Readers love a poem in a way they love no other thing. I love songs and albums and novels and films. And oh, do I love painting. I love my wife and both of my sons. Almost all the time. But I love nothing the way I love a poem.
I don’t love a poem more than I love my wife or sons—let’s be clear about that—but I love them in a different way. Most poems never make me angry, never frustrate me, never refuse to do what I want them to do. And let’s be honest: I have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old; plus I’m a professor. I’m feeling frustrated and not-listened-to every day of my life.
Of course, there are poems that have let me down and continue to let me down–most seem to be my own–but there are far more poems that–if I can be earnest for a moment–make me feel the presence of the divine like nothing else on earth. There is a Wallace Stevens poem that causes me to tear up while reading it in class. There is an Emily Dickinson poem that proves she is probably part angel. There is also a poem by Stanley Plumly that, to this day, transports me to a place I cannot describe.
I should back up a bit and admit that Stanley Plumly’s “The Iron Lung” is not technically the last poem I loved. It was one of the first poems I loved. But, I rediscovered it after forgetting about it, and it is the poem that has been most on my mind for the last few years.
I’m guessing there are a few readers who are acquainted with Plumly’s work, though chances are, many are hearing about him here for the first time. Both a scholar and a poet, Plumly has sort of flown under the radar in American poetry. Ten years younger than the great generation of contemporary American poets like John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, and his fellow Ohioan James Wright, Plumly produced an impressive body of work and won numerous awards, but he tends not to be anthologized or taught to the same degree as some other poets. I discovered him in an undergraduate poetry workshop when my professor, also from Ohio, read “The Iron Lung” to us at the beginning of class one day. We all have these memories when we encountered a particular poem for the first time, and I remember this moment as clearly as I remember anything:
So this is the dust that passes through porcelain,
so this is the unwashed glass left over from supper,
so this is the dust in the attic, in August,
and this is the down on the breath of the sleeper . . . .
If we could fold our arms, but we can’t.
If we could cross our legs, but we can’t.
If we could put the mind to rest . . . .
But our fathers have put this task before us.
I have never typed out those lines before. That surprises me for some reason, since I have thought about these opening stanzas on and off for over twenty years now. I will sometimes recite them as I’m running. So this is the dust that passes through porcelain is so gorgeously iambic, it makes for a great jogging soundtrack. Those repetitions, a strange mixture of the ordinary and the incantatory, are impossible to get out of my head.
I have often wondered if after getting these eight lines down, Plumly knew he had something magical in front of him. I have always suspected he did. The poem was first published in the August 26, 1974 issue of The New Yorker (you can actually download a pdf of the original page from The New Yorker site), which, even in 1974 was no small task. There is something about the contemplative but confident way this poem announces its arrival that I find wholly engaging. I read these two stanzas and know I am in the presence of a poet in command of his art. And I can’t wait to get to line nine.
Line nine is in fact fantastic, but the poem takes off a few stanzas down, when the speaker (which both is and is not the poet) imagines he has polio and that his legs are growing into the ground:
I can neither move nor rise.
The neighborhood is gathering, and now
my father is lifting me into the ambulance
among the faces of my family. His face is
a blur or a bruise and he holds me
as if I had just been born. When I wake
I am breathing out of all proportion to myself.
My whole body is a lung; I am floating
above a doorway or a grave. And I know
I am in this breathing room as one
who understands how breath is passed
from father to son and back again.
There is a lot going on here. On one level, nothing makes sense. It’s sort of surreal and dreamy and profoundly confusing. For me, the beauty of the scene comes in the “nor” and “or” constructions. The options for the father’s face—a blur or a bruise—is chilling. But not as chilling as the other option: a doorway or a grave. Those are big differences. How can the speaker not know the difference between a doorway or a grave? But, if your whole body is a lung, and you are floating, and you’ve had a major epiphany about your father, then pretty much all bets are off.
I have always found that phrase “breathing room” rather spooky. We realize soon, of course, that “the breathing room” is Plumly’s figuration for our lives. And “breath,” which carries more associations and connotations than I can explore here, is this thing that is more than air, more than carbon dioxide. It’s, literally, for the boy and the father what keeps them alive. And for the poet, it is (again literally) inspiration.
The poem closes with three more rather remarkable stanzas that raise some brave questions about the interdependence of love, family, loss, birth, and death:
At night, when my father comes to talk,
I tell him we have shared this body long enough.
He nods, like the speaker in a dream.
He knows that I know we are only talking.
Once there was a machine for breathing.
It would embrace the body and make a kind of love.
And when it was finished it would rise
like nothing at all above the earth
to drift through the daylight silence.
But at dark, in deep summer, if you thought you heard
something like your mother’s voice calling you home,
you could lie down where you were and listen to the dead.
I have often been jealous of these last lines. The mini volta that occurs at “Once” is so weird, so unexpected and yet so strangely appropriate, it feels as though the entire poem was assembled to drive us directly to this point. And then, with that final mini volta at “But,” the poem pivots once more; this time toward the reader. The you surprises and scares, as does the return of the mother, the encroaching dark, and the nearness of the dead.
This poem is a great poem for beginning writers to study. Notice how the poem’s strangeness is created pretty much only through setting. There are no weird spacings, no crazy capitalizations, no jagged lines, no torqued syntax, no arcane words. The one possibly strange notion is the iron lung, but that title, rather than the more direct “My Father” or “My Dream about My Father and Death” simply adds to functionality of the poem and its metaphorical strategies.
There are many formal and poetic reasons to love this poem, but more often than not, we love something because it speaks to a specific issue in our own lives. In my case, it was something as simple as the line “I tell him we have shared this body long enough.” Here’s why. For better or worse, I look exactly like my father. We even have the same first, middle, and last names. In my small hometown in Oklahoma, where my grandparents also lived, I was known by everyone as “Gary Rader’s son.” Indeed, for most of my life, I was identified as his progeny pretty much everywhere I went. All over Western Oklahoma—Clinton, Elk City, Sayre, Guymon, Woodward, Altus, Corn, Colony, Cordell, Elk City, Hydro, Hinton—I have memories of some guy stopping me and asking, “Are you Gary Rader’s boy?” I love my dad; he’s a great guy, but by 20, I had shared my father’s body long enough. However, I had no way of articulating that, no way of really knowing until in that seminar room, in an entirely different state, I felt Plumly say it. That was one of my first experiences with what I would come to think of as a deeper knowledge that certain poems do not just ferry but foster.
And this is why we love poetry. We love it because it helps us see the strangeness and beauty of the breathing room in which we live. We love it because it, like the iron lung, saves us.