Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)
by Alan Gould
They have become her fingers.
Her present ends
possess no closer friends.
Silver twins, dividing their estates,
they follow the invisible maps
she laid there, years ago perhaps.
Without this risk there’s no precision,
And so they come this far
absorbed in their decisive mission,
a slish then slish
that parts one stillness from another,
the blades swimming like two slender fish.
The room grows dark, this draws
all light toward her fingers.
There is, as well, you note,
her smile so calm for interests
so utterly remote.
“Scissors” is published with the permission of Alan GouldZireaux’s comments on this poem
So where do we cut a 17 line poem called “Scissors”? Right down the middle of course. Line 9. “Absorbed in their decisive mission.”
Not since Emily Dickinson’s description of a snake in the grass — “his notice sudden is” — have I encountered a more effective sibilance of subject matter. But these words, “decisive mission,” are perfectly selected not just because they sound right (“slish and slish”), or even because they look right — the double-ss in “mission” mirroring the double-ss in its scissoring twin — but rather because they cut to the very core of the poem itself.
The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use, and 47,169 obsolete words. This, then, defines the monumental task of all great English novelists and poets — making choices, selecting which word goes where. It’s really no more complicated, and no less daunting, than that: Minute-by-minute decisions, revisions, changing one’s course, changing one’s mind.
But how to decide? And for what purpose? “You note,” writes the poet in line 15, addressing himself in much the same way Wallace Stevens commands himself to “Note that” in line 22 of “Poems of our Climate.” Poets are notetakers, record-keepers, observers of detail, passionate scientists, ship captains with exhaustive log-books, and what we have in “Scissors” is a poet with an extremely sharp vision.
He catches something vital in the act of scissoring, namely, the way the scissors “follow invisible maps” from “years ago perhaps;” and that in so doing, in using the past to guide their “present ends,” the woman’s fingers are able to pursue a “decisive mission.” There’s an important truth here for all great artists, for all observant poets, namely — and here’s the lovely part — “without this risk there’s no precision.”
Precision. Yes, note that.
I’m wary of poets who work to create moods of transcendence. I’ve struggled, as my readers know, with Wallace Stevens, his wintry mind, his snowy smells. But it takes a fine poet to write about poetry. Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, Wallace Stevens (and now Alan Gould) are some of the poets who, as I’ve noted in previous posts, successfully capture the poetic mind. What they all have in common: a devotion to precision, to the careful selection of words.
“Poets’ poets,” they’re often called, and this would make sense if, in fact, the majority of poetry readers weren’t themselves practicing poets. Or put another way, with the exception of certain half-developed homunculi like Vladimir Putin and Rick Santorum, there’s a little poet in everyone.
And artistry, craftsmanship, will always captivate the discerning poet (see Jenning’s brilliant poem on Rembrandt). Gould’s enchantment with the lamplit task of the female homemaker, his observation of cutting and stitching (his “Scissors” is followed by another poem, “Needle”) brings to mind, for example, Picasso’s and Degas’s infatuation with women ironing clothes. You’ll note (note that!) the dark eyes and peculiar smile on the lips of Picasso’s “Ironing Woman,” as if she, too, is “calm for interests / so utterly remote.”
Or even reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car — these are the moments of the poetic mind (see my post “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“).
Gould is a Canberra-based poet, and Canberra (with its regular readings at the Gods Cafe, or my chance encounter with Gould, who I’d never heard of before, and who was discussing his latest novel at the local Canberra library) is surprisingly rich with writers and poetry. But Gould is also an immigrant with seafaring blood, and it’s this past that rises to the surface in “Scissors” — the scissor blades (splash and splash) “swimming like two slender fish.”
Appropriately, the collection in which “Scissors” appears is called The Past Completes Me, and the past is certainly a guiding source of inspiration for poets. But there’s something more here, too — that despite the precision, the years of dedication, the painful hours of agonizing selection from an ocean of hundreds of thousands of words, there’s a poetic acknowledgement that on the shifting estate of water, alas, is where the poet’s words are inevitably writ.
For some more great words on water writ — and by memory preserved — readers are encouraged to visit some of the other Tuesday Poets at Tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com.