Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Imagine that inside that circle are all of your life experiences and everything you know about science, geography, psychology, mythology, cultures, languages— everything.
Draw a second circle. Imagine that inside this circle is everything the poet Ezra Pound knew.
If your first circle is anything like mine, it overlaps with Pound’s circle to create a small crescent. My knowledge of English is in that crescent, my remedial grasp of history, a dash of Dante, a high school encounter with Homer, brief excursions into the Provençal poets I read because Pound discussed them in his ABCs of Reading.
It’s a simple idea. An obvious one. The more we share with a poet, the bigger the overlap, the easier it is to enter the work. And it helps to explain why we resist the work of poets from other cultures, ages, and intellectual worlds. Like entering Ezra Pound’s poems, entering the poems of Lamy resident and Akwesasne Mohawk James Thomas Stevens sometimes requires us to do some work.
Poets are notorious for their love of the arcane and unusual, and Stevens is an enthusiastic polyglot and archivist, a collector of information drawn from obscure texts. One can often find him reviving archaic words and indulging a slightly antique eloquence. And he’s apt to switch from English to Mohawk to French or Spanish, all languages he is fluent in, sometimes to express a concept that can’t be expressed in English, sometimes to try two lenses to see their different effects.
Stevens’ poem “El Melón” is more easily approached than many of his poems. It is part of a planned series of 54 poems based on the lotería cards used to play a kind of Mexican bingo. Some of Stevens’ best poems arise out of poetic engagement with what might seem at first unpromising sources: Roger Williams’ 17 th century book A Key into the Language of the Americas, an antique primer, an old grammar book, an insurance handbook with the intriguing title Mutual Life, and, here, a set of lotería cards with rudimentary depictions of such random creatures and objects as el gallo, el diablito, la escalera, and el melón.
The poem “El Melón” is addressed to a lover, whom the speaker has taken from the “great lake climes” to “the desert Southwest.” The poem’s diction is slightly formal and elicits a sociable warmth. But all is not well in the relationship. There is no physical setting for the poem, little in the way of narrative action; the poem takes place largely inside the speaker’s imagination. The speaker contemplates the possible healing properties of the buffalo gourd, a common plant of New Mexico roadsides, a plant that has numerous and diverse medicinal purposes. But the speaker is following his own approach based on the Doctrine of Signatures, an ancient practice that is, like much pre-scientific wisdom, rooted in metaphor, so “that each/healing plant mimics, the shape or colour/of the body part it heals.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer, was an enthusiast of the doctrine.)
Typically, we diagnose a problem then find the medicine. In the poem’s world, we find the medicine then think of what it might heal. Looking at the plant’s thick, “divergent” root, the speaker thinks first of his lover’s “southern Italian waist.” But the speaker experiences a revelation when he “note[s]/in the cracked gourds singing / from the side of the road, spidery sinews/filling their blacked and yawning maws.” The sounds of the words—“cracked,” “spidery sinews,” “blacked,” “maw”—darken the tone. The poem ends on a surprising leap: “There is a string in your throat/that you are learning to bow.//I press the gourd against your mouth.”
That final image is complex. What are we to make of this gesture that seems intended to heal the lover’s voice? Good poets are hypersensitive to the emotional tones of words, and often one can feel the tone of a line better by looking at the choices the poet rejected. What happens to the tone if we say, “I touch the gourd to your mouth”? Or “I lay the gourd across your mouth?” The first immediately becomes more sexual, but slightly less intrusive. The second is less sexual and less intrusive both. But Stevens chose the more forceful “press” and “against.”
The speaker, feeling things slipping away in the relationship, knows something needs healing, but what? He uses his knowledge of the lover to heal him; yet there is no evidence that the lover wanted a cure.
What does the poem say, then, about knowledge, love, and healing? In the poem Audubon, the poet Robert Penn Warren wrote, “What is love?/One name for it is knowledge.” Does Stevens’ poem suggest that knowledge is also the beginning of a process like colonization, in which knowledge is used to “diagnose” and change the other?
Jon Davis is the poet laureate for the city of Santa Fe. He teaches creative writing at the Institute for American Indian Arts. Poem printed with permission from James Thomas Stevens.
My mistake to take you
from our great lake climes to
the desert southwest.
Cucurbita foetidissima –
the Buffalo Gourd.
Its long train of triangulated leaf,
gourds greened and stripéd,
yellow in late summer sun.
& following the Doctrine of Signatures,
I locate its root
more than 15 inches circumferent.
Divergent, divided into three,
two large as legs,
call to mind your narrow &
southern Italian waist.
The doctrine, that each
healing plant mimics, the shape or colour
of the body part it heals.
Apply it to its correspondent.
But I note
in the cracked gourds singing
from the side of the road,
filling their blacked and yawning maws.
There is a string in your throat
that you are learning to bow.
I press the gourd against your mouth.
-James Thomas Stevens