Sunday, October 01, 2006

Layered Meanings

I hate puzzle-poems, as if a poem were a problem to be mathematically, logically solved; if I want to read that sort of thing, I'll read a mystery novel. I reject the idea that layering in poems is all about "solving the puzzle" or "finding the hidden meaning," which seems to be the way some more intellectual poets think about poetry. As if poems had right and wrong interpretations.

Layered meanings can be geologic: when you dig past the surface rock, you discover fossils of old seas, riverrun ripple marks of streambeds long lost under the sands, crystallized deep underground to refrozen stone, then raised high into the sun's harsh light on a mountainside. ("If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." —John McPhee, Basin & Range; this may be the definitive one-sentence explanation of plate tectonics.) A layered poem is a poem that means something different each time you read it, and each new interpretation or meaning is correct. There is no right and wrong answer.

Layered meanings can be puns, things that mean more than one thing, playing off each other, and each influencing the other, alchemically. Not all puns are humorous, or funny. Some can be bleak.

Layered meanings in poems can be where the same words mean different things, before and after you've finished the poem. A layered poem title can mean one thing before you've read the poem, and another thing after. Where simple phrases mean more than one thing, even in context. The wise hunter is always going naked for a sign, ready to be infiltrated by ideas from outside the frame, beyond the pale, from the other side of the threshold.

Layered poems can be where ordinary things are happening on the surface, but underneath, old gods are rising up to have their say, brandishing their archetypes, raising up their attributes and donning their aspects. Layered poems can change the direction you thought they were going in, so that when the poem is finished, it means the opposite of what you thought it meant, when you first started out.

Layered poems can be very plain, not at all obscure or hidden. They can mean exactly what they seem to mean, nothing concealed, nothing hidden. But then, they stick to the ridges on the inside of your head, and you dream about them. You have been infected by the poem's world, and it adds a layer of meaning to your own day and night.

Layered poems can be nothing but images, images that evoke an inner cinema, an inner dialogue, a quiet raising of the hairs on the backs of your arms, afire with possibility and the presence of the threshold. Someone or something is there, waiting, silent, just outside the picture frame. Layered poems can seem to mean what they mean, but behind the poet's voice, other voices are speaking: a chorus of dragons twining together in the ancient shadows at the back of the mind, briefly illuminated by flashes of flame, eyes glowing, a sea of stars dancing under a moonless night and the greater, infinite sea of stars overhead.

Layered poems can be symbols from a private gallery that no-one has visited but you. Layered poems can be symbols you've never seen before, but somehow they carry meaning anyway, and stop you in your tracks, to listen.


into the silence we fade,
a few simple words ringing
through the night air.
the clouds had come down the sky
like a curtain, the hard wind
slashed the lake edge,
driven waves knifing the beach;
boats prowled slowly in the grey past.
now all is still, the moon full and silver
glistening above our lights;
the lake dries her eyes,
tears pooling on the path.
it’s so quiet I can hear you breathe,
the air so cold I feel my skin
crackle and shift like new ice.
we walk like a woman singing
the same words over and over,
bells filling the places between cold stars
by echoing, echoing; we fade,
silent, even our footsteps forgotten
in the endless rush of the waves.
they surge in, ruffling the feathers
of sleeping waterbirds, and breathlessly wander away,
leaving behind little trails of foam
like half-recited words,
unformed poems.
I look at you in the moonlight, the starlight,
and I think things like: forgetfulness;
I could drown in your waters, your chambers,
your echoing, four-beating heart.

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