Half a dozen years ago, I commuted from Woodstock down to Soho once a week for a workshop at the old Poet’s House that had caught my eye, “American Duende.” I wasn’t disappointed. Our course packet from the instructor, which I’ve kept to this day, began by quoting Federico Garcia Lorca, “And the duende? The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” The instructor then continued, “Lorca names the dark, unpredictable, often dangerous energy that art is sometimes successful in channeling as Duende—daemon, hobgoblin, keeper of ‘the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore.’ Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps ‘in the remotest mansions of the blood’ and must be awakened to be wrestled, often at great cost. The reward of such a struggle, according to Lorca is ‘something newly created, like a miracle, [that] produces an almost religious enthusiasm.’”
Several years later, Tracy K. Smith, our instructor, published Duende, which won the James Laughlin Prize for the best second book of the year, and surely deserved it, not that I’ve read the competition, but it fulfilled its ambitions of exploring “the remotest mansions of the blood.” Now comes news that a fellow workshop participant has won her own award, the 2009 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University Press judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. This announcement delighted me in part because of its synchronicity. The same day this e-mail arrived I’d lunched with Djelloul Marbrook who’d won this prize in 2007 for Far from Algiers and still enthuses about the experience.
To be honest, I don’t know much about Joanna Solfrian other than that we once shared a conference table. The bio of her prize winning book, Visible Heavens, tells us that “She works with teenagers and lives with her husband and daughters in northwestern Connecticut.” The rest is in the poems. In one about a phone call from a man who had a school bus crush on her but has gone on to lead a troubled life, she confides that in comparison, “my list is not very long./ My mom was sick for four years with cancer/ and died when I was twenty. That’s about it./ Dad’s remarried: there’s nothing wrong with his wife.// I’ve learned something about resignation./ I’ve learned to fool myself into thinking that wind is the trees breathing.” The narrator in these poems is an observer more than a creator of dramas, nor do the dramas need to be large to generate strong emotions, especially in the closing lines which strike gold in poem after poem. “Evolution” concludes by addressing Eve: “Eve, I ate it, too. I’ve gone over the edge; it took nothing.// There is a naked woman under these clothes./ Under these words, a heart beats violently.”
The tributes to her mother touched me deeply. I smiled at the dead-on imitation of Emily Dickinson, no doubt a revered influence. Yet here’s one of the longer poems, a narrative in contrast to the lyrics. It has a snake. It uses “assassin,” a lovely word for an abomination that I hope to use in a short story scratching at my mind. And the heart beats with duende at the end.
On foot but thrown I saw it: a black snake coiled
in the early April sun. It mocked my two
feet, I recalled awkward basketball shots.
I wasn’t deep enough into the forest to escape
the belch of pickups, but alas, Nature: a dull
black, like a tread flung from a semi. It lay
on a moss flat that had not yet chosen “pond”
or “land,” and as such, someone in a stuffed-bird
office had planted a footbridge right next to it.
Rats. The sun was weak. A tea stain on old linen.
Knock-knock-knock and I jumped without liftoff:
a woodpecker corrugated the silence. The snake?
Placid as an assassin. I sniffed—hardly an Eden, this
skunk-cabbage dew. My nose itched: drop by drop
my bladder filled. Would it strike if I passed?
Hello, snake, I telepathized. I am a nice person,
and not a fundamentalist. You are snake,
and that is enough. The snake was still. Very still.
Was it dead? It wasn’t dead, was it? Was that
a red spot near its jaw? Had some mean boys
bludgeoned it? I leaned. Nothing. I tried to be
Zen. A mosquito bit my calf. Then the sharp swell
of skin and wind and the pines elbowed: to know their secrets,
one must know forests. Fair enough. I marshaled
my muscles and tread lightly past like a lass
with a parasol. A hundred yards of obsession and back
again I looped—its head was nosed under
the tip of its tail; dark laughter was trapped
in scales as silent as the cross. I had failed.
I knew nothing. Fine, I implored the pines:
teach me of the infinite, the circumference of the seasons,
the tracks of the stars…
and the woodpecker began his reveille,
and the skunk cabbage unfurled, and the snake
lifted its head and telepathized back: learn to love
your own private wilderness, your own naked being,
your own unbearable soul.