Vision as Appetite: CLampitt as Naturalist


Barbara Jordan


Freedom of mind combined with purpose: this is the dexterity and genius of Amy Clampitt. Whether she is walking through the Maine woods in a poem or heading westward across country, she’ll digress agilely to include the unexpected—historical anecdotes, botanical and geological observations, or merely civilization’s debris. As if by osmosis, these peripheral elements are taken into the webwork of the poem to become vital to its structure; or, put another way, the poem is a kind of butterfly net which Clampitt wields with an instinctive vigilance.

Clampitt’s work is informed by her love of natural history. Her digressive method grows out of a capacity to delight in discoveries, and to swerve to investigate them. She also possesses an impressive technical vocabulary in many areas of science which she attributes to her years as a free-lance editor and proof-reader— before that, she once worked for the Audubon Society. Since she’s at ease with nomenclature, her metaphors are enriched by a cross-referencing of terms and concepts; and yet, as she said in a recent interview, “There is a limit to how far you can take a lot of technical terms. What I want is something else—to get down exactly what I saw.”1

Perhaps for these reasons many Clampitt poems make me recall those insatiably curious amateur naturalists who thrived during the heydays of the Royal Society—Gilbert White comes to mind—who scoured fen and forest for specimens, then meticulously described what they’d found. Similarly, for Clampitt, a violet is seldom just a violet but “a white one, / with a mesh of faint purple pencil marks above the hollow / of the throat, where the petals join.“ A lunar moth is “furred like an orchid / behind the ferned antennae.” Always this scrupulous rendering, this dedication to preserving subtleties, as if nothing must be missed. To this end, Clampitt often chooses metaphors from any source that will convey visual and textural accuracy. The ocean has the “smoothness / of peau-de-soie or just ironed / percale, with a tatting / of foam out where the rocks are,“ and a late thrush is “berry- / eyed, dark brown above, with dark hints of trauma / in the stigmata of its underparts.” Her urge to describe and classify doesn’t restrict itself to flora and fauna; even beach glass is duly categorized:


amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almaden and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I’m afraid) Phillips’
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.

                                         (“Beach Glass”)


It wasn’t the hunt alone which spurred her predecessors, but the possibility of recognizing a greater pattern within the smaller; each nuance was significant, for one never knew exactly along what lines the classification might divide, or which factor might prove the thread. (One imaginative naturalist designated certain rocks as pedopetra because they resembled children’s feet, and others by their likenesses to pipe-stems, buttons, etc.)

Of course  poets, like scientists, search for correspondences. For Goethe, the harmony of forms in nature suggested the descending and ascending rungs of a great ladder, and led him to discover the  human intermaxillary bone, and to postulate a taxonomy based upon a semimystical Urpflanze, or primal plant, which at one time he’d hoped to find in Italy. Coleridge (who once described Linnaeus’s great work as “nothing more than an enormous nomenclature . . . yearly and monthly augmented in various editions”) was a keen observer of natural phenomena and advanced many theoretical ideas, but he preferred what he called “speculative” to empirical science—the root of the former emphasizing vision. Clampitt shares this love of delving and systematizing, although her speculations are attuned to uncovering unexpected connections between things rather than formal laws. In this sense, many of her poems become both looking glass and laboratory, and we can discern in them something of the scientific method: observation is the first necessity, and then the inference, the careful hypothesis, or the truism emerges. So, in “Beach Glass,” a conclusion follows Clampitt’s careful sorting:


                                     The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel,
along with the treasuries
of Murano, the buttressed
astonishments of Chartres,
which even now are readying
for being turned over and over as gravely
and gradually as an intellect
engaged in the hazardous
redefinition of structures
no one has yet looked at.


