In her review of the poetry of Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker quotes William Carlos Williams: “You cannot express anything unless you invent how to express it. A poem is not a Freudian ’escape’ (what childishness) but an adult release to knowledge, in the most practical, engineering manner.” Niedecker used her poetry to invent herself, to discover her own wholeness. This quest for wholeness has been a persistent theme in the writing of American women since the time of Margaret Fuller. A glass cutter of words, Niedecker discards traditional poetic modes of expression en masse, yet selects those devices that best help her construct small stained-glass pieces, later combining some of these reflective objects into longer poems. She trims her glasslike achievements often, arranges them variously, and finally creates two outstanding large pieces: “Wintergreen Ridge” and “Paean to Place.” Niedecker appropriates glass of many colors from several sources: the men and women whom she knew and read about, American society during her lifetime, nature, and art.
Of the men and women whom she knew, her father and mother engaged her most fully. In her early poems, she depicts her father building and losing houses, rocking in his chair, seining to finance his daughter’s education, and wondering about the meaning of life. In “For Paul,” she recalls her father’s description of a warm Thanksgiving Day when he helped seine twenty thousand pounds of buffalo fish by moonlight. Other times, his “hands glazed/ to the nets.” In “The Years Go By,” she recalls “mild Henry” as “absent” and describes him as a catalpa tree, serene, refusing “to see/ that the other woman, the hummer he shaded/ hotly cared/ for his purse petals falling—/ his mind in the air.” Niedecker also pictures her father planting trees and burying “carp/ beneath the rose” after he lost his wife. She continues that “he opened his wine tank” to “bankers on high land,” wanted “his only daughter/ to work in the bank” but had left her a “source/ to sustain her—/ a weedy speech.” In “North Central,” she again writes of the trees her father planted, “evenly following/ the road.” She walks beside them on New Year’s Day and each one speaks to her: “Peace.” Niedecker’s father learned the “coiled celery,” “duckweed,” and “pickerelweeds” of the swamp but “could not/ —like water bugs—/ stride surface tension/ He netted/ loneliness.” He sat rocking at night “beside his shoes,” “Roped not looped/ in the loop/ of her hair.” Hard work, serenity, unhappiness in marriage, planting, swamp, rocking: These scattered details kaleidoscope into Niedecker’s benediction for her father: Peace.
Niedecker has more trouble coming to terms with her mother. The annual spring floods soak the floors, pump, washing machine, and lilacs of “the woman moored to this low shore by deafness,” who has wasted her life in water. Niedecker’s deaf mother contradicts herself, wishing she could hear, then complaining about “too much talk in the world.” With “big blind ears” under “high” hair, a husband with “leaky boats,” a writer daughter who “sits and floats,” Niedecker’s mother dies with “a thimble in her purse,” her last words urging her daughter, “Wash the floors, Lorine!/ Wash clothes! Weed!” Daisy Niedecker parks uncharacteristically in “her burnished brown motorless automobile,” “She who wheeled dirt for flowers” waiting to be buried in ground in which “She could have grown a good rutabaga.” Daisy grew up in marsh land, Niedecker later explains, “married mild Henry/ and then her life was sand.” Daisy, tall and thin, “took cold on her nerves,” built the fires with the wood she chopped, helped rebuild a burned house, gave “boat” instead of birth to her daughter in the flooding spring, and philosophized: “Hatch, patch and scratch,/ that’s all a woman’s for/ but I didn’t sink, I sewed and saved/ and now I’m on second floor.”
Snow on branches later reminds Niedecker of the cotton that her mother “wore in her aching ears,” her hard work, and her protectiveness. She calls her mother a “distrait wife,” a “thorn apple bush,/ armed against life’s raw push.” Niedecker tells Kenneth Cox, however, that her mother had a “rhyming, happy” father and spoke “whole chunks of down-to-earth (o very earthy) magic.” In “Wintergreen Ridge,” which she considers her best poem, Niedecker remembers how her mother loved “closed gentians/ she herself/ so closed” and identifies with her in “Paean to Place,” saying they both were born “in swale and swamp and sworn/ to water.” A wealth of autobiographical material follows. Her father “sculled down” and saw her mother, who was playing the organ but who later stopped, turned “deaf/ and away.” Daisy “knew boats/ and ropes,” helped Henry “string out nets/ for tarring,” and “could shoot.” Niedecker mourns the fact that her mother could not hear canvasbacks take off and sora rails sing, and she wonders if she giggled when she was a girl. Her question underscores the somber light in which she sees her mother, the assonating o’s in “the woman moored to this low shore,” and the following poem sustaining this sober mood:
Hearwhere her snow-grave isthe You ah youof mourning doves
Her father, from upcountry, contemplating the stars, drawing fish from water, plants from land, rocking, lonely, wants his daughter to move to high ground. Her mother, from the swamp, enduring floods, protecting her family, closing gradually into total silence, ridicules her husband’s “bright new car,” declaring, “A hummingbird/ can’t haul.” Niedecker alternates between swamp and upland, but resides primarily in the former.
From this fragmented relationship, Niedecker must wrest her wholeness, which she does partly by observing other men and women from the present and the past. Her early poems depict her male contemporaries as J. Alfred Prufrock-like: posturing, ineffectual, directionless, out of touch with reality. Some play cards instead of chopping wood; one “strolls pale among zinnias.” She later describes a prospective employer as “Keen and lovely,” graceful, cultured, kind, but he does not hire her. She mentions the men who carefully build weapons to irradiate others; businessmen smoking cigarettes, leaving droppings/ larger, whiter than owls’,” wearing time on their wrists, wool on their bodies, making money unscrupulously and demanding to be “jazzed” for which they pay in “nylons.” She dislikes a “clean man,” prefers one who...
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