Marly Youmans is an American poet whose poems have appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Canto, Black Warrior Review,
and Ploughshares, among other publications. A native and longtime
resident of the Carolinas, she now lives in Cooperstown, New York. She is also
the author of three novels: The Wolf Pit, winner of the Michael Shaara
Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction; Catherwood; Little
Jordan; and a book for children, The Curse of the Raven Mocker.
“Rereading these fine poems has given me a sense of returning home to a place of good things: wisdom,
courage, goodness, and beauty preserved against so many brutal assaults. It may
be in the country, in the past, in dreams, or in art, but Claire finds
always what another poet called ‘a place for the genuine.’ The reader is
given convincing details — names, places, and flowers — with the stamp of
authenticity in the sure handling of language and music. Time and again, I hear
what seems to be perfect wording and pacing. Youmans’s poems address a world
accurately registered and carefully kept — in gracious reminders of old
meanings of ‘keep’: care, attention, heed, notice. I wish more poems were
like these.” —William Harmon
“Youmans began her writing career as a poet, so I am glad to see her returning to her first love after
years of writing fiction. Claire, her first book of poems, shows her
facility with language and formal structure, as well as her gift for weaving the
personal and the mythic into an elegantly textured narrative.” — Kathryn Stripling Byer
“Readers of Marly Youmans know her supple, sensuous prose. In Claire she shifts to
the more nervous rhythms of poetry, exploring the dark, rich realms of
childhood. Claire’s universe is alive with activity, birds, beasts and flowers, to use the
Laurentian title. But really it is Tennyson she reminds me of, the melody, the
melancholy of ‘Lady in a Tower, 1870.’”—John Montague
The Princess trees—the great seed-scattering weeds—
Erect their plum pagodas once again,
And I am rooted on the mountain's crest
As surely as are trillium, pink-shell, phlox
And ulularia—I lift the blades
To tuck the dyed eggs underneath and dream
Of a boy at the forest's edge who brought his gift,
A single egg with deep persimmon dye.
The peepers and the sweet metallic calls
Of birds are telling me—bell note, echo,
Quiver of air, trill, arrow of song—
About this place where names are Prince and Queen
And old folks say God wanders on the ridge.
How else could sky be such a heavenly blue?
Trailing children, watching the Easter hunt,
I now let go of all I ever wished.
I sniff the April ramps and ginger leaves,
I breathe the violets and sweet-smelling clay,
Seeing that my life has come to nothing.
How little I have made that's worth the keep!
My soul, much rinsed, is threadbare, fine as lawn.
And yet, like a child, I still draw near
The sky and rising mists, the hills that are
The mighty ramparts of a mercy seat.
The bowls are filled with offerings.
One holds the azurite,
One malachite — the other things
Are unguent, gold, and light —
Or rather, crystals still unsealed
By mortar and pestle,
Their inner nature unrevealed
Like a stoppered vessel.
He steps into a finished work
As if into a hall
Of mirrors. Arts, randomness, quirk—
Each has a right to call
His name: his face is everywhere,
He's center, edge, and four
Corners; and yet, he's lost, not there —
Dispersed in rock like ore.
Who unwound this labyrinth
Of noonday mystery?
And what white figure on a plinth
Ordained its history?
Some forty layerings of paint
Refract the sun — this way
The jewelled landscape, like a saint,
Goes saturate with day.
Names of God, in silver script,
Are tarnishing with time,
The golden words of God encrypt
His keys to the sublime.
The facets of the painter's soul
Are glittering like glass.
In shattering he yields the whole —
Brokenness like the Mass.
Published in Books & Culture, January/February 2005.
Pieces of moon that jag and flash from grass,
Glowing cloudywing and cloudless sulphur
Float on air. Her summer lawns see flight's pure
Syllables: atala, thula, anise.
Now lyrical uprisings create moon,
And now a tor of darkness mounts the fir,
While on light hearts begin to stamp and burn
The dervishes of night, death's head, luna.
But songs that flutter wings in her and rise
Anew to breath of world's frail spiracles
Are not so white and cool as butterflies
That gather in their lunar miracles,
Nor are so strange with passion as to batter
And singe against a filament of flame,
But now are tipped with fiery flakes that scatter,
And now are warm and fair and without blame.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in The Carolina Quarterly
Substance of evening enters, remorseless blue
And far denser than it had seemed before.
Capable of bearing moon? One might well sue
The sky for answers, for the moon, once only
A marble — aggie, milky end-of-day
Glass — nothing! plaything! ignored and lonely —
Is now truly of marble and liable,
So looming-great and ponderous it seems,
To fall. Experts are not reliable
And cannot vouch. But each in her own room,
Forgotten dolls tremble as Claire's dollhouse,
Tilted to one side and deep in the gloom
Of grass, now lifts up its unguarded face,
Faint, desirous under the wind's stroking.
