Amy Clampitt’s Elegaic Witnessing


Susan Snively


In a short poem called “Witness” in What the Light Was Like, Amy Clampitt places herself where she often is in her poems: on the margin of “An ordinary evening,”; observing “the surface membrane / of the inadvertently transparent instant / when no one is looking,” except, of course, the poet. It is typical of Clampitt not to make this witnessing a posture or role that would endow her with extraordinary visionary powers. Rather, she builds up the power of her observation through her knowledge of the texture and weight of everyday things: café tables, red barns “gone dark with sundown,” and the urge to cling to life found in  “toehold junipers” and “the lucent arms of birches.” Even the poem ’s grammatical structure, an accretion of appositives, suggests that the poet can, and must, affirm the nominatives of the visible world without wrestling them into action or explanation.

“Purity without a mirror,” she calls the things of this world. The only mirror is “a mind bound elsewhere, to tell it how it looks.” In “Witness,” the multiple references attached to “it” show how involved the poet’s mind is with its own predicament of being both witness and participant. “It” gathers up “purity,” “elsewhere,” and “mind” in one brief neuter pronoun; “it” constitutes everything the poet can know or behold as witness to a life passed through, as through the “transparent membrane” of a moment. The predicament endows the poet neither with ignorance nor with certain knowledge of what she sees. Rather, she can only speak of what she sees on its own terms, in the kind of homely but exalted metaphysics Clampitt is attracted to in Sir Thomas Browne, from whom she culls a note for another poem, “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration,” in that same elegiac section of What the Light Was Like. In a quote from Hydriotaphia, Browne’s tone of mixed awe and curiosity is an apt resource for Clampitt’s “mind bound elsewhere”: “Time hath endless rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth itself a discovery.”

Browne’s prose is, of course, more annunciatory in tone (contrast Clampitt’s simplicity of phrasing, “to tell it how it looks).” But for writers whose minds range through terminals and terminuses, the telling is a singular purpose, which allows the poet to show and tell the everywhere-and-nowhere of a world much travelled-in. Concealed in that art of telling in “Witness” is an act of praise for the integral life of the planet, even in the humble guise of merchandise in a Five and Ten or tables in a café (seeming like a scene from Edward Hopper). Through metaphor, Clampitt implies a network of connections among all living structures and structures built by the living: “the barns . . . withhold the shudder of a warped terrain,” containing the mute convulsions of earth; “tree-clogged ravines” are “submarine with nightfall”; the “toehold junipers” seem like “flocks” of “dark sheep.” Everything responds to everything else along the dendrites of the intricate web that connects the poet herself to the earth (and the sea) through her physical and metaphysical apprehensions. Thus, like every elegist, Clampitt notes “what’s past or passing or to come,” in Yeats’s terms, as a complex process of sameness and change for which the telling mind is the only mirror.

Like all elegists, Clampitt asks the question “Where?,” a question freighted with mortal anxieties. In two of her most memorable elegies, “A Procession at Candlemas” and “What the Light Was Like,” she becomes a witness not only to death (or its aftermath, a complex reconstruction of the story), but to her own attempt “to tell it how it looks”—the “it” in this case being herself. “A Procession at Candlemas” is one of Clampitt’s bleakest, plainest-speaking yet most complex poems because the act of return and revisitation required of all elegists produces no certain resolution. The “procession” becomes a process of uncovering more troublesome associations with “the mother curtained in Intensive Care,” but does not recover “the lost connection” so as to give Clampitt a certain place to be.

I have often thought that the first poem ever written (or more likely spoken) was an elegy, and most likely by a woman, since women are the ones who, throughout history, have kept watch at the portals of birth and death. Perhaps the first elegy came about when a woman laid into the earth her dead child, or her mother or lover, and broke into simultaneous praise and lament for the fact of life itself, its having been here such a brief time only to disappear into the unknown. As she strewed flowers, or covered the cauled body with her sifting hands, the first elegist must have wondered what she would do when this work of her hands was done, and wondered too where she would locate herself in the emptiness she’d inherited. “Where?” for an elegist thus becomes, instantly at the moment of deepest apprehension, “Where has my loved one gone?” and “Where are we?,” the question Clampitt herself asks in the painful moment in “Candlemas” when she realizes “at the core a dream of / something precious, ripped.”

