Poems From the Pond
Posted on Mar 31, 2017
By Lisa Pasold
“Poems from the Pond: 107 Years of Words and Wisdom—The Writings of Peggy Freydberg”
“There’s the little family,” I cried.
Propelled invisibly by busy feet beneath the surface of the water,
If I were a goslin, I thought,
I have a sudden recognition
We stand together,
I am sitting on the steps of a small, empty old farm house,
You are sitting against a tree a few feet away.
Here is an essential bareness,
Be with me in this bareness.
Fear of bareness bought the Ferrari in the three car garage of
Fear of bareness bought the Ferrari
What covers our souls is the silk wallpaper.
I have always wanted to say only three words to you:
I sit on the stoop, for a moment knowing bareness absolutely.
I always wanted, more than silk wallpaper,
Maybe bareness is not what you needed from me.
Bareness—beneath the young skin and beneath
I mean, did you ever want me?
But I have gotten to need
The world nearly always covers bareness.
* * *
In turbulent times, poetry offers a sense of connection, a deeper understanding of living. This holds true for poems that are overtly political or excitingly abstract, and also for poems that are quietly honest, about small detail. I’m aware that certain poems I’m not very thrilled about speak to somebody — and some that I love, other people don’t care for. That’s fine. Lord knows I seem to be the only human on the planet who doesn’t love YouTube kittens.
My sentiments about kitten memes probably prove that I am a dark cloud of doom unable to take part in the joy of humanity. Be that as it may, I like poetry. Sometimes I even read cheerful poems. Occasionally, even cheerful cat poems.
What I find discouraging are poems wrapped in unnecessary frou-frou. Poetry shouldn’t be served up like cod liver oil for unhealthy times, but it also doesn’t need to be packaged like expensive chocolate. I like a beautiful book as much as the next person; I have littered my personal world with objects that I find lovely. But hagiography isn’t what poetry needs. It sure as hell gets in the way of art.
This is my great frustration in reading “Poems from the Pond: 107 Years of Words and Wisdom — The Writings of Peggy Freydberg.” So far as I can tell, author Peggy Freydberg was not a saint. She was a flawed, interesting woman who lived a very long life. She loved her family and her cats, but she also studied herself intensely, her reactions to the outside world and the emotional internal one. She wrote a couple of very good poems, which is as much as any poet can hope for. And Freydberg was lucky. She had 107 years of life to work with, and on, her writing, and she curated the details of her life carefully:
But her sharp sense of humor and observation are at odds with this book’s presentation. Her poetry is undercut by the reverence that oozes from the expensive production values. Design is not what makes me want to read a poem, no matter how the ribbons are wrapped or how the sacred smoke wafts toward me. Freydberg doesn’t need these things. If anything, the cloud of worship gets in the way.
For example, why did the editor choose the self-conscious typewriter font? Fonts are always tricky — Comic Sans, anyone? — so why space the poems out as if they need to be framed elaborately for us to notice them? Let the poems be read, and stop fussing. Also, as readers, are we incapable of appreciating Freydberg’s words without random lushly colorful photographs? My attention is distracted by the fact that, following a poem about geese, there is a photograph of a heron. Is that intentional? I assume not, but then, further on, there’s a photo that seems to be a sunset, illustrating a poem about sunrise.
I put the book down on the coffee table and flee the living room.
After a few hours, I edge back into the room, prepared to get over the design and just read the darn poems. The various introductions and memories about Freydberg weigh me down, but I struggle bravely on. I get briefly tangled up with a white wedding album ribbon, attached as a bookmark. Fine, I tell the book, I get it, you are Important, Valuable, a Good Gift Item for Troubled Times. I’m surprised I am so emotional about a white satin ribbon.
I make myself a cup of tea and sit down in another attempt to read the book.
The problem with my concentration, in case I’m not being clear, has really nothing to do with Peggy Freydberg or her poems. It’s that this book feels more like an album at the author’s memorial service.
The book includes a letter Freydberg wrote to Richard Reston at The Vineyard Gazette, hoping to interest him in one of her poems. There is something peculiar about the letter’s placement in the middle of her poetry — what is it doing here? Perhaps the idea is that Freydberg was a homey amateur, charmingly unprofessional. Yet its placement somehow implies that ambition in an elderly woman is inappropriate. Unwomanly, perhaps.
I don’t think Peggy Freydberg thought ambition in an aging female poet was inappropriate. Freydberg was professionally ambitious and she had six books published within her lifetime, including memoir, fiction and poetry.
She is well aware of those quotation marks around her success, and I don’t blame her for being aggravated.
This morning, determined to emulate one of Freydberg’s suggestions, I came back into the living room and tried to find a lighter heart. I don’t know if I will ever exactly approve of this book. I judge it by its appearance — which is wrong of me, I know. Chocolates are delightful when wrapped like expensive lingerie, in layers of pink tissue paper and ribbon. Shouldn’t I rejoice in similar care given to poetry? Curmudgeonly, no. I want the poem printed on a page so I can read it. I like book covers well enough, but should the quality of the paper really affect my reading of these poems? Obviously it has. The ribbon has stuck in my mind more than Freydberg’s words. What I’ve ended up reviewing is the physicality of the book itself. The fabric of the hard cover is very tasteful, a textured sailcloth. Rather like a sofa I had years ago, when we couldn’t afford a new one and we repurposed some beige canvas as slipcovers.
I’d prefer to stick with Freydberg, who wrote in her memoir: “…what I really craved was to be recognized not primarily for my appearance but profoundly and longingly, even pathetically, for something in me that knew better — my mind, my true spirit, my integrity.”
Because the woman was funny: “I sharpen pencils with an out-damn-spot intensity.” And even in extreme old age, she was restless: “To sit, / and wait, / for all those satisfactions / that always fail to satisfy.” A bit like this book, unfortunately. All the signifiers get in its way and weigh down Freyberg’s authentic, accessible, personal voice. And for that, I am sorry.
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