Poetry / David Baker
:: Two Iguanas ::
Spines in the flame tree. And tongues beaded with blood just-drawn at the shuddering tip of the two of them. Males, if the expansive gullet, the ornate, fine-finned, armor- unfolding dewlap are indicative, and the bigger jowl and head are, too. One so big he straddles a flame bough, licking—tail drooping off a good three feet. He’s been up there all the days we’ve been down here. Now the younger one— new-leaf-green along his body and banded tail— wants the cluster of flame blooms the big one was in the middle of nipping off, chewing. He’s got his whippy tail uplifted like a bow, a scorpion. All this time the tree seethes— bone-brown boughs shine. Half a dozen doves and black grassquits sit up there and where the red blossoms molder are a few fern leaves and lime-like flower buds, buff as knuckles, growing in groupings. I think the big one sees the little one, though he’s below— perhaps the rudiment of lens and retina in the flat third eye senses motion. They’re hardly moving, except for the talon claws of the big one twitching at the limb, the slow- motion, pushup tensing of the small one like a breeze, itself sweet with a tincture of hunger and heady scent of a hundred hibiscus and pink cedar flowers. Then he falls!—or did he just jump, the big one?—forty feet down in a crashing now of vines and brittle limbs…and hits the ground hard, with a thump, and lifts to look back through the canopy. He’s been up there all our days. And now he’s going up again.
:: What You Said ::
But before I died I smelled them, I could have missed them so quickly rushing elseward. Captivation depends don’t you think on willingness sometimes to be caught be called back as I was once, wet lowland where they were leucojum vernum honey-like “They have a slight fragrance” and a bright white button of blooms “as soon as the snow melts in its wild habitat” or small pill-shaped pale with a green (occasionally yellow) spot at the end of each tepal. Did you find them soothing, did you affiliate —sane and sacred there—particularly in the singing, don’t you think it’s too late. No I was walking for my health, lean down and savor there, heard bleeding the thrush throat the lilac. You have gone too far you say things so as not to say something else. I did wish to go back. Then you miss them —too early for lilac—tell me where’s elseward— I don’t even know what were they snowdrops snowflakes each to keep and all and passed on as quick as that, you are everything that has not yet been lost is what you said—
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Two Iguanas” takes place on the island of St. John, my favorite Caribbean island, slow-paced, soft-spoken, low-tech. Most of the island is protected national wildland. A couple of years ago, for a week, my girlfriend Page and I watched the exchange between these two big lizards, scaly, long-spined, brown-and-green, each with its parietal eye, high up the massive flame tree growing in the wild backyard of a house where we like to stay on Giftt Hill. Huge tree, tiny dry green leaves, clusters of bright red flowers, and branches that spread out laterally for a good place, if you are an iguana, to bask. So we sat there, too, on the back deck and watched. The big one seemed to live there in the tree, morning and night, while smaller iguanas climbed and ate and sunned and went back down to the big nest-hole in the yard. And what a racket on the second day, as the poem describes, when the big one fell or leaped, shaking down through the little leaves and big limbs to the ground. That day I started this poem—as I often do—in decasyllabic lines and took it back apart to find this more sinuous lineation and stanza. I’d write a few lines, fiddle around, and watch some more, and walk around, and write a few more lines. The poem took me all that week mostly to get in readable form, and then I fiddled with it for months more. I think it’s a fairly straightforward lyric, intoned with issues of gender and power/powerlessness and, of course, underwritten by the lyric poem’s fundamental subject, time.
“What You Said” is a more oblique or slippery poem. Winter now, early March, and back home in central Ohio, along a street where I often take my constitutional walk—two miles in thirty minutes, a pretty brisk pace but not so fast I can’t look around. This poem is probably more interior and its connections more suppressed, transitions erased. I’ve been trying to write poems for a while now that worry over the notion of a single speaker, as if we are a single person, as if the language in a poem is, in fact, speech. Here one part of the language seems to be interrogating another part—almost like a therapist would, challenging, doubting—while other parts of the language bubble up from unnamed sources. Maybe a book on flowers, maybe a distant lover, maybe a line or two from a contemporary poet, maybe (well, certainly) a touch of phrasing from Whitman’s lilac elegy. My poem is simply about noticing the detail, in the snow, of central Ohio’s first late-winter flowers, the snowdrop and snowflake (two different flowers), white growing out of the white, and thinks of Whitman’s great elegy, another spring flower poem, as another kind of companion. Who speaks when we speak? Who listens? This one started in pieces and shards and worked toward the ten-syllable line. I think of blank verse as one of the fundamental sites for lyric meditation, that single interior voice, thinking. But who is thinking when we think? Who listens?
David Baker’s new collection of poetry, Scavenger Loop, will appear in May 2015 from W.W. Norton. His Never-Ending Birds received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011, and Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poems, and Poets appeared in 2014 from the University of Michigan Press. He is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review and lives in Granville, Ohio, where he teaches at Denison University.