A Silence Opens (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In a 1987 American Poetry Review interview, conducted by Laura Fairchild, Amy Clampitt spoke of her religious background. Having grown up Quaker and later converted to the Episcopalian faith, Clampitt confessed that she was no longer a churchgoer and did not know what she believed, except that “there’s everything to believe.” A Silence Opens, Clampitt’s fifth book of poetry, reveals the poet to be a keenly curious observer of the impulse to faith found in such passionate religious leaders as Joseph Smith and George Fox. It is not so clear what Clampitt herself believes. All experience captures her interest. Her themes in A Silence Opens are large ones: the mystery of nature and history and the ineffable in human experience. Yet Clampitt remains the cataloger, the witness, if not faithful believer, of the silence labeled by many as
and “the infinite/ love of God.”
Arranged in four parts with seven poems in each, A Silence Opens is a carefully structured work that places Clampitt in a chorus of great American poets who have explored similar themes, most notably Walt Whitman, whose presence hovers in several of the poems in this collection. Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, John Keats, and the Greek Homer provide impulses also, but Whitman seems an abiding presence. In “Paumanok,” the Indian name for Long Island, Clampitt echoes Whitman’s “Starting from Paumanok” (1860, 1867) in both her choice of a title and her method. Written in five stanzas of eight lines each, the poem celebrates the wildness and beauty of nature through the device of catalog, a technique Whitman frequently used. Here Clampitt catalogs the plants and the landscape that once dominated the island, now “another monoculture”:
juniper and honeysuckle,
bayberry, Virginia Creeper,
goldenrod and poison ivy would
have rioted, the wetlands
glistening at the margin, the reed-
bed plumes, the groundsel’s
tideline windrows a patina of
Yet the poet finds something that still responds to “no human reason,” the “uninstructed/ thicketing” of pockets left untended by humanity. It is this mystery that enchants the poet: the triumph of nature over any imposition of human order.
In “Manhattan,” a long, three-part elegy in the third section of A Silence Opens, Clampitt evokes Whitman in her observations of New York scenes and Manhattan’s myriads of people. Written in unrhymed tercets, the poem focuses on death at several levels. In “Grace Church,” Clampitt sees that all encounters come down finally to one with death, here witnessed by a diagnosis of terminal cancer in a seemingly healthy man. “Charles Street” records the rich sights of fruit vendors amid squalor and cheap merchandise; the different nationalities of the neighborhood (Puerto Rican and Irish) and the transplants from different states (“Appalachia and Iowa”) merge. It is in the last section, “The Staten Island Ferry,” where Clampitt echoes Whitman, particularly his “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1860, 1867). There is also a direct reference to Hart Crane, whose “To the Brooklyn Bridge” (1930) remains a central work in American poetry. Like these poets, Clampitt suggests through sonorousness and imagery a link with something larger than the individual self.
America here is “a continent, a people, a consensus unmoored/ from any history at all.” Lacking Whitman’s Romantic faith in the future and progress, however, Clampitt finds the hordes on the ferry to be a “stunned queue”:
True Believers in the sanctity of Wear
and Tear, the quaint ordeal of Trickle-Down
The dying seaman on the ferry suggests at once both the decay of American culture and the figure in Greek mythology who ferries the dead across the River Styx to Hades. Like the figure in “Grace Church,” part 1 of the elegy, he too is dying of cancer. “The stripped carapace of Ellis Island” and “gowned Liberty in effigy” suggest emptiness, mere shells of what was once a noble pursuit of freedom. The drunken, dying seaman and the “decades-sodden/ pilings, bile and verdigris” to which the Statue of Liberty lifts her torch are images of the end of Whitman’s great age of hope and faith in democracy. The poem closes with paradoxical images of dissolution and merger:
The random particles
disbanding, the estuarial currents merge:
the mind gropes toward its own recessional.
The theme of the silence of history and the title phrase occur first in...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)
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