Poetry and old age are difficult human endeavors, yet in her new, aptly titled book of poems, Marie Ponsot makes both look Easy. And who would know better than she? Well into her ninth decade and still evolving as an artist, Ponsot takes her place among a distinguished company of American poets who wrote—and continue to write—into their 80s and beyond, a group that includes Marianne Moore, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur and, the most famous, Robert Frost. In a youth-obsessed culture like ours, it is exhilarating to read a collection of poems that celebrates the graces of age, the gift of wisdom and the freedom won through endurance. Easy reads like a long love poem to life as well as to art. It asserts and affirms the power and pleasure of poetry as a means of engaging the beauty and illuminating the mystery of the world we are blessed to live in for a time.
This is not to suggest that Ponsot’s life or poems could be considered easy in any ordinary sense of the word. Unlike some contemporaries who were able to devote themselves fully to their art, Ponsot wrote poetry while working as a translator, teaching and raising her seven children. (Her marriage to the painter Claude Ponsot ended in divorce.) After publication of her first book in 1957, Ponsot did not publish another until 1982 at age 60. Four collections followed, including The Bird Catcher, which won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award and brought her work the attention it deserves. Easy arrives after a seven-year hiatus (Springing appeared in 2002), and, as with most good things, it is worth the wait.
Ponsot is a poet’s poet, the work rich with allusion, formal wit and cliché-breaking wordplay that often puzzles at first glance and then delights as the reader discovers the multiple meanings embodied and implied. Many of the poems, in fact, address the demands of writing and reading poetry, as well as the needs it fulfills, and serve as vehicles for exploring what a lifetime of dedication to words might mean.
In “On Line,” the languages of fishing and computers converge and create metaphors to describe the craft of poetry: “We row out into the dark./ We fish all night, no nets. Sometimes/ we weight or bait each other’s hooks,/ testing what our lines can catch./ May the lakelife prosper.... May the lines hold good.” The poem employs punning as a kind of code and teaches its lesson obliquely: the speaker is on line yet using no nets, describing her primitive approach to fishing and also implying the inadequacy of Internet communication; we weight and we wait for fish and for poems to come; the final wish that the fishing lines hold good and firm is also a wish that the lines of her poetry hold goodness for her readers. As in many of her poems, the pleasure of words serves as both medium and message, and the reader becomes hooked.
It is precisely this pleasure that makes this collection accessible. Easy offers the satisfactions of meter and rhyme and a variety of fixed forms (including many fine sonnets). There is nothing forced or decorative about Ponsot’s formal verse. The purity of her diction practically convinces the reader that rhyme is an inevitable condition of communication, as in “Cometing”: “I like to drink my language in/ straight up, no ice no twist no spin.” We are hoodwinked here into believing what we know to be untrue: that there is no artifice in the poem’s carefully crafted music and no double entendre in her supposedly “straight up” words. As with the practiced athlete or dancer, she makes achieved grace seem natural in poem after poem.
Yet Easy offers truth as well as beauty. Ponsot’s poems present the world as it is rather than as she might wish it to be. “For Denis at Ten” describes the clear-eyed vision of the child in the poem: “Nothing reminds him of something./ He sees what is there to see.” This absolute attention to the present moment is the condition to which every artist aspires and that Ponsot achieves. In “Train to Avignon,” the elderly speaker and her companion observe a crowd of young travelers board their train. While the youngsters worry aloud about reaching their destination, nervously drinking “Cola pop-top with their chips,” trying to annihilate time, the women enjoy the journey, savoring their simple lunches (“white-fleshed peach,” “salami & bread”) in unhurried expectation of their arrival:
We, extravagant, chat easily,
take our vagrant ease. We’re off,
stopping & starting, off-season,
off-peak, on time, on our own.
Old age brings the happy condition of freedom from the bondages of time, urgency and false constraint. The women travel through life off yet on time, having learned to live in time without being its creature, certainly past their prime yet braving risks the anxious young could barely imagine. To grow old, according to Easy, is to learn to live paradox, to discover power through diminishment and to cultivate ease in extremity.
Ponsot’s poetry toes a fine line suspended over the abyss of being, even as the traffic roars beneath. The reader takes this tightrope walk with her—witnessing dark realities along with spots of joy, comprehending all as essential parts of the human whole. Poems that lament the loss of parents, the death of innocents and the sorrows of war are balanced by poems that celebrate the gift of her Catholic faith, glimpses of God in the ordinary world and the power of art and language, “whose redeeming speech spans time and tune.”
Marie Ponsot’s generous vision beholds and honors youth and age, dearth and plenty, the call of eternity as well as the exigencies of now. Easy speaks the difficult art she has mastered.