by Marie Ponsot
reviewed by Sarah Kafatou
“Life came first, not death. / Despite you death / Life comes first.”
Marie Ponsot, who died at the age of 98 in 2019, was born in New York and educated at St. Joseph’s College for Women and Columbia University, where she studied with the philosopher Susanne Langer. In her poems, Ponsot acquaints us with some members of her original American family, beginning with Grandfather Jack, a businessman who “invented for redemption / The coupon label” and “gambled for sons / On a bride small-boned,” and including her good-looking, short-lived aunt Rettie, an emancipated working woman of “light-catching wit.”
In Paris she met and married the painter Claude Ponsot, and in a short space of time had seven children. Her first short book, True Minds (1956), celebrates their married love as well as her lifelong Catholic faith. In it, she brings high energy, intellectual complexity, and linguistic resourcefulness to poems of keen emotional condensation. These are qualities that persist as core strengths, even though, in this early work, they result in poems that are sometimes too highly wrought and too obviously influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins or Hart Crane.
The couple moved to New York, where Ponsot divorced her husband and began to care for her daughter and six sons as a single mother, supporting her family by teaching and translating many books, including La Fontaine’s Fables. Twenty-five years after True Minds, her second book, Admit Impediment, speaks of the end of her marriage. Emerging from the dense rhetoric of her previous work, she recalls her first love without repudiating it:
oh I can hear warnings
warning me but I
remember anyway I curve
into the curve of your voice as if
into kind arms, savage again
& happy as when you held me holding you, I
forget why I left you, the Times
shakes a little in my hand,
but that page has been turned. “It is not bleak it is like music / and imagining music, to be out of love.” Rueful, yet relieved and looking forward, she declares, “I am now what I now do.”
Subdued anger, protest, and indignation, when they occur in Ponsot’s work, are not personal but political, not on her own behalf but on the behalf of others who suffer. She meditates on the fate of gifted, underappreciated, thwarted women such as Jacqueline Pascal, sister of the famous polymath Blaise Pascal, who opposed the Pope from her Jansenist convent of Port Royal and whose poems are out of print: “In her convent Jacqueline kept the rules. / On or under every desert there are pools.” As a poet of social justice Ponsot is self-questioning, and as an anti-war poet her voice is muted, her gaze penetrating:
The tank takes the house wall.
The house genuflects. The tank proceeds.
The house kneels. The roof dives.
The woman howls. Dust rises.
They cut to the next shot.
Full-throated, ecstatic flights of joy undergirded by a strong, stoic reserve recur throughout her work. Sometimes this can act as a barrier to intimacy, as in the fine sonnet “Hard-Shell Clams,” where Marie and her father attempt to connect during a holiday at the beach:
Closed, stuck closed, I watched us—far me far him—
go small, smaller, further, father, joy dim
in beach light. Our last chance, last perfect day.
We laughed. We ate four dozen hard-shell clams.
We swallowed what I would not let us say.
But such deep-seated reserve, such stoicism, does not preclude insight or empathy. Fortitude and consolation, as well as existential joy, are aspects of her Catholic religious tradition. Of events in a remote French village, she writes,
not a word they use. An aunt’s come to stay.
[ … ]
The widow shoves her night-time self aside,
kneads silence down into dough, and lets it rise.
There is also great courage. Affected in childhood by polio, Ponsot nevertheless loved dancing, doing her best to take part and be included. In the appropriately clunky sestina “Residual Paralysis,” the repeated words “cramps,” “wrong,” “will,” and “way” are thematic:
I can love dancing from outside the dance.
When trust uncramps the ordinary will
to laugh its way through accidental wrong,
those outside then step inside the dance.
In her daily life Ponsot practiced the practical virtues of making do and making the best of things. In praise of her small-boned grandmother, she writes, “Women wander / As best they can.” As a single parent and breadwinner, she had to juggle various responsibilities and not hold on too tightly to any:
The juggler in her suit of nerve
[ … ]
she is not just letting go
and her small touching skill is:
Lived as a spiritual and artistic discipline, “the rhythm clarifies something, maybe her.”
She had to eke out time for writing poems and said that she made sure to find at least ten minutes every day. Working under such constraint, she prized the mental capacity to wander. Hers was a muse of “Doorways Edges Verges.” Perhaps the poem “This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo,” from Easy (2009), her very last book, could serve as her ars poetica:
The clarity of cloud is its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.
A lucky watcher will catch it
as it makes big moves:
[ … ]
It lets in wings. It lets them go.
It lets them.
Though collegial with poets of her generation such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and younger poets such as Marilyn Hacker (both of whom shared her connection to France), Ponsot never became a member of any artistic grouping, movement, or school. Her work is not always easy to read. Not a lyric but a discursive poet, reflective, intellectually wide-ranging, she is capable of calling on her reader to deal with concepts like refraction, conic sections, even strange attractors. Her language, often refreshingly colloquial, is also frequently condensed, telegraphic, abstract. Many of her titles stand at incongruous, eccentric angles to the poem.
But however far she may roam in the landscape of experience, she is rarely distant from her reader. She is present in many of her poems as a person talking to another person or thinking out loud. This is a virtue she shares with Elizabeth Bishop, who was her near-contemporary. In her self-portrait, “Myopia Makes All Light Sources Radiant,” her face is first
I used to have when in that beauty
all the young own. Its look
is of unripe readiness.
When I put back on my spectacles
it is smiling thoroughly and
is ragged, wrinkled, very old,
its laugh-lines definite,
its softest estimates still
ready to unfold.
At her death, Marie Ponsot left a Collected Poems of over 450 pages. Imagining a last reunion of all her former selves in the poem “Dancing Day” from her last book, she writes, “Out of the cellar I take, ripe, / the rest of the case of Clos de Vougeot.”
Published on September 17, 2019