Chernobyl Wedding, 1986
They’d always believed the world would end
in a bright blast, then blankness –
not malignant pinpricks, invisible,
not toxins salting eccentric winds.
A bright blast, then blankness
would deliver them of adulthood,
not toxins salting eccentric winds,
not a seep, a spill, a pox on all gardens.
Delivered to adulthood’s mansion,
hidden in ligatures of love
while seeps, spills, poxes amassed,
they tuned their ears to shuttle and string.
They his in ligatures of love:
veiled, Ari circled seven times her groom,
tuning her ear to shuttle and string.
Together they smashed the wineglass underfoot.
Veiled, Ari circled seven times her groom,
wrapping him in a shell of blessings.
They smashed the wineglass underfoot
to remember the temple that burned and fell.
Though they dwelt in a shell of blessings,
still sorrow reached its damp fingers –
a reminder of temples burning, falling,
low chairs, torn sleeves, unwashed hair.
Sorrow still reached its damp fingers,
and an arsenal of poisons prepared to lick them.
The low chair, torn sleeve, unwashed hair
waited at the top of the stairs.
Arsenals of poison prepare to lick them,
malignant pinpricks invisible.
At the top of the stairs it waits:
the end of belief in the world.
from The Banquet of Donny & Ari: scenes from the opera
Editor: Eileen Moeller
Selecting a single poem from this wonderful novella in verse, by Canadian poet Naomi Guttman, was no easy matter. There are so many rich pieces, and they run the gamut from narrative, to lyric, from free verse to form, all the way to prose poem. And as in any fictional work, they shift point of view. I chose this pantoum from the Prologue because it foreshadows the trajectory of a long marriage, that survives life’s difficult events, whether personal or worldwide, but not without a price.
We become fond of the Backuses and their two children. They are characters with substance: intelligent and artistic. Ari (like Ariadne) is a weaver, attuned to what’s happening to the earth, in love with its offerings, but worried about the way humans are harming it. She recycles, gardens, eats little meat, and plies her craft to communicate her concerns to others. Donny (like Dionysus) is a sensualist, he feasts, and he aims high as a musician, professor, and choir master. He is in the throes of staging the opera, Orfeo, and so immersed in the mythic he tells them as bedtime stories.
This couple are grounded in every day life, but are also archetypes of the feminine and masculine who disappoint one another, who embody the struggle to understand one another The family are forced to face the death of Ari’s mother, and the way grief can separate. They drift apart, have flirtations, get lost in their work, and come back together nevertheless. In the end, Ari sees her husband for who is, but still hopes for more. The poem “In Praise of Uxoriousness” reminds me of one of the Songs of Solomon, in its erotic longing, and its hope for his continued attentions.
It’s a wonderful book, delicious in its language, rich in imagery and emotion, that can be browsed through, as one would do with any book of poems. However, I recommend reading it cover to cover, which brings a deeper engagement with the characters, and reveals more of the warp and weft of human experience.
Naomi Guttman was born in Montreal, where she attended Concordia University. Her book Reasons for Winter won the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry and was short listed for The League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Artist's Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has been a resident at Yaddo and the Chateau de Lavigny. Wet Apples, White Blood, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, was co-winner of the Adirondack Center for Writers’ Best Book of Poems for 2007. Her novella-in-verse, The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera, was published by Brick Books in 2015. Guttman teaches English and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.
This week's editor is US poet, Eileen Moeller, who lives in New Jersey, near Philadelphia. Visit her Tuesday Poem on her blog and go to the sidebar for a host of other Tuesday Poems posted today.