Jan '03 [Home]
Edmund Pennant Memorial at The Orange Bear in Manhattan (12/1)
Remarks by Suzanne Noguere
want to thank Tom Catterson for organizing this memorial celebration and D.H. Melhem as well for inviting me to take part in it. Edmund Pennant was a generous and attentive friend to me and to many and a remarkable poet.
While the discipline of poetry might be the writing on the page, the life of it to him was sound—the engagement of voice and ear. Reading poems aloud as we're doing today was something he loved. Even after the cancer on his vocal chords and the treatments for it had weakened his voice, he found a way to continue, giving a reading once wearing a small headset with microphone with a power pack on his belt to project his voice.
And I consider that Edmund was discovered at a reading, not unlike the way a Hollywood star is discovered. It was a reading he gave after World War II, in which he served. Someone came up to him afterwards and said how much he'd liked it and asked if Edmund had a manuscript ready for publication. He didn't. The man gave him his card and said to contact him when he did. The man was John Hall Wheelock and the press Charles Scribner's Sons. When Edmund's book was published in 1952, he immediately joined the ranks of the other Scribner poets: Allen Tate, John Peale Bishop, Peter Vierick, and Rolfe Humphries.
This is the first poem of that first book. It's called "Lost Explorer," and it says a lot about Edmund's values. It also announces that he will be using a precise and rich vocabulary. The second word of the poem is "infusorial," which refers to a loose, slightly coherent earth formed of the skeletons of diatoms, a type of algae.
waylaid his most earnest dreams and captured them,
whispering hints of momentous meaning
in a relic of genesis hidden in the jungle.
The eye of destiny scans a generation and falters,
casting for agonists in a masque for the era,
scorning the fears of the callow and the diffident
who dare to ignore a visitation, or deny it.
Then in the chosen what some call courage
seizes the one great demand of a lifetime
to fling off the familiar hobbles of humility
and solo on wings made of maps and desire.
The plane gnarls the air, leaving a backwash of silence
that settles a pall of self-pity on the earthbound,
the eyes of the wing-borne on their nakedness,
on the dribbling termite-steps of their retreating.
He is gone—many years. Those who watched him depart
ask warmly in their bars, with unashamed triumph:
Still no word from the Amazon? Have the ants left
no clue-fall? No talisman, tongue-sinew, signet-ring? Nothing?
For Edmund, the one great demand of a lifetime was poetry, but he was also an active naturalist. From Alaska to Costa Rica to Israel and beyond, wherever he and his beloved wife, Doris, traveled, he took exceptional photographs of wildflowers. Botany was an enduring joy, and he knew it so well that in a poem he might use the scientific name for a flower, like pogonia or cypripedium for types of orchids or Opunta for prickly pear cactus. This poem is called "The Glass Flower Museum, Harvard."
The Glass Flower Museum, Harvard
with these make-believe flowers
that don't spout from messy dirt and mud
("I do not want the real narcissus").
The showcases are transparent safes
locking deathless felicity, making you
wish an earth tremor might shake
the glass anthers from that too
impeccable pogonia, a rain squall
splatter the airtight poise of that
aloof cypripedium. The fingernail
of your imagination cracks the stems
of phony succulents of a phony painted
desert that never knew waft of living bee,
or firetongue of the sun.
After you leave, enveloped in
the wet, live heat of actual summer,
sexual, feral, you remember
the bloom time of an ingenuous lily
long ago, proffering fresh nectar
on a livingroom couch, offering
first access to her origin of species:
soft mullein of bared breasts, musk
presence of her tender inflorescence,
her pimpernel eyes that never left yours,
as with great care and tenderness
she combed your pubic tendrils
with fingernails tapered fine
like spines of Opunta.
I love the movements of that poem, from the glass flowers inside the glass cases to the world outdoors and then swiftly inside again to the intense interior with all the compressed opulence of a Persian miniature. I think that everything Edmund felt about language is in that poem.