Clampitt finds the parallel between the abandoned “houses / of so many mussels and periwinkles” and our own monuments. She makes us see the cathedrals rising out of matter, then crumbling again. The beauty of architecture and the gemstones she mentions (chrysoprase, lapis, turquoise) contrast with the less rarified objects of consumption. And yet all the sounds have a pleasurable texture—“Gallo” almost an imaginary stone, and “Magnesia” derived from the element magnesium. It is typical of Clampitt’s approach often to begin with the pieces and intuit the whole. Indeed, the last four lines assume the force of an ars poetica: throughout her work, we feel her intellect “engaged in the hazardous / redefinition of structures.” Interrelationships interest her, and time and flux interest her— the shifting angles of our perceptions of the world and the shifting ground beneath our feet. “The Quarry” opens straightforwardly with geological fact:


Fish swam here before the Eocene
too many fathoms up
to think of without suffocations. Light-years
of ooze foreshortened into limestone
swarm with starfish
remoter than the antiquated
pinpoints of astronomy
beneath the stagecoach laboring,
when the thaws came, through mud
up to the hubs.


Did Clampitt know when she began, I wonder, how she would find the path to the stagecoach? Now it is possible to see how her mind fastened on the shapes—starfish, the rayed “pinpoints” of stars, the spokes of the coach’s wheel, and, implicit behind them all, the great spiral of the galaxy—and how she modified the ease of  “swam” until all the past seemed sunk in mud, or turning muddy, under the suffocating incomprehensibility of light-years. The sequence of these images creates a sense of vertigo. Both starfish and star begin to “swarm” beneath the coach’s wheels, and neither the firmament nor our place upon it feels quite so solid after all.

“What difference to the minutiae / of that seeming inconsequence that’s called beauty / add up to?” Clampitt asks in “The Field Pansy.” They add up to everything. To find the inherent structure, Clampitt’s poems reach out—they “ramify,” to use one of her favorite words—as if a net were being cast wider and wider to encompass every tiny detail. Her poems appear to complete themselves through a process of accretion, producing a dazzling surface which is continually being sorted from different perspectives.

I was drawn by her love of minutiae and her penchant for nomenclature, but above all by the skill with which she moves from the specific to the general, and from the ordinary to the profound. The effect is not unlike a camera’s movement: a close-up followed by a wide-angle shot. In “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews,” the reader is lured down into a “bog full” of these plants to scrutinize them as closely as the insects they attract, and then tugged up into a philosophical argument:


                                            But the sun
among the sundews, down there,
is so bright, an underfoot
webwork of carnivorous rubies
a star-swarm thick as the gnats
they’re set to catch, delectable
double-faced cockleburs, each
hair-tip a sticky mirror
afire with sunlight, a million
of them and again a million,
each mirror a trap set to
unhand unbelieving,
                                  that either
a First Cause said once, “Let there
be sundews,” and there were, or they’ve
made their way here unaided
other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
                                             But the sun
underfoot is so dazzling
down there among the sundews,
there is so much light
in the cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.


This poem creates a similar sense of vertigo. It offers us a choice between Natural Selection and divine fiat, and the sundews become Clampitt’s Blakean tiger. Is the world itself a kind of snare to “unhand unbelieving”? Do we come to faith in a backhand way, drawn to beauty, and there confront a terrible necessity behind appearances? (I think of the lunar moth in “Imago,” with its “predatory stare out of the burrow, / . . . living/ only to copulate and drop its litter.”) And “unhand unbelieving” is a curious and particularly slippery term: it may mean let go of unbelieving, that is, renounce it and believe, or it may also mean let go, as in leave it alone, do not be deceived. Through “an ingenuity too astonishing / to be quite fortuitous” (the opening lines), Clampitt’s poem becomes a many-layered trap as well. Like the insects, we marvel at the intricacy and light, coming close enough to let the revelation bite.

Clearly Clampitt lets her eye guide her while, simultaneously, a more penetrating vision scans the assembled terrain. In several poems she watches from the seat of a bus in which she is a passive meanderer, “riding all night, the bus half empty, toward the interior” (“Iola, Kansas”). The pressure falls on the word “interior” which comes to refer both to the trek into the heartland and into the half-dreaming self. Such poems accommodate Clampitt’s digressions in an even wider arena. Clampitt’s brilliant “A Procession at Candlemas” follows this course. The journey to her mother’s deathbed becomes a journey into the remotest regions of memory, ritual, and instinct - the core of which is mystery. Birth and death form its cornerstones. As she seeks to mirror “an entity that cannot look into itself and know/ what makes it what it is,” her thoughts ricochet among numerous image clusters which she reinforces and then weaves together through thematic or visual correspondences. To follow only one example, the notion of recesses/niches helps to link “the mother curtained in Intensive Care” to the “effigy” of Athena “in olive wood or pear wood, dank/ with the sweat of age, walled in the dark” of ancient temples. And yet the traveller, whether compelled by duty or devotion, has needs. The bus pulls to a brief stop, and, in a parody of birth and miracle, materialism offers its niche:


                             . . . The jellies glitter
cream-capped in the cafeteria showcase;
gumball globes, Life Savers cinctured

in parcel gilt, plop from their housings
perfect, like miracles. Comb, nail clipper,
lip rouge, mirrors and emollients embody,

niched into the washroom wall case,
the pristine seductiveness of money.


Beneath the veneer of civilization, one finds that Clampitt always confronts that far older, tenacious, and brutal economy. Nature, however exotic or seemingly atmospheric in her poems, proves to be strewn with trapdoors. Even in a poem like “Botanical Nomenclature,” at first glance innocuous, the world is a shifting and unstable place. Clampitt’s discussion of the various regional names for a common wildflower (“Mertensia, the learned Latin / handle, proving the uses of taxonomy”) holds a lesson. She describes how the plant grows outward by grasping at any “holdfast,” and we begin to realize she is also describing how language is our holdfast, how it evolves carrying traces of the past with it—as everything living does, down to the simplest wildflower:


                             . . . bluebells:
spring-bottomland glades standing upright,
their lake-evoking sky color
a trapdoor, a window letting in distances
all the way to the ocean—
reaching out, nolens volens,
as one day everything breathing
will reach out . . .


The connections she makes between things often reveal what J. D. McClatchy called “a shrewd moralism”—not outright irony, but a juxtaposition of ideas or images whose incongruities produce a reassessment of our normal outlook. So a poem entitled “Good Friday” begins with lions feeding on a wildebeest, and then the vultures “take their turn,” then “feasting maggots,” until the carcass has been picked “clean as a crucifix. ” In “The Dahlia Gardens,” that most monumental of poems, Clampitt exposes in breathtaking complexity the parallels between nature’s dispassionate thrift and force and that other system which grew to interpret it, symbolized by the Pentagon:


                            November leaves
skip in the wind or are lifted, unresisting,
to mesh with the spent residue of dahlias’
late-summer blood and flame, leached marigolds,
knives of gladioli flailed to ribbons:
parts of a system that seems, on the face of it,
to be all waste, entropy, dismemberment;
but which perhaps, given time enough, will prove
to have refused nothing tangible,
without audible clash, with no more than a whiplash
incident, to its counterpart, a system
shod in concrete, cushioned in butyl, riding
chariots of thermodynamics, adept with the unrandom,
the calculus of lifting and carrying, with vectors,
clocks, chronicles, calibrations.


When I had the chance I asked Amy Clampitt how long it had taken her to write “The Dahlia Gardens” and she answered pleasantly, “Oh, two or three days.” Given the poem’s length and complexity, I wasn’t prepared for that answer—I’d expected weeks, months, even years. “Two or three days?” I repeated, and she, I think perplexed by the alarm in my voice, sought to console by adding, “or maybe four. ”

I had the pleasure of spending three weeks at The Atlantic Center for the Arts in January of 1992 when Amy Clampitt was poet-in-residence. She’s a small woman, kind, feminine in her dress—scarves “and so on,” as she might say—with a slightly startled look, sharp eyes. Judging by appearance, one mightn’t perceive the mind that’s there, its fierce intelligence. She reminded me a bit of Olson’s description of the Maya: bird-like, always looking; and when she speaks she talks quickly, almost trills, and then falls into silences. We poets, drawn to Florida by her presence, took to her immediately, and, at her suggestion, we called her Amy.