Preceding this moment, and early in the poem, the poet has tried not a leap of faith but the leap of historical association. Surely I am not alone, the grown-up poet notes of her loss, but her attempt to flee from the image of her mother in Intensive Care “toward scenes of transhumance” only briefly delays the recognition that the mother is “already lying dead.” But instead of dlssipating her sense of vulnerability, Clampitt’s awareness intensifies to show her how women (and later, pioneers and soldiers) have been moved about only to be lost. This is intensive care indeed, not muted but made more painful by the collective numb processional she is caught in. The road she travels westward, not on Good Friday but on Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, is itself “an entity that cannot look into itself and know / what makes it what it is.” These dark aspects of “purity” and ignorance Clampitt will soften somewhat in the later “Witness. ” Here they are dark not only because the journey takes place in a dark time, but because the self is an “Imponderable substance, ” and the question “Where are we?” (related to “What are we?”) receives only provisional answers. As she says later in “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration,” an elegy for her brother, “Oh, / we know nothing / of the universe we move through! ”

In “Candlemas,” Clampitt receives no comfort either from the knowledge of collective loss or from the distraction of “the surface membrane of the . . . transparent instant.” “Where?” is a question that forces her to see past and to see through. Looking into the past, the traditional meaning of Candlemas, Clampitt notes the origin of a feast of purification as “a Mosaic insult” requiring the purification of “even a virgin” because of a basic “loathing of the common origin” in women’s power to give birth. There is a tense, clipped irony in the remark, “people have / at times found this a way of being happy” that betrays the poet’s distrust of churchly ritual. “What are these women doing on this day?” she seems to ask, as birth and death are brought together into “an element fragile as ego, frightening as parturition.” Nothing civilization has done has allayed the fright, healed the fragility, or for that matter corrected the “insult.” Thus we are all still, in our conveyances, carrying our pitiful candles, “bison” moving “through a Stonehenge of fuel pumps” from one “nowhere oasis” to another. In the poem, of course, the poet is, as William James says, “aware of being aware,” but the course it traces manifests the complex alternating moods of the traveller, now hopeful, now dithering, now in despair at the sheer sad ugliness of things.

The “fabricated” things of this world Clampitt notices in the terminal restroom and cafeteria are bled of their pathos by their false purity: “the pristine seductiveness of money.” Once again she holds up the idea of “purity” for severe questioning, although she takes pleasure in the mildly sardonic gesture she can perform on “Life Savers,” “perfect, like miracles,” tiny sweet things that “plop from their housings” in a miniature parody of birth. But these distractions—“comb, nail clipper, lip rouge, mirrors and emollients”—soon give way to her question about people who travelled that same route long before (perhaps her own paternal ancestors, journeying west from Indiana). At Indian Meadows, where presumably there are no more Indians and no more meadows, she must ask, “Who can assign a trade-in value to that sorrow?” The sorrow of emigrants who, “in losing everything they had, lost even the names they went by,” folds into the sorrow for the Viet Nam dead and by extension into every “torn integument” that requires permanent separation and exile from one’s origins. (Clampitt takes up this theme of exile poignantly in “Black Buttercups” from What the Light Was Like.)

Momentarily, the poet allows herself rest that returns her to her child-self “wrapped like a papoose into a grief not merely of the ego,” where she “almost” finds again “the rest-in-peace of the placental coracle.” Yet the curled posture of the baby in this coracle could not help but remind her by implication of the ancient fetal burial posture practiced by the Stone Age people of Indian Meadows and elsewhere. But this is a buried association. Mainly at this point in the poem, the poet is just plain tired: tired not only of the bus ride, the obsessive incomplete distractions, the false brightness of cafeterias and restrooms, but tired of her mind’s own propensity to gather up associations with other tragic processionals, whether by 19th century American emigrants, Kurdish women on their “rug-piled mounts,”—or mourners of the Viet Nam dead.

