Myth & Mode

Here are two striking poems by Jane McKinley and Matt Nienow, both perfect for this time of year as fall descends and the day-to-day feels a bit duskier, sepia-toned, maybe even a tinge of the allegorical moving in on the periphery.

For me, contemporary myth poems deserving of at least another reading are a rare find. Usually what I find are poems that recontextualize a myth or mythic figure, but I don't end up thinking about the myth or this world in any way remotely approaching the new. These poems by McKinley and Nienow, though, floored me.

I've been thinking about the last few lines of this Jane McKinley poem for weeks: "She's caught between two worlds, an eye in each, / the way I am this morning...." A lovely music here, too.

McKinley's first book, Vanitas, winner of the Walt McDonald First Book Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Tech UP. Early 2011. Here's a link to another of McKinley's poems, "Speaking Gillican," posted at Poetry Daily.

The next poem by Matthew Nienow (be sure you click over to read the other good stuff published in the current issue of The Collagist) is one of those rare poems that hit me so hard in the gut on a first read that I actually uttered an expletive loud enough for E. to ask me what was the matter.

The matter was, as you'll find, that Matt's poem is a myth poem that also takes on a classical ode structure. And, no, I don't think I'm contorting the definition of "ode." There's no casual tossing around of the term in his poem. It gestures toward the Pindaric in structure and the Horatian in sensibility, and I find it to be deeply nostalgic, and moving. I think you will, too. Also, be sure to click the link and visit Matthew's blog, "It Goes Without Saying."


Persephone Descending

As if she were cock-eyed—one eye trained on what’s below,
the other squinting toward the sky—the landscape divides.
What’s at her feet is variegated, tinged with ash:
goldenrod smothered by silver, Queen Anne’s lace laid waste
by frost, curled into a bird’s nest, flecked with shroud.

The eye still angling life reels in a blaze of pomegranate,
quince, a copper beech, blue plums, and sun-streaked wheat.
She’s caught between two worlds, an eye in each,
the way I am this morning, winter pawing at my feet
while autumn rages through the trees, dying to fall.

Jane McKinley
from The Georgia Review, Fall 2010

Ode to Paul Bunyan

To have been blinded by the blade
just sharpened, its devil-toothed
grin swimming through the air
like whole schools of fish
or the ocean itself, a cliff
of agates, a sliver, a gleam,
the slit eye of a monster, a gash
in a silver creature’s side,
an opening to another world,
the crescent moon captured
and put to work, commanded
by the one man closer to god
than any other, who perhaps
should have been named Jesus
if Paul Bunyan hadn’t had
the perfect ring and pitch.

O, to have been witness to your work,
your ox, to have stood clear,
to have felt the thunder
of your cough, the shirring
of your breath, the rain
of your perspiration,
the earthquake of your step,

to have seen you sleeping
and think you the most beautiful mountain,
to have seen Babe standing over you
and think her the sky.

Matthew Nienow
from The Collagist, Issue 15