the grass, a pretzel of flesh and brass
you could say, I guess, except it's
only a man wearing a tuba beneath late
autumn reds as blackbirds flock
overhead. The tuba is cold metal
fact, and this fellow bears
the weight on his back less like
a broken-hearted lament than a bulky
instrument. This sight, it's true, might
remind someone less sensible than you
of a duet, of a girl, of the year
that has unfurled since the touch of her
hand, of a melody that fluttered last fall
then collapsed to earth with no sound
at all, like the sudden absence of a breeze.
But, please: A tuba and its man are merely
crossing a park at bright noon, absent
a band or a tune, and there is no need
to notice, no need for a word about
the blackbirds, which ripple to earth behind
the man like the folding of a fan --
just not as final or as fast and,
overall, more like birds landing in grass.
Welcome to the first Tuesday Poem on our new blog! Bryan Walpert is an American-born NZ citizen who lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand, teaching creative writing at Massey University. I heard him read this poem last year when his collection Etymology (Cinnamon Press) was launched. I'd known Bryan until then as a colleague who gave astute and wildly generous feedback to students about their poems, and I had not realised how wonderful his own poetry was.
Etymology plays with language and its ability to both release and constrain the messy stuff of the heart and flesh. Along with the prism of science, it is used to provide distance between the reader and troublesome sentiment.In No Metaphor, the head dismisses the fancies of the heart as irrelevant - pleading with it in fact to stop - but the heart cannot help itself. The metaphor is insistent - turning the 'cold metal fact' of the man and the tuba into an image of lost love despite the head's best efforts to control it, and then shifting its focus to the blackbirds. The continual return to the facts of the matter powerfully evoke the interior struggle of the man in the poem to both remember and forget.
In a similar way, the poem acts as a paean to metaphor as well as a warning to poets of its dangers. Controlled, metaphor evokes the feelings at the heart of the poem; uncontrolled, it can become meaningless. Look at the control of the man-and-tuba image at the start (oh that astonishing 'pretzel of flesh and brass'!), and the blackbird image at the end - the way its exquisite sadness is fed by both the well-chosen language it contains, and the controlled shift once again to 'cold metal fact'.
'I think poetry is very much an intellectual (or can be an intellectual) engagement with the world (and word) ... I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.' Bryan Walpert
Read more from Bryan's interview with Tuesday Poet Tim Jones, and more on Etymology here. Go to Fishpond (NZ), Amazon (UK) and the Book Depository (free shipping worldwide) to buy the book. Fishpond also has Bryan's new short story collection Ephraim's Eyes.
No Metaphor is reproduced on Tuesday Poem with permission from the author.
Mary McCallum is this week's Tuesday Poem editor. She is a NZ novelist, sometime poet, creative writing teacher and bookseller. Visit her Tuesday Poem and others by the Tuesday Poets.