This pause for rest Clampitt makes at the end of Part I of “Candlemas” will receive a more passionate treatment in “Urn-Burial,” also a family elegy, for her brother. As in the earlier poem, Clampitt again counterposes the migration of the dead “toward something else” with the metamorphosis of caterpillars to moths, the scattering of families from “that unrest whose home—our home—is motion,” the monarch butterflies’ “airborne marathon,” and the “elegiac / signature of nations who / have no language.” At the end of this poem she can only cry out, in full apprehension of the “forceless, autonomous” dissipation of life,


O drifting apotheosis of dust
exhumed, who will unseal
the crypt locked up within
the shimmer of the chromosomes,
or harvest, from the alluvial
death-dance of these wrecked
galaxies, this risen residue
of milkweed leaf and honey,
rest for the body?


Like Part I, Part II of “Candlemas” begins by leaping forward (or backward) from a Heraclitean pronouncement of flux and change (“Never the same river / drowns the unalterable doorsill”) into a worrisome contemplation of why and what people have worshipped. In other words, Clampitt moves from the unease of recognizing her own helplessness to know who the dead were while living, to an overt distrust of ceremony. The image of Athene’s “wizened cult object, kept / out of sight like the incontinent whimperer / in the backstairs bedroom,” draws on a history familiar to nearly every family, yet it is startling nonetheless to see the goddess of wisdom thus transformed. No “pure idea,” even one born without a mother, is sacred. Processionals, it seems, simply happen according to some “seasonal returning to the dark where memory fails.” Their participants, the “ wildflower-hung cattle, nubile Athenian girls, young men / praised for the beauty of their bodies,” are more beautiful than the “bison” of Route 80, or the “street gangs / amok among magnolias’ pregnant wands,” but are no more enlightened. (Perhaps they need not be.) In the worship of even wisdom, ignorance may have its place, “a way of being happy.”

Soon, as in Part I, the woeful dreck of the visible world again takes over, as the poet marks her place on the map and is forced, perhaps by the pressure of the dreaded imminent arrival, to revisit the scene of “frightening parturition,” a terminal-scene even more bleak than the falsely lit one at Indian Meadows.


                                           Disgorged, the infant
howling in the restroom; steam-table cereal,

pale coffee; wall-eyed TV receivers, armchairs
of molded plastic; the squalor of the day
resumed, the orphaned litter taken up again

unloved, the spawn of botched intentions,
grief a mere hardening of the gut,
a set piece of what can’t be avoided:

parents by the tens of thousands living
unthanked, unpaid but in the sour coin
of resentment.


Clampitt is more than a witness in this catalogue of failures and incompletenesses. No doubt she sees her participation in it as one who has experienced exile and therefore feels most keenly the simple dolor of the inadequate material world. Even the “wall-eyed” TVs and plastic armchairs are evidence of a loveless place where parents, children, and for that matter anyone taking care of anyone else, are caught up in life for no sake. As she often does, Clampitt has peeled off the protective layer of distraction or contemplation simply to behold the world’s resentment of its own aliveness in “the cadaverous / belvedere of windmills, the sullen stare / of feedlot cattle.” Everything she sees bears her onward ”to the dark,“ where she feels ”the undertow of scenes come back to, fright / riddling the structures of interior history. “ She can only find comfort in the relative abstractness of language. There are no explicit film-flashbacks here; one feels that Clampitt says more by not spelling out the origins of that “fright.” Nonetheless, a vast piteous bewildered rage has built up by that point in the poem, urging out the elegist’s question “Where?” with greater force: “Where is it?”

I am not altogether sure what Clampitt is asking when she asks “Where, in the shucked-off bundle . . . did the thread of fire . . . relinquish the seed of possibility?” Where did life give up on life? Where did “the hampered obscurity that has been / for centuries the mumbling lot of women” fail to take shape? I suspect that the question bears on childlessness, but is much larger than what Emily Dickinson called “the happen” of a single life, and has more to do with the species’ propensity to defeat itself. Certainly the most woeful “terminus” of all is the one we contrive for ourselves. But any death raises the question not only of where the dead go and the survivors dwell, but of why those particular living are alive. “Where?” quickly becomes “Why me?,” but the poem does not end—nor could it end, for such a witness, in that kind of piteous nihilism, however understandable in the context of a journey into dark origins. Clampitt is simply too connected to this world for self-defeating gestures to prevail.

