New York Times Book Review
The Collected Poems of Amy Clampittby Amy Clampitt
When Amy Clampitt's first book of poems, The Kingfisher, was published in January 1983, the response was jubilant. The poet was sixty-three years old, and there had been no debut like hers in recent memory. "A dance of language," said May Swenson. "A genius for places," wrote J. D. McClatchy, and the New York Times Book Review said/i>/b>
When Amy Clampitt's first book of poems, The Kingfisher, was published in January 1983, the response was jubilant. The poet was sixty-three years old, and there had been no debut like hers in recent memory. "A dance of language," said May Swenson. "A genius for places," wrote J. D. McClatchy, and the New York Times Book Review said, "With the publication of her brilliant first book, Clampitt immediately merits consideration as one of the most distinguished contemporary poets."
She went on to publish four more collections in the next eleven years, the last one, A Silence Opens, appearing in the year she died.
Now, for the first time, the five collections are brought together in a single volume, allowing us to experience anew the distinctiveness of Amy Clampitt's voice: the brilliant languagean appealing mix of formal and everyday expressionthat poured out with such passion and was shaped in rhythms and patterns entirely her own.
Amy Clampitt's themes are the very American ones of place and displacement. She, like her pioneer ancestors, moved frequently, but she wrote with lasting and deep feeling about all sorts of landscapesthe prairies of her Iowa childhood, the fog-wrapped coast of Maine, and places she visited in Europe, from the western isles of Scotland to Italy's lush countryside. She lived most of her adult life in New York City, and many of her best-known poems, such as "Times Square Water Music" and "Manhattan Elegy," are set there.
She did not hesitate to take on the larger upheavals of the twentieth centurywar, Holocaust, exileand poems like "The Burning Child" and "Sed de Correr" remind us of the dark nightmare lurking in the interstices of our daily existence.
It is impossible to speak of Amy Clampitt's poetry without mentioning her immense, lifelong love of birds and wildflowers, a love that produced some of her most profound imageslike the kingfisher's "burnished plunge, the color / of felicity afire," which came "glancing like an arrow / through landscapes of untended memory" to remind her of the uninhabitable sorrow of an affair gone wrong; or the sun underfoot among the sundews, "so dazzling / . . . that, looking, / you start to fall upward."
The Collected Poems offers us a chance to consider freshly the breadth of Amy Clampitt's vision and poetic achievement. It is a volume that her many admirers will treasure and that will provide a magnificent introduction for a new generation of readers.
With a foreword by Mary Jo Salter
New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
THE SUN UNDERFOOT AMONG THE SUNDEWS
An ingenuity too astonishing to be quite fortuitous is this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lined and shaped like a teacup.
A step down and you're into it; a wilderness swallows you up:
ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-
to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted understory, an overhead spruce-tamarack horizon hinting you'll never get out of here.
But the sun among the sundews, down there,
is so bright, an underfoot webwork of carnivorous rubies,
a star-swarm thick as the gnats they're set to catch, delectable double-faced cockleburs, each hair-tip a sticky mirror afire with sunlight, a million of them and again a million,
each mirror a trap set to unhand unbelieving,
that either a First Cause said once, "Let there be sundews," and there were, or they've made their way here unaided other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility known as Natural Selection.
But the sun underfoot is so dazzling down there among the sundews,
there is so much light in the cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.
A HERMIT THRUSH
Nothing's certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up the scree-slope of what at high tide will be again an island,
to where, a decade since well-being staked the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us back, year after year, lugging the makings of another picnic
the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified fig newtonsthere's no knowing what the slamming seas, the gales of yet another winter may have done. Still there,
the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw
but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there's no use drawing one,
there's nothing here
to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or any no-more-than-human tendency
stubborn adherence, say,
to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to hold on in any case means taking less and less for granted, some few things seem nearly certain, as that the longest day
will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment again begin. Last night you woke me for a look at Jupiter,
that vast cinder wheeled unblinking in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled toward an apprehension all but impossible to be held onto
that no point is fixed, that there's no foothold but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor's knots, such stays and guy wires as are
mainly of our own devising. From such an empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as
in the end untenable. Base as it is, from year to year the earth's sore surface mends and rebinds itself, however and as best it can, with
thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green bayberry's cool poultice
and what can't finally be mended, the salt air proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage of the seaward spruce clump weathers lustrous, to wood-silver.
Little is certain, other than the tide that circumscribes us, that still sets its term to every picnictoday we stayed too long again, and got our feet wet
and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching the longest day take cover under a monk's-cowl overcast,
with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end
unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or the wells within?) such links perceived arrive
diminished sequences so uninsistingly not even humanthere's
hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain as we are of so much in this existence, this botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing.
Meet the Author
Amy Clampitt was born and brought up in New Providence, Iowa, graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. Her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher, published in 1983, was followed in 1985 by What the Light Was Like, in 1987 by Archaic Figure, and in 1990 by Westward. A Silence Opens, her last book, appeared in 1994.
The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Prize Fellow in 1992. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Writer in Residence at the College of William and Mary, Visiting Writer at Amherst College, and Grace Hazard Conkling Visiting Writer at Smith College.
She died in September 1994.
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