One of the first things Amy did when she arrived was to seek out the library. Like a true natural historian, she wanted to find books on native flora and fauna, and also to discover something about the peoples who originally inhabited the region. There were day-trips to wildlife refuges, to a prehistoric Indian midden, and many short walks along nearby paths. (I think a few poets and/or the two wonderfully humorous musical composers staying at the Center may have coaxed Amy once to the Sit ’n Sip, a bar with a leather? fake grass? counter and a friendly, local clientele who’d look stunned by sunlight each time the door opened.)

We had beautiful weather: mild air, blue skies with intermittent vapory cloudbanks, and little breezes that made dry, rattling sounds through the underbrush, which was mostly low and sinewy but with some tall palmettoes and live oaks that trailed bearded moss. It was a landscape that looked like it would have snakes, and it did—even poisonous ones. For me, a memorable event was the woods walk Amy and I took one afternoon down “the snake path,” so-named because the poet Judith Barrington had seen quite a large snake sunning itself there. I wrote a description of this walk the next day in a letter to friends, and it’s fresher than any my memory could produce:


Amy and I felt a little shy with each other, but the silences weren’t disconcerting. She has a keener eye than I for botany. She kept running over to shrubs and bushes and mumbling her thoughts out loud in a soft, high voice, “Heath? Huckleberry? A palmetto shoot, . . . I believe they’re a monocot? Is that a scrub cedar?” More questions than statements, talking more to herself than to me. We saw two moths mating—they were front to front, on a stalk of  grass, the larger with its wings folded, the other with wings slightly open, only the lower parts moving. We watched them for several minutes. Just amazing, shale-grey wings with white spots, orange body, over an inch long . . . Later, on the way back and in another spot, one of the same creatures dragging itself along the sand, as if wounded. I held out my walking stick and it climbed on, but after I lifted the stick it fell off—it wasn’t that far to the ground - but it immediately curled its body as something does when it’s going to sting or die, and emitted such great drops of yellow liquid—eggs? emptying its bowels?—that we were astounded, and then it stopped moving for a while and I got very upset, thinking I’d killed it. We speculated that this may be the day these particular moths or butterflies mate and die, and I prodded it and it moved some more, but, when we left it, it was struggling to right itself with its wings and still dragging its long body, which seemed useless.


What we’d shared, of course, was the pleasure of looking closely at the world; I don’t think we spoke of poetry that day. Then later, just before bed, I pulled my back out reaching for a hook. In the middle of the night, when I didn’t know the extent of my back injury but my imagination feared the worst, I thought of that wounded moth as a kind of premonition. In the morning that connection seemed silly, and yet the place, the days spent surrounded by nature, the freedom of unmooring imagination, all conspired to encourage the magical. And other connections held. Sympathies and correspondences seemed in the air, and delicate links between images and ideas found their ways into poems. Friendships formed between poets. Every evening, by various paths, we crossed the wooden walkways to Amy’s bungalow.

The precise paths a poet takes through a poem define the conceptual grounds behind her (or his) form. For some, rhyme provides a formal tether in addition to other patternings of thought and narrative. But Amy Clampitt, although her ear is ever attentive, shapes her course by what she sees—by what catches her attention. Like the flowering Mertensia that grows outward nolens volens in “Botanical Nomenclature,” Clampitt finds her “holdfasts” and then reaches out again, casting the poem into space. Perhaps her method mirrors nature. One day on St. Herbert’s Island, Coleridge peered closely and then described what he saw:


. . . a large spider with most beautiful legs, floating in the air on his back by a single thread which he was spinning out, and still, as he spun, heaving on the air, as if the air beneath was a pavement elastic to his strokes. From the top of a very high tree he had spun his line; at length reached the bottom, tied his thread round a piece of grass, and reascended to spin another,— a net to hang, as a fisherman’s sea-net hangs, in the sun and wind to dry.


Leafing through Anima Poetae, I found the title for this essay in another statement by Coleridge. He wrote, “Sometimes when I earnestly look at a beautiful object or landscape, it seems as if I were on the brink of a fruition still denied—as if Vision were an appetite. . . .” It seems to me that sometimes Clampitt’s poems, with their sun-struck details and their voluminous structures, create like the sundews a “webwork of carnivorous rubies”; that she brings us to a brink, and, more often than not, we fall in.




1.     Antietam Review, Spring 1992, vol. xii.