What I love about James Schuyler is coming across poems I have not found before and finding in them the tactics, observation and love of life that I find in poems that are better known to me. A friend once described to me a game he plays with Norman MacCaig poems. Open the Collected at random and read three or four poems off the cuff. If you find a bad one, you win. If you don’t, Norman wins. He told me he has yet to win a game. In a similar vein, I am still exploring Schuyler.

Here is his poem February from the gloriously titled Freely Espousing (1969):

 

February

 

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can’t remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we’d gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They’re just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can’t get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She’s so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It’s a day like any other.

from Freely Espousing (1969)

 

I think he had me at ‘breathing’.

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.

These lines move through repetition, hesitation and qualification (pink/pink; I can’t see/I can’t quite see; a little/a bit of) towards some kind of statement (The pink of five tulips) that is itself provisional, a starting point.

Here is The Bluet, from Hymn to Life (1974):

The Bluet

 

And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,
the air crisp as a
Carr’s table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.

from Hymn to Life (1974)

 

While we are talking about him, I think

a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat

is as good as MacCaig.

This is great too:

The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.

I love the chiming of still/ripple/hills; then leaves/deep/trees; then fallen/oriental.  The half and full echoes of sound weave casually through the lines, a tough yet sinewy spine which allows the risky adoption of the vocabulary of interior decoration (oriental/ rug colours; set off) to appear sensible, even charming.

Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems (2010), published nine years after his death, is full of similar treasures. The standard does not drop. Poem (the day gets slowly started) describes one of Schuyler’s stays in a psychiatric hospital.

 

Poem (the day gets slowly started)

The day gets slowly started.
A rap at the bedroom door,
bitter coffee, hot cereal, juice
the color of sun which
isn’t out this morning. A
cool shower, a shave, soothing
Noxzema for razor burn. A bed
is made. The paper doesn’t come
until twelve or one. A gray shine
out the windows. “No one
leaves the building until
those scissors are returned.”
It’s that kind of a place.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen worse.
The worried gray is melting
into sunlight. I wish I’d
brought my book of enlightening
literary essays. I wish it
were lunch time. I wish I had
an appetite. The day agrees
with me better than it did, or,
better, I agree with it. I’ll
slide down a sunslip yet, this
crass September morning.

from Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems (2010)

 

As Michael Hoffman has said of Schuyler’s poems in this vein, in spite of the unpromising prospects of the poem’s setting, the station to which it is tuned is merriment. There are the same qualifications (The day agrees/ with me better than it did, or,/ better, I agree with it; the color of sun which/ isn’t out this morning), and the same reliance on repetition as a method of generating inner observation:

I wish I’d
brought my book of enlightening
literary essays. I wish it
were lunch time. I wish I had
an appetite.

But look at that description of the sun, ‘which isn’t out this morning.’ This is a direct descendant of the opening lines of February (The sun, I can’t see/ making a bit of pink) where what is not seen is given as much attention and occupies just as much space as that which is visible. We might even call it negative space, but that would be to make the poetry sound depressing, when it is anything but.