Bruce Beasley’s “Me Meaneth” (Kenyon Review, Summer 2011 issue — the one with the wonderful photo of a lizard-hatted woman on the cover) made me say to myself, after reading the last stanza the first time, “This is why I read contemporary poetry.” (You’ll find the poem in its entirety after the jump, with kind permission from the author.)
It’s a long poem (but it doesn’t feel long) that brought me, at the end, to a place I absolutely did not expect, but was completely prepared, by the poem, to come to. Such a fantastic feeling, as a reader, to simultaneously have a completely surprising moment and realize just how thoroughly the poem’s been setting you up for it all along.
“Me Meaneth” is seven sections mulling over the idea of meaning sparked by 2 lines from an old Scottish poem — “The speaned lambs mene their mithers/As they wimple ower the bent” — the meaning of the individual words, and the meaning of meaning too, among other things (a summary of a poem is a necessary evil, though how much is inherently left out is kind of like nails on a chalkboard to me).
In this short KR interview, Beasley says:
I never know quite what it is people mean when they say they don’t know what a poem means. What we call “meaning” seems to me such a small part of what happens in a poem that it seems perverse somehow to focus on it to the exclusion of everything else—the rhythms, the images, the paradoxes and unmeanings, the music of the words. It’s like watching a parade go by and afterwards saying you didn’t understand the marchers’ choice of shoes. “Meaning” to me is the footwear of the poem—functional and important, no doubt, but what about the floats, the drums and trumpets, the extravagant balloons, the garlands of roses?
That, plus “A poem should not mean but be” (Archibald MacLeish in his “Ars Poetica”) and “Art is about something the way a cat is about a house” (Allen Grossman, I’m not sure where or when he said it) gets at the reason I always sound at the very least inarticulate if not fully idiotic when someone asks me “What’s your poetry about?” And there’s also, “Language can do what it can’t say” (William Stafford, just where I forget but probably from this book or this one?).
My great-aunts are rolling in their graves at the idea that choice of footwear isn’t paramount, but my own love of shoes notwithstanding, I’m diggin’ Beasley’s parade analogy. But not quite as much as I’m digging his poem:
The calf lay meaning herself.
What does that mean? The calf
lay moaning in the pasture. As
in a long-forgotten Scottish poet’s lines
in the dictionary lets demonstrate
one thing mean
once meant: to moan, to lament—
The speaned lambs mene their mithers
As they wimple ower the bent.
I can’t stop myself from muttering that, though you
have no idea what I’ve said:
what’s speaned? what’s mither? what’s wimple? what’s bent?
We could trace it if we wanted to: the dictionary’s
alphabetical, the words all lined
up like children in a rush,
blindfolded, to bash
at a pinata. We could trace
T.S. Cairncross himself, and his lost
poem, and his lambs, the words that merge
into his last name—a tomb, a mound of stones
left as a memorial—
but what would that heap of memory-stones commemorate?
The cairns lay along the crossroads. The calf lay meaning
in the fields. The speaned lambs wimple as they mean.
What’s mither?—Mother. What’s ower?—Over. What’s bent?
—A grass of a reedy or rush-like habit.
But what’s rush-like? What’s a habit?
The lallation of rushes, over the slough.
Scythe-pass after lamb-speane, and the sick
calf meaning herself
from her rheumed eyes
with each slow blink.
read weaned. Wimple‘s
the cloth folds across the face
in a nun’s habit, or the analogous
pleats and ripples on a body of water.
The slough wind-dimples
as its gnats lift in wave on wave.
If to wimple is to veil, or to be
veiled (how can it be both?) —or to fall
in folds, or
(what Cairncross must have had
in the folds of his mind) to walk
unsteadily, shiftily, like the newborn
lambs staggering after their mother,
weaned too soon, mening
for the withheld warmth of milk-spurt.
So moan and mean burst
from the same rush and word-thatch, the same
bent bent. The weaned lambs
moan for their mothers,
we could say,
as they stagger over dry grass. But I like the way
Cairncross made the words
wimple, the deep
infolds and shadow-pools of them
over the worried, half-concealed
nun’s face of his scene. I’m still unspeaned
from vowel, consonant-smear, milk-crust
Let the words mean wrong, in the mouthfeel of their moan.
When me meaneth meant
it grieves me, English knew
something it’s forgotten: how reflexive,
our denotations come back at us, and it hurts,
to be the only one who can possess
your own intention. You won’t know what I mean by that.
You keep saying, you see what I’m saying?
but it’s only speech-punctuation, like like, like
know what I mean?, by which you mean
to celebrate the significative
interpenetration of your desire
to speak, and mine to listen, and in listening hear exactly as you mean.
Meaning was said
to be there, especially there, on that facade, but we
could get nowhere near it:
the scaffolds and platforms, the workboots and drills, all the
machinery of restoration interfering.
We stood staring at the sun-stab off aluminum,
the blowtorch-blast and jackhammerer’s
sweatglint down the neck
as if they were
the storied edifice they concealed:
some bas relief Last Judgement’s
hellbound bodywrithe just behind
the metal lunch pail’s dried and dented
tomato stains shivering with light.
poor but having means means rich.
I have the means
the way I have the blues.
As if a meantime like this
were a time
all seething with connotations: so much you couldn’t hold it in your mind.
of things sometimes go
out, and in,
like the wireless
connection when the hamsters yanked
the router’s wires through their bars
and frayed them in a tangle of red-into-green in their nest,
and elsewhere the hourglass icon
kept spilling its sand across the screen.
brain cell calls to brain cell, and nothing answers.
As when prayer calls to the prayed.
So sometimes what’s meant by God
She meaned as to the state of her soul, wrote John Stuart Mill.
My gret unease full oft I meanne, says Chaucer.
Think not that thou art fullie mortified—
some dyspeptic poet I’ve never heard of had to say—
And speaned from the world.
Meaning was said
but in whose language? In what
stagger-footed, wimpling verse, its thick rhyme
insisting on a sound alien to the original
tongue, as if the translation were
the very thing that it concealed?
I mean my mother: I can hear her
labored, final breathing I never heard, as I step
on this sticktangle by the traintracks
(are they bents?),
their static-crack like Styrofoam underfoot.
They sound like trapped air, the way her lungs
filled and shut themselves
overnight when she fifty, and I was gone.
My brother breathed for her a while.
She’s senseless now, as in nothing
available anymore to the fivefold senses.
She’s meaningless, as in
impervious to any further meanings, as
in incapable of grieving ever again.
as the verb
I use to grieve her:
to moan, to mourn, to mean. Speaned
from this world, fully
The speaned man
menes his mither
as he wimples
ower the bent.