Mona Van Duyn

Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov—some of our finest poets died in 2004. The one I grieve the most is Mona Van Duyn (b. 1921), whose poems mine ordinary experiences—a trip to the car wash, a bout of minor illness—for rich ore. Masterfully eclectic, she wrote personal poems, philosophical poems, playful poems, poems in form and free verse, long meditations and “sonnets for minimalists.”

For the eclecticism alone, I’d consider Van Dyne a spiritual mother, but I also feel connected to the circumstances of her life. As a child, she suffered shaming and intrusiveness at the hands of parents; her hypochondriacal mother indoctrinated her in a religion of fleshly drama and decay. As an adult, she wrote about those parents, ailing and old, balancing old disappointment and new exasperation with patient listening, love and even fascination. She strikes me as a refined woman who was born into coarse circumstances, observed them, felt them, shaped them into poetry—and unless I’m projecting too much, that’s the core thing we shared.

Mona Van Duyn was a native Iowan who lived for much of her life in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband Jarvis Thurston. She was the first female poet appointed US Poet Laureate and the recipient of major prizes, including the Pulitzer.



Late Loving “What Christ was saying, what he meant [in the story of Mary and Martha] was that the pleasures of that hair, that ointment, must be taken. Because the accidents of death would deprive us soon enough. We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections. We must not try to second-guess by refusing to love the ones we loved . . .”—Mary Gordon, Final Payments

If in my mind I marry you every year
it is to calm an extravagance of love
with dousing custom, for it flames up fierce
and wild whenever I forget that we live
in double rooms whose temperature’s controlled
by matrimony’s turned-down thermostat.
I need the mnemonics, now that we are old,
of oath and law in re-memorizing that.
Our dogs are dead, our child never came true.
I might use up, in my weak-mindedness,
the whole human supply of warmth on you
before I could think of others and digress.
“Love” is finding the familiar dear.
“In love” is to be taken by surprise.
Over, in the shifty face you wear,
and over, in the assessments of your eyes,
you change, and with new sweet or barbed word
find out new entrances to my inmost nerve.
Daytimes, sometimes, our three-legged race seems slow.
Squabbling onward, we chafe from being so near.
But all night long we lie like crescents of Velcro,
turning together till we re-adhere.
Since you, with longer stride and better vision,
more clearly see the finish line, I stoke
my hurrying self, to keep it in condition,
with light and life-renouncing meals of smoke.
As when a collector scoops two Monarchs in
at once, whose fresh flights to and from each other
are netted down, so in vows I re-imagine
I re-invoke what keeps us stale together.
What you try to give is more than I want to receive,
yet each month when you pick up scissors for our appointment
and my cut hair falls and covers your feet I believe
that the house is filled again with the odor of ointment.


The Gardener to His God “Amazing research proves simple prayer makes flowers grow many times faster, stronger, larger.”
—Advertisement in The Flower Grower

I pray that the great world’s flowering stay as it is,
that larkspur and snapdragon keep to their ordinary size,
and bleedingheart hang in its old way, and Judas tree
stand well below oak, and old oaks color the fall sky.
For the myrtle to keep underfoot, and no rose
to send up a swollen face, I pray simply.

There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking
outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking,
all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown,
and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun.
Deliver us from its giant gardening, from walking
all over the earth with no rest from its disproportion.

Let all flowers turn to stone before ever they begin to share
love’s spaciousness, and faster, stronger, larger
grow from a sweet thought, before any daisy
turns, under love’s gibberellic wish, to the day’s eye.
Let all blooms take shape from cold laws, down from a cold air
let come their small grace or measurable majesty.

For in every place but love the imagination lies
in its limits. Even poems draw back from images
of that one country, on top of whose lunatic stemming
whoever finds himself there must sway and cling
until the high cold God takes pity, and it all dies
down, down into the great world’s flowering.


A Spell of Conjunctivitis

The act of seeing a tree is the act of pressing
an etched eyeball against the damp paper sky,
carefully, carefully, and there it hangs, a fresh print.
And elegant frame of fur defines the start as mid-trunk
and the highest achievement as a slight tapering.
But how insistently it gathers itself together,
forcing the multitudinous scratchings out of which it is composed
into a perpendicular, a tree, recognizable sycamore.
One supposes that the three great cloudy balls
hanging from its branches like fruit are not its own,
but appeared from some imperfection of the press—
though they match the frame and seem an arty improvement.