The breezes rise, and violet airs now race
To pelt the tiny house with darts of brush.
Antic, electrical beasts brisk and yowl.
The baby gasps and drowns in shadows. Hush.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Rhino
Rite: Six for the Fears
That quaking sulphurs, leaves, and bright metal
Of dragonflies will fly; the goldenrod,
Its staves now shocked for gathering, will fall,
That Claire will find (beneath a shelf of sod
Lit by fireweed) a nest of skulls and snakes,
But strangely furred and tanned like bog bodies,
And that a stream will lap at ferny brakes
With stones and shallows laved by soaking hair
Of girls, its rippling tune locked in landscape,
And that the sounds remaining to the air
Will be defiling rasps of insect song
Without a noise of children anywhere,
That he who left her for an hour is gone
For good, so that Claire will not have the things
She dreamed of by Grasse River save the one —
And last, when she has nothing else, she'll fling
Herself on wave-worn shillets, dumb to tell
Of all that has been lost and mute to sing.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Blueline
At the Glass Doors
A girl once flew
Down a be-cypressed god —
Forsaken southern road,
And there in trees, she saw
A golden hearth that flushed
And sleeved the trees in gilt.
A rich-blazing barrow
Fit for a queen, autumn
Upraked to high leafcoal —
Lonely, no thrall of fire
To shoulder tines and go
Gold-backed into the dark.
As if the black
Might hold a burning core.
Once loving hands set crowns
Of bine and stars on her:
Claire Ann the child. Look now
At thirty years, at ghost-
Shadows that sigh and gasp
Along the glassy doors,
And waterdrops, the small
Waterdrops that shine
Go dim, with just a moon
Of milkglass in the trees.
She would not pass
From doors and wander through
The trees, or sink herself
In leaves, for she now knows
Nothing ever happens,
Only the wind and creak
Of pines on their moorings.
She is no queen. In dark
Of ruins chinked with scrub,
Needle is leaf, and live-oak
(Leafcool as glass) hides
To grieve in Spanish shawls.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in The Crescent Review
Rue for A. E. Housman
To have one love for all your life
And it as dear as breath,
To lose the shape of what you loved
In distance, then in death:
Yes, what a funny world it is,
Where this is not the worst
That can occur, and daily does.
The mouth that did not thirst
For yours is dust, and you are not.
Yet heedless of all doom,
The children shout immortal joys,
Again the roses bloom.
Published in Books & Culture, July/August 2003
His sea was ridge and northern meadowland.
Too plumb-stone deep for children — billow, strand,
And foam too wild. By chimneynook it thrummed,
Was tidal where his black-gowned women strummed
The nerves and swam with word-murderous eye.
His sea spat arrowheads from furrowed rye
And millet, harvest points of dead-drab stone,
One of unmoving cloud. His sea, by bone
Inhabited — the spars of swallowed men.
And with no instrument could he begin
To compass its severe and high romance
Or radiant abyss, a gulf of chance
And risk. Yet all the sea was just a fleck
In the eye of God! Above his hopes, a wreck
Of rich cargo, on decks at Arrowhead
This Melville walked the plank. The barrow dead
Don't go so winding-deep in dark as he
Who crafted nets of words, a fate to flee
Or find — this lone Jonah, terribly free
To snatch at God, mankind, the plunging sea.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Wordsmith
Snow House Stories
Our district's bedtime tales of snow are cruel.
The steps of toddlers, moving back and forth
Between two doors, the sled runs to a pond.
At Mirror Lake a woman slipped through ice
And drank the cold. In blue twilight she saw
Lucent souls of lost unlucky children
Suspended in the ice, or floating past
In sodden hoods and gowns, unharmed by smiles
Of pike. Claire spoke; then she forgot all words.
The man detected nothing. Logged, his sleeve
Now strained in silence that the blackbirds fled.
He felt the world attending as he fished.
Next he could feel the stars kneel at his back.
And he could feel the planets stare to think.
Then particles were getting in his eyes.
And afterward he proved the orphic voice
To be a kind of choking, stop and start.
The leastmost tendril crept across his wrist.
She didn't want to come. She didn't want
That birth. Claire wanted nothing. Still, she was
Upraised by hair from water's placid womb.
It seemed there was no link with nature's dark.
And after all, she lived. The neighbors sprang
From shining homes to help him lift her forth.
The snow kept on, tireless, wide spaced as stars.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Carolina Quarterly
Claire bent to look and whispered, "That is all,
It's nothing but a grainy photograph.
It's not our place, nor anywhere I know."
A larch was flowing from the earth to cloud;
The pictured cows were bowed to slanted sleet.
They were a piece of winter's puzzle, drab
And difficult, with sheds and tools and shack
Repeating seasonal monotony.
Claire told a tale about it — chinks of light
Were twinkling, calling, even knew her name.