Thus, not deliberate but “stumbling,” memory recovers an image at the end of the poem, of a small life persisting in itself. “Down the long-unentered nave of childhood,” in a cathedral and “flyway” bearing her back home, Clampitt remembers finding “a small stilled bird” “sheltering among the evergreens,” whose “cap of clear yellow” is “slit by a thread of scarlet.” This thread is “the untouched nucleus of fire” that enables all her “lost connections” to come together. The “wizened effigy” of the goddess of wisdom joins with the mother “curtained in Intensive Care” so that both old women come together, in a subterranean way, into an image of the veiled, ancient goddess, older and perhaps wiser than the young virgin submitting herself to purification. Not in overt power, nor even in the reproachful exemplum of innocence, but in the fact of their having been alive, the bird and the women belong together with all the others moving up Route 80 “at nightfall, in falling snow,” in “stillness and sorrow.” Only by admitting to this stillness, the recapitulation of the longed-for rest at the end of Part I, can Clampitt allow back into the poem the explicit reference to Candlemas, bringing back the church as a “nave of childhood, ” with its pun on “navel” making clear the reference to her mother’s mortal body.

The candles come back, too, as a “procession of moving lights.” If nothing has changed except that, in the “unrest whose home—our home—is motion,” at least that motion has reached its destiny. Yet it is interesting that of the six lines of the last stanzas, four of them contain participles, that restless part of speech, part verb, part adjective, that perpetuates motion. The mind that mirrors, for Clampitt, is never a still quietude; even the yellow-capped bird seeking shelter is “stilled” but waiting, as all birds do, for its nucleus of fire to be charged with movement.

“What the Light Was Like” does not concern family grief but rather the combined wonder and pity of hearing about the death at sea of a summer neighbor in Maine. Yet, like “A Procession at Candlemas,” it raises the question “Where?” and places the poet where she simply cannot answer it. Like the earlier poem, too, it locates itself on a map we can actually trace through place-names of islands along the coast of Maine, as “Candlemas” traced a path westward along Route 80’s industrial heartland. As with all mapped certainties in Clampitt’s poetry, the more the world is travelled in, the more unknowns and mysteries it reveals.

If the three-line stanzas of “Candlemas” recall, to some degree, Dante’s terza rima with its compulsive stony steps to Hell and back, the looser, more fluid structure of “What the Light Was Like” hints at oceanic drift. The lines alternately expand and contract, like waves coming in and receding. The poem’s 138 lines are wrestled into eleven sentences, the longest of them 44 lines long. Embarking on the poem, we are reassured by the image of lilacs and hummingbirds returning “every year,” yet the length of the first sentence, counterpointed to eleven long-then-short lines, throws us slightly off balance. The casual, homely reassurance of seasonal return which give us another way to map our lives, will not bear up for long.

We know this not simply because of the wavering line-lengths, but because the poem’s images tell us that mortality can and will at any moment overtake the scene. “Every year,” Clampitt says, “the same / iridescent hummingbird, / or its descendent, would be at work among the mourning cloaks / and swallowtalls, its motor loud, / its burning gorget darkening at moments as though charred.” Amidst this thirsty liveliness lurk “mourning cloaks” and the threat of burning, as in “Witness” the red barns have “gone dark with sundown.”

Ernest Woodward, the subject of this elegy, was, as Clampitt is, an acute observer of nature, “keeping an eye out . . . for everything that flapped or hopped or hovered / crepuscular under the firs.” With what seems like—although it is not spelled out—a faith that the once disappeared will return, Woodward saw the eiders “making their comeback,” and had “seen the puffins” that most people never see, not having ventured as far out to sea as ’Tit Manan.

Here the loss the poem speaks of is not anticipated in the immediate future, as in “Candlemas,” but is eight months old; by now it has become a story the poet must retell in order to make sense of herself as witness and participant. The sentence that tells the story is long, weighty, and restless, as if it can’t bear to bring itself to an end. (That is the impossible hope of all who hear elegiac stories; that somehow in the telling the sad ending will disappear and the happy one prevail.) The long sentence provides a way to track Woodward’s final voyage “past first the inner and then the outer bar, wherein / whatever kind of weather / the red reef bells yells, in that interminable treble, Trouble.” The lines keep bringing up troublesome images of fire, blood, and danger: the sunrise’s “surge of burning,” the reference to the ominous Restricted Area with its “huge hush-hush thing they say is radar,” and the startling image of new boat-hulls “crimson on the inside as a new-skinned carcass.”