The dog leaps through hoops of fur, disappearing for a second
into a cloud that clearly contains the fourth dimension.
He reappears with a somewhat damaged solidity,
with several legs that require an instant to rejoin their body,
and three permanent patches of light on his black hide
which may be the other side of the room shining through.

The faces of my friends are on balloons that drift and rise.
When they go through my ceiling I can only imagine how high
    they are going,
one hovering, one all pure wasteless lift,
one snagging and coming free, snagging and coming free, all the
    way up,
one swelling, perhaps, in the light air.
They bounce around me, beautiful and unfathomed,
a pirate with a gray patch on his eye,
faces with missing mouths, as if this tenderness, that kooky wit
were inexpressible. I want to touch them.
How precariously they are delivered to my senses, and with what
    loss of self-containment!


First Trip Through the Automatic Carwash

Clamped to another will, the self in its glass
begins a slow, tugged slide, toward what clarifying?
First the world had rolled in clinging crystal, then a deface
of gripping gray was spread by others, drying
to smear and mottle that threatened her own movement.
This strange detour is a clear necessity.
Drenching and blindness signal the first improvement.
This much is familiar, natural as rain would be
after the lights blow out, filling any pane
or cornea with hopelessness that will go away
after its little havoc, disclosing sunshine,
and how long it will last no one is expected to say.
But now this snail-spin, in neutral, sends her in a fierce
forest whose long dark leaves wrap her in a wild
and waving threat, a typhoon that is all hers,
swabbing to get in, as the storms of a child
threaten the very skin of the child, its frail
shell of self-regard. In mercy, this ends.
And now begins a scouring away at the braille
of outward features, a terrible wish that contends
with the speaking shapes of what she is and has been,
a spinning scrub that seems to aim for bare bone.
To destroy the customary in order to let in
something unwitnessed yet, and be wholly alone
for its witnessing, seems to be the aim of this stage.
What is whirling away? The long wedlock,
its bold ground loose? Or the whole safe cage
of sane connections? Or, from beneath, a bedrock
trust in words, their grounding for her very name?
Whatever is left is suddenly released, a few
deep breaths can be taken before she’s jerked to the same
dark jungle of thrashing fronds as before, but with new
insistence. Something refuses to be withstood.
Its untamed, zigzag, dark rubbing will break through,
You willchange, it squeaks, I replace old selfhood.
As the newly beloved asks of the lover, Who?,
as nouns rinsed of meaning ask What?, as in panic and daze
the patient asks Where?, she strains for a shape to define.
Whatever it is will enter everywhere, rephrase
everything. At the last moment it lifts toward design.
the heart makes its presence known, disheveled but whole,
by jogging in place, lithely, at lights’ surprise.
A hoot from behind makes her shift to self-control,
and the muddle of everywhere falls on her clearing eyes.


Growing Up Askew

They had the Boston Bull before I was born,
and Mother liked her far more than she liked me.
We both had a trick. When Mother shaved one forefinger
with the other and said, “Shame, sha-a-me! ” Peewee
would growl and snap most amusingly right on cue.
I, when shamed in the same manner, would cry.
I see my error now, but what good does it do?


Death by Aesthetics<

Here is the doctor, an abstracted lover,
dressed as a virgin, coming to keep the tryst.
The patient was early; she is lovely; but yet
she is sick, his instruments will agree on this.

Is this the place, she wonders, and is he the one?
Yes, love is the healer, he will strip her bare,
and all his machinery of definition
tells her experience is costly here,

so she is reassured. The doctor approaches
and bends to her heart. But she sees him sprout like a tree
with metallic twigs on his fingers and blooms of chrome
at his eye and ear for the sterile ceremony.

Oh tight and tighter his rubber squeeze of her arm.
“Ahhh” she sighs at a chilly touch on her tongue.
Up the tubes her breath comes crying, as over her,
back and breast, he moves his silver thumb.

His fluoroscope hugs her. Soft the intemperate girl,
disordered. Willing she lies while he unfolds
her disease, but a stem of glass protects his fingertips
from her heat, nor will he catch her cold.

He peels her. Under the swaddling epiderm
her body is the same blue bush. Beautiful canals
course like a postcard scene that’s sent him often.
He counts the tiptup, tiptup of her dutiful valves.

Pain hides like a sinner in her mesh of nerves.
But her symptoms constellate! Quickly he warms
to his consummation, while her fever flares
in its wick of vein, her wicked blood burns.

He hands her a paper. “Goodbye. Live quietly,
make some new friends. I’ve seen these stubborn cases
cured with time. My bill will arrive. Dear lady,
it’s been a most enjoyable diagnosis.”

