Edna St Vincent Millay
I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
Running alone five miles up a canyon that tops out in wilderness, I come around a curve where a moose—look to Bishop—
stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road,
My bull, too, ‘towering . . . / homely as a house’,
pointed at me. Bishop’s bus stops, as do I, rapt in Dickinson’s ‘transport / Of Cordiality’, then, as my moose begins to shamble toward me, ‘tighter Breathing / And Zero at the Bone’ (1096).
The road narrows, cut into a nearly sheer slope on my left and plunging to the creek on my right. Having seen a moose levitate as if it weighed nothing, I skinny down, pressed against the cliff. Hoofsteps on the asphalt above me stop: in Bishop’s ‘dim/smell of moose’ I listen, watch for him to lumber into view where the road curves below. Nothing. I edge my head up over the rim of the road—
The moose, head lowered under antlers—
His eye right there, depthless brown, fringed, ‘grand, otherworldly’. Ear cocks, nostril flares—sweaty, I must smell as alien to him.
I duck. Down canyon, another runner slows, confused by my perching where I shouldn’t. Bishop’s charming hyperbole (‘high as a church’), obscures how big a bull moose is: 2.5 metres or so at shoulder, four long, twelve-hundred-odd pounds, a hundred stone. Under half his length, under a tenth his weight, I must make the moose loom larger still. The runner turns heel and sprints the other way. Who could blame him?
At last, overhead, shuff-clop. Where the runner turned, the moose stops, bends his neck, and takes a good long look at me, before proceeding, in leisure, on his way.
I climb back to the road and continue my run, chanting Bishop:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy,
a little bubble in my chest, lifting.
Adrenalin’s internal combustion engine.
I fail to write a moose poem. Just then, I had words, none mine—though of course Bishop’s moose looks ‘Perfectly harmless’, as a moose may from inside a tube of steel. Mine could have rolled that bus, but, as a rule, a moose will as soon leave a person be, and be left—even Dickinson’s ‘narrow fellow’ sheltering in this canyon’s woodland or sunning on the road, would rather avoid than strike—but I don’t count on laissez-faire philosophy where the road leaves room for only one to pass, barely, if one is the size of a moose, or venomous.
Near enough to smell me back.
The mountain lion who crossed the road in front of me a little farther down paused on the uphill side to lay on me her gold-green regard. Stand or run, up or down, am I, a little chewy, worth her effort? All thrill and heartbeat, ‘sweet/sensation’, myself and beside, bounded, not—
I have no poem for the lion, my own or anyone’s.
Only anecdotes, ending the moose story by quoting my father—It is rutting season—and the cat story by guessing we both wondered Who weighs more? though I have no evidence for this beyond the lion’s assessing gaze.
I have in mind a list, eccentric, arbitrary, and unreproducible, of subjects I have, over years, forbidden my undergraduate poets from writing about, because they seem to offer easy epiphany; because, perhaps for that reason, there are many good poems about them, or bad ones.
Dogs top the list. Even Bishop, absorbed by her moose, bids ‘Goodbye to the . . . dog’—in her poem a collie.
Dickinson writes, ‘I started Early – Took my Dog – / And visited the Sea – ’, using Carlo with offhand guile to domesticate (though he was enormous, a Newfoundland) an exotic journey. My most recent dog poem begins, ‘Smaller than my dog / And differently proportioned / I stalked the west side’. Is a dog, with whom we live in intimate misunderstanding, more or less an epiphany machine than moose, snake, lion?
Dickinson’s poem (656) propels her speaker into nature, not to bootstrap revelation, but to allow her to be taken, on another’s terms; her self to be seen, be absorbed:
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –
As odd as these observers are, the greater oddness is herself, reduced, displayed, mis-taken, un-selved.
Any non-human animal. Sunsets. Skiing. Pink Floyd. Trees. I may once see a terrific poem about getting a tattoo, if I keep forbidding it.
A teenager when I first read Millay, adrift in a world of literal frogs and a welter of desire seeking language, even sensing danger I was open to being ‘waylaid by Beauty’, savage as you wish. ‘After a year of silence’ following an unnamed event figured by the annual raucous singing of frogs, Millay’s speaker, ‘a timid woman’, her gender her frailty, knows she ‘should not so have ventured forth alone / at dusk’.
Stanza one ends in mild trepidation; the second begins in disarray, already ‘waylaid.’ Frogs speak, darkness falls, but unlike a conventional epiphany, the ravishment breaking open the narrative occurs in space; not subject to articulation, not even discernible. Instead, its elusive renaming almost perversely positions us to take the title as metaphor for beauty rather than the other way, writing over violence, refiguring ‘assault’ into swoon, foregrounding the in-utterability of the female position by aestheticising the unmentionable in order to accommodate it, the ‘real toad’ in Marianne Moore’s ‘imaginary garden’.
