A Few Notes About the Poem #1: Ida Stewart
The mountaintop is as as is is
by Ida Stewart
another man’s treasure
when I’m feeling
My highway mirage,
your missed ache
. or ashen mist
A Few Notes About the Poem
When I began writing the poems that comprise my first book of poetry, Gloss, I imagined the upheaval and aftermath of mountaintop removal coal mining—violent explosions, stony wastelands, and choked streams—to be forms of communication. I attuned my ear to the ways in which the earth might speak and attended via poetry to the act of translating an inaudible language. Invoking poetic license, I imagined words tumbling from the mouth of a mine and indulged the notion that a mountain’s peak might speak. In “the mountaintop” I embodied natural and manmade flux in a female voice, a feminine presence—both opening and obstacle, both speaking and silent/silenced.
I wrote with awareness of the risks and limits of the type of personification termed the “pathetic fallacy”—a potentially un-ecological trope that can repeat disregard for the autonomy of a non-speaking nature by putting words in its mouth, so to speak; for an entity such as the earth is truly silenced when it is spoken for, rather than listened to. Despite these risks, I determined that personification was the best choice for my poetic project; rather than conflating the mountainous landscape with sentience or emotion, I was actually conflating it with language and communication. Gloss puts the reader in—as in immersed in—communication with the natural world. I dug into the stuff of words and phrases, extracting pieces of sound and rough tatters of sense, getting my hands dirty in the dictionary. I wrote with my ear to the earth and also—or moreso—with my ear to land of language. Perhaps the tendency in my poetic process toward upheaval of language is what led me to see poetic images and metaphors in the upheaval of mountains. That ruptured landscape proved to be fertile ground for the roots of ruptured language to take hold.
Writing Gloss eventually led me to hear not the earth’s speech but the earth’s silence—the lack of sound that is drowned out by the desirous din of the heart’s clambering to hear and to know, the human impulse to control and pin things to meaning. Rather than “What does the earth say?” I wrote—and continue to write—motivated by questions such as What and how do humans hear in silence? Why? How do we speak or act in return? Does language connect or separate? I tap into the senses a person uses to navigate the woods in order to make her conscious of the sense she uses to navigate within the limits of her own mind. Writing about the environment, I have gone into language, rather than polemic, to supplant dualistic political debate with the clarifying confusion of poetry. That is, I question the difference between mudslinging and mudslinging.
“The mountaintop is as as is is” is from a series nestled within a series in Gloss. Within the series of “The mountaintop…” poems are a few poems that play with the state of being “as is”—which is, often, flawed, marred, chipped, irregular. While writing these poems, I was thinking about the conflicting senses of both submissive resignation and resilient insistence-on-existence that are packed into that four-letter term. Gosh—see those words I just used? I can’t even write about this poem now without little ises sprouting up everywhere—see the is in insistence and existence, and see the inverse of is in resignation? Si? Yes!? The poem is still happening! As is: issing, hissing, fizzing! This mountaintop poem—and this chunk of prose in which we’re currently immersed—are microcosms of my writing process: proliferative compression, creating echo-chambers by drawing walls up around the wild sounds of language so they can find (re)definition in the reverb. In this terse, short-lined poem, linebreaks and white space are the defining, confining, refining “walls.”
In this poem, I’m also interested in the way encountering repetition feels a bit like bouncing off a wall—not only those slithering “as is” sounds, but also the more drastic direct repetitions within very short lines: “Disaster, asterisk:” and “goodbye goodbye.” I’m reminded of those little rubber bouncy balls we all used to buy for a quarter in the ubiquitous vending machines outside of grocery stores. Sometimes they were packaged in little plastic capsules, but sometimes they were loose, and you could lose one before you ever even had it. (See Mom rummaging for another quarter.) I remember keeping one in my pocket to fling against the brick elementary school walls during recess. Ka-ping! Whoaaah! The thrill of the far-flung, the far-fetched, the far-gone—