One of the things I admire about his work is that it does not shy away from the immensity and horrors of history. And Jewish history was both his birthright and his burden. Sometimes in his work both history and natural history come together, as in this poem called "Thoughts Under the Giant Sequoia (Yosemite National Park)" in which the sequoia is the particular one known as "General Grant."
Thoughts Under the Giant Sequoia
gathers under "General Grant"
for the ranger's lecture. This patriarch
is at least two dozen centuries old,
a loner in a corner of the grove.
The general has heard the talk before.
It will not be about death's durance
inherent in the living, a subject
Grant could respect. It will not be
about strategies of attrition or political
whims of lightning lopping giants as if
they were dwarf skirmishers on the treeline.
The ranger—a romantic—commends us
to the lordly scene, citing
"silence of cathedrals"
which phrase we noted that morning
in the free brochure, pages made
from pulp of little brothers.
Thence to the usual chronicles building out
from natal core to delicate cambrium:
William the Conqueror here, Charlemagne
and Columbus there, each to his ring concentric.
No mention, though, of the Massacre at York
of the Jews, while the tree was sleeping.
Francis Parkman and Emanuel Ringelblum:
there's a pair who took their scholarship al fresco.
One, pain-wracked on horseback, dared Indians
and forests, recapturing Pontiac's despair. The other,
historian of the Warsaw ghetto, buried his diaries
in iron boxes before they took him in a bunker.
In what monstrosity of treetrunk, I wonder,
are all those martyrs marked, who died for
the Sanctification of the Name, unnamed?
Some day I'll come back alone and listen,
and look for a tree slightly older than Moses,
flaunting incredible veridians at the crown.
Tonight at Yosemite, though, I'll have to bushwhack
through dreams of the lovely greenbaums I have known
who rest securely under stone; and greenblatts
who huddled bleak by the grave they dug, waiting
for the guns; and greenwalds resting their tanks
in a grove of tamarisks near Sharm el Sheik.
One thing Edmund was not concerned about was what his reputation would be in a hundred years. That classical concept that the survival of one's poems gave a sort of immortality was of no interest to him. His concern was only in doing the work while he was alive, like a tree putting forth new leaves year after year.
And there was no danger of the work ever stopping. He was so deeply engaged with the world. Friendship was another form of engagement. This poem, called "The Librarian of the Woods," is a portrait of a family friend.
The Librarian of the Woods
she'll be cataloguing sepia
and siena of mushrooms,
violet of iris and gentian
and all the whitenesses
of white, from off-white
of yarrow and snakeroot to
milky racemes of cohosh.
Kids: when you come upon her
in the forest above the house
bent over a wire-delicate stem
of tick trefoil, her camera
propped, cheek close to the soil,
do not race downhill screaming.
Wait until the shutter clicks,
when she looks up and smiles,
studying you, wondering
what soil nurtured such
black olive eyes, black hair.
Arrays of leaves and shapes
and flavors of roots, how stamens
and pistils bend to the bees
—her life's work—she will pursue
even as her own hair turns to
the grey night-haze of the Milky Way.
Fix your gaze modest. By tomorrow
she will have outlived us all.
I'm going to close with a poem that is a bit uncharacteristic of Edmund, in that it is short and fairly formal. Edmund had such a meditative, expansive cast of mind that his poems tend to be of middle length or long. As for traditional poetic form, he cherished it for the poems of the past. He knew almost all of Shakespeare's sonnets by heart, some by Keats, Heinrich Heine in German, and I don't know what else; and, in fact, it is with these poems that he would occupy his mind in the sessions of radiation treatments one year and chemotherapy another.
But he didn't want to write that way himself, thinking it inappropriate to the turmoil of our times. Neatness did not count. Yet he could write in traditional form very fluently. Since my own proclivities are that way, he would sometimes send me a letter in the form of a sonnet just to show me that he could. I'll close with this poem from his second book. It's called "Perfections (To A Snowflake)."
by dint of my finger's
nearness you are
resolved on my coat.
Sun whose warm surrogate I was
will in a destined arc
of time atone my spark
and fling into a coffer's cold
finery of whitely splintered
tibia and fibula—
my snowflake life