About reading, Scott Black asks, ‘What does it mean . . . to have a space in which you don’t have to be yourself, or even a self at all?’ (2013: 28). To be rendered not inarticulate but inarticulable, unspeakable though vividly present, embodied but unselfconscious, even unselved; is this not only the reader’s but also the poet’s dream and method? Bishop, Dickinson, Millay, female, waylaid, undone; that moose, listening, smelling, looking; the lion, her brain reaching the world through her eyes; eyes embedded deep in her brain. Nervous systems alight, taken with me, moose and lion don’t think about themselves.
Likewise, I am sure.
Black goes on to describe ‘an experience of reading without a self at its centre, indeed a technology of self-deformation and even erasure. The recognition, or perhaps installation, of . . . a strangely meaningful alien within you’ (2013: 29).
If Keats’ ‘negative capability’ has been interpreted as the poet’s ability to enter the other, I prefer to read it as her capacity to abandon self-awareness for animal awareness, the body ‘tease[d] . . . out of thought’ becoming a ‘strangely meaningful alien’.
I forbid perfect roses, imperfect ones.
The Tarot, which I learned to read in college, it being the seventies: spread after spread with myself as querent (against the rules, to read your own future, to rewrite it), loving the gorgeous decks, mysterious figures.
I mean, as querent, ‘a version of myself’. When I was asked to choose one card to represent me, my older boyfriend (everyone was older) pronounced me Queen of Cups, the suit of emotions and love. She occupies her throne with dignity and stillness then, and now, beyond me. In private, I chose the Page of Wands, young, androgynous, a figure of wilfulness, on the move.
Choose one archetype, given. The querent’s card fixes her, still centre of time, around which every thrown card interacts with, is conditioned by, every other, each spread a moving complex, emotion and event telling no future but a present determined by the reader. I thought I might find a poem in it, be defined. As in poetry, I found my absence.
All my poems about the Tarot were bad.
If I had a tattoo, it might be the Fool, unnumbered card of my heart. In Rider-Waite depicted with dog at heel, feathered cap, satchel slung insouciantly from a stick, the Fool gazes at the sky and fails to see the precipice plunging, foot treading on air. A flowing sleeve, a flower in hand—then what?
My boyfriend knew: the Fool would never stay put.
In the end, I deny my students nothing. Not nature, from which they are estranged, or cities they know only through Frank O’Hara. They must write what I forbid. More than anything, I wish to send them out.
Kittens live in wild bodies, sharp of claw, bone, intention: sudden piss-storms, little aliens, passing strange. How do we find them in our houses, eyes blazing, tongues on fire? And dogs, inner lives unreadable despite their pretended transparency. Inhere, have, inhabit. What are we thinking, to invite them in, where we can no longer see them?
Wild cats, in their wild, are less fearsome.
Bishop’s moose is not an archetype. She’s a moose.
The world is real. What we see may not be the same. In the poem, the space of encounter between consciousness and world bodies forth, through the new naming of what a moment ago couldn’t be named.
Elves, hobbits, any creature that doesn’t exist.
I forbid my students to write like Dickinson, unless by ‘like’ one means with utter presence of mind and erasure of self.
In ‘When wind takes forests in its paws/the universe is still’, Dickinson (315) takes us to leave us waylaid, in mystery, ‘strangely meaningful[,] alien’.
 See, e.g., Mukesh Kumar 2014 ‘John Keats: The notion of negative capability and poetic vision’, International Journal of Research 1.4 (May): 912–18; Beth Lau 2006 ‘Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative capability, romance and reality’, Keats-Shelley Journal 55 (Women Writers of the British Regency Period): 81–110; Marion Montgomery 1997 Romantic Confusions of the Good: Beauty as Truth, Truth Beauty, New York: Rowman & Littlefield
Bishop, Elizabeth 1983 The Complete Poems 1927–1979, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Black, Scott 2013 ‘Reading adventures’, English Language Notes 51.2 (Fall/Winter): 25–44
Dickinson, Emily 1830–1886 ‘He Fumbles at Your Soul’ (315), Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862
Dickinson, Emily ‘I Started Early’ (656), in RW Franklin (ed), The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999
Dickinson, Emily ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ (1096), in RW Franklin (ed), The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998
Millay, Edna St Vincent 1921 ‘Assault’, Second April, New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 32
Moore, Marianne 1920 ‘Poetry’, in Alfred Kreymborg (ed), Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse, New York: Nicholas L Brown, 131–32