by Chet Raymo
“I like to think that every day offers at least one unique revelation, some one thing seen or experienced that has not been seen or experienced before, at least not in the same emotional state, in the same context, in the same slant of light. So I walk wary, as the poet Sylvia Plath says, "ignorant/ Of whatever angel may choose to flare/ Suddenly at my elbow." Nature seldom disappoints.
Let me introduce you to another poet, my colleague here at the college, Anna Ross. In the particular poem I want to share she is walking with a companion and comes upon the bleached skeleton of an elk, its upturned ribcage "picked white as crocus tips in the long grass." An animal skeleton, in a place where such an encounter is not unexpected. But this skeleton, "skull nosing/ the green suggestion of water/ in the run-off ditch" brings the walkers up short. They see their house in the distance, and the weather coming east, "skinning the gray jaw-lines of the ridges." The poet's language holds the elk in a context of earth and sky: "skinning," "jaw-lines."
The angel flares. "Do we find these things," asks the poet, "or are they in us like salt and nerves?" This of course is the fundamental question of philosophy: Do we perceive reality objectively, or do we create reality? The scientist and the poet stake out their claims somewhere along a spectrum of objectivity/subjectivity, and hone their tools accordingly. Anna Ross asks the question - do we find these things or are they in us? - and lets it hang there, unanswered, in the pregnant air, as she and her companion turn back toward home, encountering, as they do, a grouse in the path, "a frenzy of dust and wing-beat," and chicks that rise, "hang uncertain," and veer away.
The question goes unanswered, but the title of the poem tells us all we need to know: "Evidence." Those elk bones, the weather, the gray jaw-lines of the ridges, the grouse and her chicks - mute evidences of the only thing that matters, the angel, the revelation, the sudden gift of grace that comes unexpectedly - I quote Plath again - "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor/ One might say love."