She clings, but her fingers slip on his starchy dress.
“Don’t leave me! Learn me! If this is all, you’ve swindled
my whole booty of meaning, where is my dearness?
Pore against pore, the delicate hairs commingled,

with cells and ligaments, tissue lapped on bone,
meet me, feel the way my body feels,
and in my bounty of dews, fluxes and seasons,
orifices, in my wastes and smells

see self. Self in the secret stones I chafed
to shape in my bladder. Out of a dream I fished
the ache that feeds in my stomach’s weedy slough.
This tender swelling’s the bud of my frosted wish.

Search out my mind’s embroidery of scars.
My ichor runs to death so speedily,
spit up your text and taste my living texture.
Sweat to hunt me with love, and burn with me.”

But he is gone. “Don’t touch me,” was all he answered.
“Separateness,” says the paper. The world, we beg,
will keep her though she’s caught its throbbing senses,
its bugs still swim in her breath, she’s bright with its plague.


Glad Heart at the Supermarket

Still more regimented than the daily runs
are your trips to the supermarket. The tense hunts
on cans and cartons for additives, dyes, animal
fats and coconut oils, all the grabbing at once
for oat bran waffles and oat bran English muffins,
the orchestrated turning of backs on caffeine,
red meat, salt, sugar, butter, eggs,
finding the fish oil capsules, the Lean Cuisines,
the complex carbohydrates—pasta in salad or box.
As yet only two of you collapsed, I’ve heard,
into supermarket neurosis, one mate has rebelled
at the low cholesterol of too much bean curd.
Dear friends, dear aging hearts that are stressed by young
surges and shocks of felling, dear minds quiver,
their stiffening vessels bulged with the rush of fresh
insights, jokes, dreams, may you live forever!
But let me taste, while I’m here, the new flavors
of otherness in your changing cases and shelves,
plucking with free, unguarded gluttony
that keeps my tongue in spiced surprise at your selves.
For we die of sameness too, or die to each other.
Familiarity, like a child, may fold
a monstrous lettuce leaf and cut away
till flat, green folk, unfolded, are holding hands,
then serve that undressed salad of friends each day.

Abundance! Incalculable abundance in each
of you may I shop among. Once I found
your image in a dream-like, time-pressed tour
of foreign Food Halls—cathedral-high, profound
in the mystery of the not-yet-served-or-tasted.
I glimpsed warm pigeon salad with walnuts, wild
boar, roe deer and hare patés, quail mousse,
rosepetal vinegar. Wealth-dazed, beguiled
by one glance at a take-out dish called “Love in Disguise”—
A calf’s heart coated with vermicelli and breadcrumb,
I saw ahead a darkened aisle, roped off:
the sacred privacy where no one should come.
(Store-room of the I, where secret recipes
and orders go forth to the world outside the skin,
is as dark, perhaps, to the I as to anybody,
and love is least likely to lighten the deepest bin.)
For the sweet quotidian your supermarkets
more than suffice. They’re dependable—I know
what each one stocks—yet at unexpected times
new ices, canned goods or sea-foods are put on show.
I know where to reach for what, but a joy of friendship
is the strange savor that answers to no felt lack.
Even the steadfast store that I know best,
the closest to me, brought forth a few years back
the kiwi I’d never tasted; one day the first
tang of arugula appeared. No treat
in mind today, I picked out produce I needed.
Something called jicama rolled and fell at my feet.


The Burning of Yellowstone

Squaring their papers—tap, tap—the news team finds
one last feature to catch St. Louis ears
following days of rage and roar on the screen
as feather, fur, nest, cave, hide disappears.
“Don’t miss the sunset tonight or tomorrow night!”
For two thousand miles, it appears, wind bore to the eye
smoke from unseen deaths and wounds to remind us
how beautiful, at the end, is the earth, the sky.
Driving west from the towers that block our view
we find a hillside pull-off. Every sense
confounded by the vision that wraps us round,
we feel to the bone its burning radiance.
Orange daylily uncurls its lips and presses
them urgently on the blue-veined brow of space.
Rose at its ripest spreads wide its fervent petals
to welcome the other hues. An intense trace
of crushed violet scent lies on the air.
Petunia tongues a pink both sweet and clear.
Fallout of deep red peony litters the treeline.
We take each other’s hand, eyes wet, and hear
how gently the world informs its witnesses,
as jonquil yellow trumpets a floral boom,
of its debt to the artistry of their beholding,
of their culpability for its final bloom.



Amazon link to books by Mona Van Duyn


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