As the sentence goes on, Clampitt starts to be caught up in local lore and even in the philosophizing of fisher-folk who believe “that what you love most is the same as what you’re / most afraid of—God.” Her language begins to entertain the homely suspicious phrase (“that huge hush-hush thing”) and the second-person familiar with the daily work of lobstermen as well as with their natural graciousness “ . . . once you’ve hauled your last trap, things tend to wander / into shorter focus . . . ”)

This familiarity with map and habit enables Clampitt to track the points Woodward would normally see on his return journey: “first ’Tit Manan lighthouse”; then “the sunstruck rock pile of Cranberry Point to port”; then “the hamlet, ” “the scree-beach under Crowley Island’s crowding firs and spruces,” and finally his own TV aerial. But Woodward has not returned, “there’d been no sign of him,” so Clampitt’s map tracks a hope, not an arrival. The map she has drawn shows, in fact, another kind of Restricted Area (like an Intensive Care unit) where watching and waiting also produce nothing.

“Bad news is mostly what you travel with,” Clampitt remarks at the beginning of “Candlemas,” and it is the task of “What the Light Was Like” to report the news of Woodward’s death, even eight months late. The last four sentences of the poem all end with a bad-news phrase, or one that implies a desperate search in a vast element for a remnant of human life. “There’d been no sign of him,” the first one ends, the second sentence in the poem that begins with the large qualifying “But” that mocks expectation. “Planes and helicopters from as far away as Boston” turn up nothing until “the third day” when Woodward does not arise from the dead, but is found “slumped against the kegs.“ Then begins the poet’s attempt not to re-enter the ancestral flyway of her memory, but simply to imagine ”what the light was like“ to Woodward’s last vision. Despite what is perhaps an oblique reference to Goethe’s last words, ”MeerLicht! Meer Licht!,“ ”it’s useless” to do so. But every elegist places herself in more than one world at once; that is especially true of Clampitt.

Every elegist is also concerned—even obsessed—with the act of returning: the return of nature now bereft of the dead and therefore more painful to behold; the elegist’s own return to a point of origin; the return of attendant spirits or natural creatures who mutely mark the difference between then and now. The poem itself is the locus of returning, providing a place for a repeated image to assume instant significance and thus to aid in the work of mourning. Thus, as she traces the boat’s last lost course, Clampitt brings back the eiders, brings back ’Tit Manan and the puffins that mark it as another “restricted area, ” and repeats the color crimson (“the boglands cranberry-crimson”), the word “gorget,” and the images of “mourning-cloaks” and white-and-purple lilacs. She also brings back the hummingbird in order to note its absence and the difference between “every year” that begins the poem and “this year” that ends it. “What the light was like,” whether iridescent “like the bird itself” or a “fogbound shroud” gave way to unreversed, irrevocable dark“ that was like nothing else but itself, and therefore ”useless” to fathom.

“But she is in her grave, and oh, / The difference to me,” says Wordsworth at the end of “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” one of the Lucy poems, among the simplest and greatest elegies ever written. The word “difference” is a plummet sounding the depths of the poet’s emptiness, or rather emptiedness, for he is full of feeling “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.” The act of repetition and return in an elegy—“useless,” as Clampitt says of her own imaginative journey into a moment of death—confirms that difference as a paradox: language tries, as it must, to make sense of the difference, and yet it can only announce it. The fact is a stone over which water drips or light plays, only to fall or fail.

But for poets at least, the fact must be said. Clampitt never refuses the difficulty of making that difference as palpable and clear as it can be, even when its singular light dissipates to a “fogbound shroud.” Nor does she feel compelled to make a course through her own witnessing mind any straighter than it must be, for there is always more in an elegy than any number of readings will uncover, as every death implicates both past and future ones. One feels relieved that she opens only part way the curtained intensive care of her own preoccupations, not because we resist seeing more, but because that act allows her more simply to see where she is. Where she is, for a poet so informed by myth and history, has to be where she might have been, in another age, on another kind of processional, or on another kind of boat, crossing darker waters. By such breadth and depth we may know her.