The girl who slipped the curtains back to peep
Was watching for the man who hauled a babe
Gone blue with cold inside his doctor's bag.
"And she is me," Claire mused. "I was the one
By windows, always longing for the new
And magical to be released by birth."
But in a rear bedroom, the mother moaned,
Forgot the whoop and thrust of life, the babe
Who lay spring-coiled and struggling to be born.
The woman's mind was set adrift to freeze
On arctic floes of stark and piled-up sheets.
All through the cave of house, stalactites wept
The tears of ice that carpeted the boards
With pearl—behind the child, stalagmite trees
And ice-plants swelled to thicket, forest, bars
Uncrossable. "Don't turn your head," Claire willed,
"Just stay like this forever, eyes on lights
Like stars approaching. Fix them on the man
And on a bag in which the living boy
Is pressing headfirst toward the cloudy day,
His every breathless pulse a miracle."
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Intro 8 (Anchor Books)
The Cherry Trees
But no salt glaze
Could be so delicately cracked
As were that morning's holly leaves,
Each shelled in ice. The cherry stones
Still linked to trees, the hips and barbs
Of rose arbors, the spiral threads
On Adam's Needle clung to clear
Remarks of ice.
Made glints on garden paths — and there
A daughter paced the night to dawn,
Her fingers curled around the word
That came toward her, that made of her
By ice, by air
A cherry tree's meshwork of boughs
Is doubled, lined beyond the bark
As though a painter's ruthless brush
Had passed along each crook and curve,
Each curve of air beside a curve.
Meanwhile a body yielded ghost,
The timelines on a face grew stiff,
And eyes stared up as final puffs
Of breath were pilfered.
It was a day
Of sober cloud. The girl Claire Ann
Who played in knotted garden beds
Came to the mourner, as if she
Could feel a stranger's grief and gave
— What did the child intend to give? —
A winter cherry, ancient flesh
Enfolded, sucked around the pit.
Her hand was open, small. Her hand
Was wet with ice. As if she said,
Grave-eyed, This very fruit I plucked
And saved to mark your father's death.
The eldest cherry trees must yield to seed
And bear the stone.
From Claire (Louisiana State University Press, 2004); originally published in Ploughshares
The Sea of Traherne
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins...
—Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation
All through his body is a joyful pulse
That says his love’s more wide and canyon-deep
Than anyone can tell—the morning dew
Increases him, and he wraps round the Earth.
Noon & Night
Inside his skull, the innocence of sharks
Disperses fins of rainbow, ruby, pearl;
Within the heart’s a beast unspeakable,
Though peaceful, tethered to a coral branch.
At all Times, in all Places
He’s sportive in eternal founts of time
Where all of past and future surge as one,
Where trooping waves dance up a shingle beach,
Laughing and tossing bright confetti wealth
Of burnished glass and conchs and weed to shore
In tide that’s full yet always coming in.
Courtesy of Books & Culture
The Angel with the Broken Face
In substance boreal and opaline,
This angel’s changeable as cuttlefish,
As satisfyingly mottled as clouds.
A fuse of male and female fixed in glass,
Its shape of an achieved perfection stares
Toward the angel with the broken face.
The marred one is also my favorite . . .
Odd that the blurry spot where cobbles flew
Draws me to him. The glassmaker was dead,
And no one could recall how to remake
The angel, its auroral cast, the right
Gemstone hardness and brilliance of the flesh.
Repaired, the face looked tentative, unformed,
And like a burning bush drawn in the sand,
Conveyed no news: a sign but wholly pure.
Often I feel the broken angel knows
—Though he is infinitely far and chill—
And want to ask him how he can suffer
The way it is: how strangers bought the hills
For gain and scarred the lyric meadowlands
Beyond the village, razed the antique house,
How everything’s gone tatty, smashed to hell,
Or else is pieced with solder, glue, and tape.
The angel just endures, knowing the world.
Sometimes when I go to tell a story
It all begins with springing pleasure—joy
Of something being born from nothingness,
But then the men and women start to shift
And bump and scatter, though I yearn for them,
Helpless to stop the possibilities.
You see, I never meant them to be so,
But in the night there is surprise, a death,
A scandal—something terrible occurs
Beside a bed of sweet hepatica,
Or on the banks of lovely rural streams.
I never meant a word of that. Oh, no.
For even though it was the tale I told,
It got away from me. They got away
From me. And yet I called and called their names.
I made them, felt in my bones what would become
So long before it did. Perhaps I knew
The very hour I made the boy, the girl.
Is that the way it is? The angel says,
“My throat is rinsed by wine, and gold and heat
Pour from my skin. The world is in my mouth
And like a holy wafer it dissolves
Upon my tongue—this could be how world ends.
When daybreak comes, my face will scald your eyes.
It is nothing to me. I am nothing
Human. I freeze or flame by heaven’s sun,
By mortal ceremonies left unstirred.”