Monday, October 27, 2008

"Purring" by Coleman Barks

by Coleman Barks

The internet says science is not sure
how cats purr, probably
a vibration of the whole larynx,
unlike what we do when we talk.

Less likely, a blood vessel
moving across the chest wall.

As a child I tried to make every cat I met
purr. That was one of the early miracles,
the stroking to perfection.

Here is something I have never heard:
a feline purrs in two conditions,
when deeply content and when
mortally wounded, to calm themselves,
readying for the death-opening.

The low frequency evidently helps
to strengthen bones and heal
damaged organs.

Say poetry is a human purr,
vessel mooring in the chest,
a closed-mouthed refuge, the feel
of a glide through dying.

One winter morning on a sunny chair,
inside this only body,
a far-off inboard motorboat
sings the empty room, urrrrrrrhhhh

Coleman Barks is better known for translating Rumi’s poems without following the rhythm and rhyming of their original Persian. Instead he does something new, something unheard of, possibly deemed sacrilegious by die-hard Rumi fans: he turns them into modern free verse. Regardless of this, critics have to agree he still manages to capture the essence of Rumi’s verses.

In this piece, from a new collection of his own works, Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968–2008, published by University of Georgia, where he once taught poetry and creative writing, Barks attempts to explain to us how a cat purrs. 

Like most of us he depends on the Web for answers. Even scientists haven’t found out, assuming it’s the animal’s larynx that’s vibrating.  He underpins this using the r, p and b sounds in "purr, probably/a vibration of the whole larynx,".  When it comes down to how we humans sound he dismisses all those previous sounds: "unlike what we do when we talk."
Then, in the second stanza, he sums up what he thinks it is about purring, in two lines, scientifically indeed, even if he himself is not sure ("Less likely"), as “a blood vessel/moving across the chest wall.”

It appears Barks himself has been making empirical experiments to get some answers. In the third stanza you get a cutesy image of him as a little boy coming across cats and “stroking” them “to perfection”, to get the purr out of them; which is a miracle to a child.  Here, there are more "purr" alliterations in "miracles,/the stroking to perfection."

Whether the cat is happy or wounded, he still purrs. Apparently he does this to “ strengthen bones and heal/damaged organs”. Personally this writer has seen cats heal themselves by finding and ingesting certain plants, regurgitating the bolus later.

In stanza six Barks compares poetry to purring, but of a human kind. Here, he repeats "say", from the first stanza, where "The internet says", as we humans "say", not "purr", unless if it is poetry.  He gives us an image of a vessel moored in the chest. You “feel” it “glide through dying.”: poetic purring apparently heals.

In the last stanza we see what this “vessel” looks like: a motorboat. Its “purring” is so audible, humming (“sings”) in “the empty room” of “One winter morning on a sunny chair”. We have "this only body" because only cats have virtually nine.   There is such joy picked up in "inboard motorboat/sings the empty room".  This vessel doesn't merely "sings" in "the empty room".  The transitivity of the verb includes the empty room in the singing. It’s like some operatic aria, building up from a little sound, like “a blood vessel”, to an actual vessel (note the repeating of vessel as a rhyme), a motorboat.

The final lines realise this purring. Reading out loud the “urrrrrrrhhhh”s is like a chorus singing a prayer, or an incantation.

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Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

form vs structure

3:43 PM, October 27, 2008  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Mmmm... form vs structure? You mean lack of a structure? If so, I would agree you.

Thanks, Leon, I'm not quite sure what to make of this poem though. I feel ambivalent to it, but like the phrase "death-opening" and "the feel/ of a glide through dying". The two phrasees suggest that in reading poetry one approaches something utterly beyond oneself, something potentially and threateningly consuming, yet in act of doing so, it becomes a form of 'gliding' through that experience; and in your sharp noting of the use of 'vessel', both blood and motorboat, a form of 'transporting', a channeling uurrrhh..

Interesting too, is the removal of the 'p' and the focus on the 'urrhhh' which is closer to the purr of the cat, as well as the 'urrrhhh' or the motorboat in boating.

But, despite these points, I still feel ambivalent to this poem. mmm....

6:55 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

Ah yes, channeling, and transporting, or what you call 'incantation'...

6:57 PM, October 28, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

I'm thinking form and structure is practically interchangeable, isn't it? And I must argue that this poem HAS structure, even if it is free verse.

Barks, to my mind, is spot-on with "death-opening" and "the feel/ of a glide through dying".

For these pair, when he's talking about death, he uses long vowels and no r sounds. Note the rush of air through your teeth and over the top of your tongue, like a dying breath. Same with the second phrase, where there is a similar breathing out with "feel/ of a" and long slow vowels next.

That is what I call structure and form!

12:58 PM, October 29, 2008  

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