Mary knows all the names of the plants,
The tiny buds, the bird calls through the brush,
What will come next season.
Maxine knows the animal spoors, the dog's love life,
How to keep hay from rotting, what she wants.
Donald knows about old wood, forest smells, grass stains
On the carpet, living with the dead.
I know that this sweet world
Slips soundlessly under my skin,
Curls around my ribs, carries me
To when the crow burst from my breast bone,
Rose and swept across the sky
Gathering his tribe, calling and calling
So I would never forget his tongue,
The night I was born.
Tonight the crows speak again
As they do whenever I arrive, as they do
When I am not here
Each morning across these worlds,
Always within the sound of memory,
My longest dream.
Copyright 2003 by Becky Dennison Sakellariou
Critique by Jendi Reiter
I chose "Crows" for critique because of its delicacy of feeling and its pleasing rhythm. Sakellariou has a good ear for the music of speech, which is essential for writing free verse that is lyrical and not prosy.
A well-crafted poem does not declare its theme, but rather allows it to emerge organically from the concrete details of the poem. Through the author's choice of images, "Crows" speaks of kinship with the natural world, accepting one's place in a larger cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The wisdom of Mary, Maxine and Donald encompasses both signs of decay—"the rotting hay," "grass stains/On the carpet, living with the dead"—and signs of renewal—"what will come next season," the fertility of budding plants and mating animals. This litany of humble, earthy knowledge conveys a sense of peace, like a forest that embodies both stillness and constant change.
The narrator does not enter the scene until the second stanza, conceding the central role to the natural world of which she is only a part. In the final stanza, she hints at her own disappearance: "Tonight the crows speak again/As they do whenever I arrive, as they do/When I am not here." This is a deft reversal of the self-centered Romantic convention that treats natural phenomena as only the poet's emotions writ large.
I would hate to spoil the concision of this poem, but I wish Sakellariou had added more details to help us figure out who Mary, Maxine and Donald are. We meet them without any preface except the title "Crows." I first began reading this stanza as a list of the things that crows know—an idea not without whimsical appeal—but realized that crows probably wouldn't know about carpets or the names of plants. Without any other information, I ended up picturing them as wise older members of the "tribe" mentioned in the second stanza, a community from which the narrator came and to which she periodically returns. [See November critique for more on this.]
This is a poem that invites you to fill in the blanks. Shapes shift as in a myth, people into crows, old wood into new buds. This impression is especially strong in the last stanza, with its suggestion of multiple "worlds," and its concluding phrase, "memory,/My longest dream."
Compared to the understatement of the previous lines, this phrase struck me as a little too sentimental. "Memory" and "dream" are words that many poets, including myself, are tempted to overuse. Some beginning poets will throw in romantic words to pretty up the poem and make it sound more important. By contrast, in "Crows," though it departs somewhat from the tone that I found so appealing in the earlier lines, the final phrase does help to add a new shade of meaning. Suggesting that the memories of her life are merely her "longest dream," the narrator further blurs the boundaries between the natural and mythical worlds. The language of the crows and the language of scientific plant names are aspects of the same reality.
Where could this poem be published? "Crows" would be a good fit for many mainstream literary journals. These come to mind:
32 Poems (edited by Deborah Ager)
A new arrival on the literary scene, this well-crafted little magazine publishes 32 poems in each issue, each no more than 32 lines.
Zone 3 (Austin Peay State University)
Respected literary journal. We recommend their annual "Rainmaker" awards for unpublished poems.
New Millennium Writings (edited by Don Williams)
Handsomely produced journal that regularly publishes work with mythic or magical-realist influences. Check website for contest deadlines (officially June 17 and November 17, but often extended) and rules.
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Postscript: Our well-read subscriber Lucinda Lawson cleared up a question I raised above. She writes, "You mentioned in the critique wishing that you knew who Mary, Maxine, and Donald were, assuming they were older and wiser members of the 'tribe'. I read poetry for pleasure, and before I reached the end of the piece, I recognized Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall (all very influential poets) by the things the writer said they knew, as well as by their first names, the short list of items for each poet being reflective of that poet's repeated themes throughout the lifetime of his/her work. Kind of a neat touch, I thought."
Becky has confirmed that this is what she had in mind. It's great to have such astute readers. I learn something every day!
Categories: Poetry Critiques