Contributor’s Marginalia: Hannah Sanghee Park on “Downdraft” by Carol Light
Reading Carol Light’s marvelous “Downdraft” puts many good words in mind, but loom seems most apropos. Here is one controlled by both the measured foot and the careful hand. The line-by-line time-lapse of a tapestry narrative: the deft weft, the warp’s wrap, each line precise in itself but the sum of it being the awe of it. This the first metamorphosis. Then the second: the creation would green the eyes of the gray-eyed one. And the third: we can expect Light to S.O.S from her new spinneret.
It was precision that defined Arachne: her impeccable craft, her hit too close to Olympian home. Everything biotic in Light’s poem has deliberation—she has created a world of specificity, imbued vibrancy in things both animal and vegetable, every motion now seen with an emotion.
The poem opens, or declares: “The deer dislike the lavender and heather.” This is followed by “a buck browses/ the youngest of the apple trees.” Later, a crow “plucks lumps of pumpkin from the compost bin.” Everything from a seed: resistant and/or irresistible. Everything that comes to feed: beggars, maybe, but definitely choosy. The specificity of Light’s eye gives the poem its vitality.
Comparatively, the vegetables are more animalistic and the animals more vegetative. We have the defensive mode of the “thrashed sapling”, and a fig doing its prelapsarian job: “swabs bedroom windows with its splashy leaves.” I love this line with all I have. The mistake would be in thinking this poem was a mere lovely observation—it is the bedroom windows that get the fig-leaf treatment. The deer will not eat the lavender. The fig works to promote prudishness. Truth or time-tested, Light knows the whys. Her gift is letting us experience it in an understated way.
Then we have these scrappy poppies, hackles raised: they “bristle and clench”, their colors indecent. Though they are not the focal point of the poem, I would place these poppies in the Poetic Poppies Pantheon, something I just invented, with the two others: H.D.’s Sea Poppies, with their “fire upon leaf”, Plath’s monthly poppies (July, October) with their mouths, skirts, and flames. Light’s are similarly brassy and sassy, stubborn in hue and rooting. They rightfully “hector” those prim and proper roses. O Rose, thou art sick but we don’t care.
“WITH A RASPING HUM, AND A HUM”
Light’s linguistic and sonic patterns are admirable and masterful, the internal rhymes sung and snug. The slightly ominous quality is furthered by the ebb and flow of sibilance—at its peak in the seemingly most innocuous scene. The poem hisses: it is, after all, under pressure. Or is it the steam and draft: cooling, warming, or warning? In the same way you can alter the temperature of air you breathe out by speed and a pursed or open mouth, Light has grouped vowel sounds for maximum effect to make the words do what they say. This poem would make the oral tradition proud; “Downdraft” needs to be read and heard, every word and sound calling and recalling the ones before and after it. It is impossible to recite it without feeling joy.
TRANSITIONS AND MULTIPLICITIES
It is November in the poem but October, and other milder months, can’t seem to accept it. Leftover Halloween stand-bys (crow, pumpkin) are prominent. Everything possesses the fight over flight instinct.
Light’s smart subtlety never fails to amaze me: every utterance is pleasant on the surface but deep and layered underneath. The multiplicity and depth that is so present in the other characters are in the actions of the narrator. “I dry my boots beside the fire. I set/ my tea to steep on the ledge.” An act of heating something cold followed by an act of cooling something hot. Implied: boots lightening, tea darkening. “I survey the possibilities.”
Q: Can I process this in the comfort of being indoors?
A: Sleeping dog, “Warm as toast and snug, / smug as some tweedy squire”
WIND (tin can down the house): “fipple and chiff” “A gust pipes” (as life), “a down-draft/ puffs once” (extinguished).
OMEN: “Crow and pumpkin: yet to come.”
There is unease in the poem’s ease. The wind’s onomatopoeia as preface. What of these Halloween rejects? It brings to mind the pumpkin head, hurled by the Headless Horseman, the superstitions surrounding a bird entering a house. And here the final loom—looming. The poem ends on this just as we get comfortable, if we ever were. Winter and omens up ahead, considerable and hulking.
I think: the determined nature of nature determined to arrive.
Or to quote my favorite doctor Ian Malcolm: “I’m simply saying that life, uh…finds a way.”
Or to quote the skillful spinner herself: “Who’s never been/ the thrashed sapling or brazen bud,/ all thin dignity determined to arrive?”
Perhaps less Arachne and more Clotho, then, in her execution and creation: Light seems one step ahead of the gods, and above reproach.
—Hannah Sanghee Park
Hannah Sanghee Park is currently a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her poem, “Bang,” appeared with Carol Light’s “Downdraft” in 32 Poems 10.2.