Monday, September 1, 2008

Duende: Words Both Winged and Quilled

There are dark jewels embedded in certain prized poems, the ones you must return to, to read again and again. These jewels glitter – mesmerizing, faceted, sharp – and a little dangerous. As you walk barefoot through the lines, flickering match held aloft, they invite you closer to their edges and points. Sometimes they pierce the sole of your unwary foot or curious fingertip. Sometimes they work inside that tender flesh to become a part of you. You have discovered either a kindred soul or a soul so different, so full, astonishing and troubling, that you fall in love with the black words, the spiky images, the intoxicating shadows and bottomless caverns of the poem. Your wounds are suddenly beautiful and shared. They heal over their dark treasures, holding them close.

These deep and passionate poems have duende. In The Demon and the Angel, Edward Hirsch defines Federico Garcia Lorca’s use of the word as “a term for the obscure power and penetrating inspiration of art.” For Lorca, duende,“which could never be entirely pinned down or rationalized away, was associated with the spirit of earth, with visible anguish, irrational desire, demonic enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. It is an erotic form of dark inspiration.” “It is both a troublesome spirit and a passionate visitation. It seems to suggest both contact with the depths and access to our higher selves.” (p.10)

At the end of the book, Hirsch writes his own striking, poetic description of duende:

The duende is a wind that breathes through the empty arches over the heads of the dead; it is the wing of a wounded hawk that floats through the crushed grass and flares out of the swollen sidewalks; it is a dream that mocks the bloody mockingbird and flees through the empty subway tunnels and soars out of the broken chest of bridges; it is a joy that burns and a suffering that scalds, like hot ice; it is a cry that rises out of the human body and annunciates ‘the constant baptism of newly created things’ (Lorca, Deep Song).” (The Demon and the Angel, p.230)

Years ago, I wrote a prose poem called “All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled.” It defines the type of poetry that pulls me to its chest, poetry that exudes an irresistible dark and shimmering force. It, too, describes the mysterious power of duende:

All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled

The best poems have a steady wind blowing through them, a low, haunting howl you can almost hear. The wind threatens to lift the surface world like a rock, releasing the scent of damp soil, exposing the scurrying, chewing things beneath. When I start to read a great poem, I'm at the edge of a dark opening, letting my eyes adjust, curious. Cold air rushes up through my hair. Water from stalactites plinks into a distant underground stream. I'm suddenly alert, skin prickled and shivery.

Entering its cave, I expect to find a pile of gnawed bones, or feel a moist palm on the back of my neck. Musk announces the presence of something alive inside its passages, something stronger and wilder than narrow words can restrain--a leathery, immortal creature, a giant draped in the humid rags of a subterranean realm. What lurks inside the poem, singing to me, is so rare, that, at first, my face lifts with wonderment. I recognize the voice of the beast that dwells there, precious last of its kind.

But on the cusp of delighted laughter, my features twist, puzzled. I sense something clinging to my arm in the dark--affectionate, intimate--but with glistening teeth. I'm poised to bolt, but the spell of its throaty new language is on my own tongue like an elixir. Enchanted, I want it to whisper its life's story in my ear. I long to savor all of its words, both winged and quilled. Trustingly, gently, I run my fingers up and down the black pearls of its spine. Its amber eyes are the only dim lights. I stare into the dilated pupils, unafraid, willing to place my head in its jaws.

“All of Its Words, Both Winged and Quilled” was first published in No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets (Edited by Ray Gonzalez, Tupelo Press, 2003), then in LUNA, then in Stirring the Mirror (Bitter Oleander Press, 2007).

Thrillingly, I read with Edward Hirsch, John Amen, and George Wallace in April, as part of The Pedestal Magazine event, the first Writer's Voice poetry event held in the new Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA in NYC. Click on "The Pedestal Magazine event" to read about the evening and see a photo of the participants.

The photograph above was taken 8/31/08, withered shadows courtesy of a plant I neglected. Simply click on the image to enlarge it.


Tara said...

I just love the shadows on that photograph. The slightly unnerving baby face goes really well with your poem.

Christine said...

Thanks, Tara...keep up the great ceramic art!