On a spring day as far from ‘late in dour October’ it would be harder to imagine, James Schuyler’s The Bluet surprises and delights. It’s the poem that has kept me going these last few desperate weeks, and not just because it features the bright blue of the Ukrainian flag.
At first glance it is a poem of escape, a wander through the woods to get away from it all. But as Carl Phillips has argued on the Poets House blog, there is more than enough in the poem’s manoeuvres to link it with Schuyler’s familiar presentation of the world as essentially social: the tiny bluet flower is a ‘Quaker lady’; ‘the air crisp as a/ Carr’s table water/ biscuit’; leaves that ‘are deep and oriental/ rug colors’.
But the word that catches my eye is ‘stamina’, placed at the end of the poem’s first line. Stamina seems so unlikely an epithet for a tiny blue flower. I think of its more everyday usage, usually in praise of the staying power of an athlete or perhaps certain politicians. It has hints of that buzzword of the last two years, ‘resilience’, which, in the contexts I work in, can become a way of smuggling the idea of worker-agency into conversations where said workers are having their rights and conditions eroded. Stamina seems more determined, dogged even. The more I read the poem, the more fitting, and less surprising, it appears. And the more I read about Schuyler’s life, his recovery from severe and successive breakdowns, the more fitting an epithet it seems for his own attitude and enterprise.
Reading the poem repeatedly over the last few weeks, I have also been reminded of Seamus Heaney’s dictum in The Government of the Tongue that ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank’. Though it is fanciful to say so, would that the reverse were true today. While there is a world with James Schuyler’s noticing to make surprise flowers ‘the focus of it all’, however, I have hope. Sometimes stamina comes to us in ways that are not wrapped in force.