sarah_Lindsay_100x100Karl Kirchwey introduces Grace Schulman, who introduces Debora Greger. (Your pardon, Ms. Greger, but my subject reads after you do.) Greger reads, Schulman speaks again, and then comes the voice of Amy Clampitt—about an octave higher, and with all the gravity of milkweed.

Her diction is clear, her intonation wide-ranging. Before each poem, she tells the audience a few things she finds interesting. After each poem, a silence opens. (What a coincidence: A Silence Opens is her fifth collection, new at the time.) Not a long one, but deep. When, instead, after “A Hermit Thrush,” applause skitters around the room, her “Oh, thank you” sounds musical, surprised, delighted.

About 20 years after this lovely moment, an audience of one eavesdrops blindfolded. With unfair hindsight, I know Amy Clampitt was less than a year from death by cancer, but she doesn’t sound weak or elegiac.

As the introductions unscrolled, I paused the recording and fetched a sock to darn. Those present in the auditorium had no such opportunity to forestall the fidgets. At moments, perhaps, as I did, some individuals thought, “such a fine poem I’m listening to,” and with that thought ceased to listen. But they couldn’t rewind.

A syrinx, Clampitt thought her audience might like to know, is a pipe, a nymph’s name and a songbird’s voicebox. And the man from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, on the radio, said “birds aren’t very good at consonants”—something she felt a need to remember. She explains a Greek phrase we’ll hear. She reads “Syrinx,” which flits from foghorn and wind to the bird’s call—“is it really jug jug . . . ?”—and on to syntax, opera, “the merely fricative / husk of the particular” (there’s consonants for you) and Homer.

She announces “a leap to the coast of Florida” and speaks of the space shuttle, manatees and Disney’s Little Mermaid before reading “Discovery.” “Now another leap in space, to Italy . . . where I spent some happy time a couple of years ago,” she says. Her leaps are more light-footed transitions than the traditional “This snext poem . . . .” There, in Italy, grew the title plant of “The Horned Rampion,” a poem that hinges on a coincidental falling-open of the Encyclopedia Britannica. After all, how could an encyclopedia open upon nothing of interest to Amy Clampitt?

She reads “Birdham,” but doesn’t pause at the end before impulsively adding, “People like having hedgehogs in their gardens because they eat slugs.”

Before reading “A Hermit Thrush,” she confides, in tumbling phrases, “And I have to say, I think, that—although I don’t usually have, say I have favorite poems when people ask me, I say I don’t have a favorite—this is one of my favorite poems. It’s a love poem, I suppose that’s part of the reason. . . .” It is a poem that swells in the breast, and probably the only love poem in English containing “sea-air-sanctified Fig Newtons.”

“More birds—I do seem to write about birds a lot.” She gives some background on the magpie, the bowerbird and 15th-century Sienese paintings. Her rendition of a passage from the Columbia Encyclopedia about the “fussy” bowerbird is a joy, particularly her soprano ornament on the word blue. (Google declared “about 117 results” for Amy Clampitt birdlike, before I added this one.) After some history of pigment and a bit of etymology, she returns to her purpose with a hasty “It’s got all kinds of things in it.” She could say this of the bowerbird’s bower, or her entire body of work, but she means the poem “Brought from Beyond,” which is one sentence strung between wonder and horror.

Before the last poem she reads, “Sed de Correr,” Clampitt says that she has begun to think she’s a poet of displacement. “It’s got a bird in it,” she adds, for those who are keeping track, “or maybe some birds, but it’s really, the birds just happen to be something that moves around, and so displacement is natural for them.”

She finishes the long, rushing poem without slowing down at the end and whispers “thank you.” Gratified applause, followed by the sound of an audience turning back into individuals, followed by “OK, the Allman Brothers Band!” iTunes has made its own leap. The recording modestly recedes into a place among other things—the electronic desktop spattered with icons, the paper dunes beyond, the neglected sock in a nest of colored threads. Activity and gravity are good at sweeping unexpected clusters together. Amy Clampitt was better.

Sarah Lindsay’s new collection of poems is Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower.