A Poet's Challenge
by Russell Bittner
How and where does a poem begin? For me, it begins with a whim or a line – from a sight, a sound, a smell, a feel, a taste, a fear – or sometimes, merely from an image or memory.
What inspires or “informs” my poetry? The vast majority of the poems I’ve written – and my entire output is meager in comparison with that of most professional poets – are an antidote to loneliness and an attempt to talk my way out of it.
“Aubade to Marit in C Minor” was inspired by a woman, Marit Haahr, whose voice I first heard for thirty seconds over the telephone, and whose face I saw several hours later in front of the Museum of Television & Radio here in NYC – also for not much longer than thirty seconds. Unknown – and probably also unwelcome – to her, she became my Laura, my Beatrice, my “dark lady.”
I came home after that brief meeting and wrote a blank verse poem. At that point, I was giddily optimistic, though still cautious – and some of the stanzas are a testament to the fact. Blank verse – unlike free verse, which knows practically no rules whatsoever that I can figure out – still has the requirement of rhythm. That rhythm may be as difficult to hear or define as the rhythm of the surf in a seashell, but it’s there nonetheless. (Just ask the poet if you’re in doubt!)
The following stanza is the sixth in the original. It contains more rhymes – both internal and end-rhymes – than you might expect to find in most blank verse. At the same time, the rhythm remains distinctly anarchic – except, of course, to my own ear, where it makes perfectly good sound and sense:
Dawn broken. Dawn barely born.
Dawn softly burnishing to steady light
first burst of morn. Then standing swiftly, grasping tight
with cry of covetous delight
that jealous celebration of old Night
from all the glowworms rendered shy,
and all the fireflies turned idle.
Till we then loose that robe,
your robe – that hides, that chides
your flesh to keep itself discretely safe
and, from my own, quite separate.
When I salvaged from it what I could and put it into the third Petrarchan sonnet of the poem that appears here at A Long Story Short, a lot of the heat was gone. What remained from the original lava of that first passionate effort was cold stone. Cold – but (I hope) – more substantial. For me, blank or free verse denotes, designates and demands; a sonnet merely connotes and insinuates.
I could’ve chosen any of the three classical sonnet forms – Italian/Petrarchan; Spenserian; or English/Elizabethan/Shakespearean. I chose the Petrarchan form for the greater challenge of its rhyme scheme (abbaabba in the octave, and cdecde in the sestet). I then set to work for the next twelve months to hack out the first draft. By the way, it was only after I’d finished all five pieces that I realized my error with the first – namely, that I’d employed an alternative – but thankfully acceptable – rhyme scheme (cdcdcd) in the sestet. Why not – you may well ask – simply move around the verses and change a few conjunctions? To which question I can only answer with another question: ‘Ever tried to turn a Mack truck around in a cul-de-sac?
Aubade to Marit in C Minor
First, let us speculate upon a hill:
Where flowers breach like whales content to throw
Off sperm-like sparks to daybreak’s ardent glow,
Demanding (since seeds scatter willy-nill
And quit, by dint of wind, their earthly thrill)
From some omniscient partner who might know
Why they stay stuck, while seeds are free to go.
Yet seeds fall back – as seeds quite often will.
Here night commands her new moon to retire,
Pulls down a purled curtain as I think
Of how I might yet capture dawn’s young fire
To coax your prudish parts out to the brink
And there, with pink unfurled, light your desire!
Yet you demur; and so, like seeds, we sink.
Now let our fingers, lax on abacus,
Find other ways to calculate the haste
And heft of days too arduously chaste
By rendering the game more dangerous!
First from the firmament enfolding us
I’ll snatch a string of stars to gird your waist.
Should burgled sky complain it’s been effaced,
We’ll blame it on my silly calculus.
But, in the meantime, once more to that hill –
to ride your string of stars like carousel
From dawn till dusk and only there to dare
To ask aloud how we might yet fulfill
Our task if we have merely stars to sell
When we, to Paradise, at last repair.
And so, to ponder our poor Paradise:
How up her hill, a giddy antelope
Might take two lovers’ hearts to highest slope
(where one prudential pause would then suffice
To enervate elopement – lust’s device),
And there, to show how Cupid through twin scope
With steady aim at naïve thing called hope,
Would shoot to seal our fate not once, but twice.
If next I stretch to strip that robe that hides,
That chides your flesh to keep itself discrete,
Remote, and from my own, quite separate,
I will, with dawn – which over hilltop glides –
Then slide upon you like a silken sheet
To tease your tender parts, still temperate.
Now we, like warm bread rising, mount that hill
To prod a sleepy dawn to faster pace
Lest through equivocation, we lose place
And settle, like a slug, for sluggish thrill –
At which point you may ask what drives me still
When through the night Icelandic winds give chase
To lovers’ lyre and summer’s last embrace
And with my wish denied, you sense a chill.
Real love, you claim, works best by standing toe
To toe with neighbor over crusty fence.
As snow begins to melt, love gives the boot
To lust – which would, to wit, in frenzied flow,
Make mockery of what may make good sense,
Precisely when the making’s hardly moot!
Dawn stands up on her heels, though barely born,
Sends sullen, swollen glowworms home to bed,
Their gluttony now slaked and soundly fed,
While night quite rightly looks with mother’s scorn
Upon this child of sun and lover-morn:
This bastard kid, who has with antics bled
Fat fireflies of light and left instead
Night bald, and of her stars, serenely shorn.
But sun, beset by anger, frames his plaint
In language more befitting to a clown,
Which moon deflects with patient, silver grace.
Then sun and moon, whose orbits show restraint,
Lift from departing clouds a stolen crown,
And in the end, take back their jealous space.
Once upon a (better) time, Russell lived with a wife and two mischievous children in Brooklyn, New York alongside that product of Vaux and Olmsted’s most creatively prolific hour: the aptly named “Prospect Park.” While he never actually struck gold there, he did find a muse and alchemy enough to be able to convert abject failure into poems of love, longing and despair.
His muse, unamused, moved on. He now dithers alone as the Sergeant-at-iambs of Sunset (Gunset) Park, Brooklyn, dodging bullets and dispensing further despair.
Russell’s poems have been published on paper by: The American Dissident; The Blind Man’s Rainbow; The Lyric; The Barbaric Yawp; the International Journal of Erotica; and Wicked Hollow. Another poem will appear in the fall at N.O.L.A. Spleen.
On-line, his poetry can be found at: Quintessence-encouraginggreatwriting; ken*again; SpillwayReview; Erotica Readers and Writers; EdificeWrecked; GirlsWithInsurance; ThievesJargon; SalomeMagazine; LauraHird; and MadHattersReview. Additional poems will appear this month (Sept.) at SouthernHum, JustusRoux and OpiumMagazine; and at some unspecified time later in the fall at PlumBiscuit (a journal of the New York Writers Guild); at DeadDrunkDublin; at 3 a.m.; and at Zygote in my Coffee. Finally, two to three of his poems will appear in each of the remaining months of this year (and through June of ’06) here at ALongStoryShort.
On paper, he currently has stories with the Edgar Literary Magazine and The International Journal of Erotica. His .com prose can be found at: DeadMule; writeThis; GirlsWithInsurance; SkiveMagazine; Bluefood; Quintessence-encouraginggreatwriting; MannequinEnvy; Undergroundvoices; Pindeldyboz; Hackwriters; 10,000 Monkeys; DropDeadDublin; ALongStoryShort; and the uncom.mon Yankeepotroast.org.. An additional prose piece will appear on the ‘Net at SouthernHum in September, 2005.
He completed his first novel, Trompe-l’oeil, in September of 2004. Agents and publishers are swarming to it like mosquitoes to repellent. A second novelette, Girl from Baku, was completed in June of 2005 to provide the first with some quietly (and equally) repellent company. The first six chapters of it are currently posted at DeadDrunkDublin.com.