Lorine Niedecker’s poems are taut as riddles. Here is “Easter”:
A robin stood by my porch
“Stood by” suggests vigilance as well as happenstance, and “side-eyed” suggests that it is on guard, watching her; of course it is “side-eyed,” its eyes on the side of its head, but “side-eyed” is also what happens to it, side-eyed by the poet. This poem needs a title, because the occasion is the joke of “raised up,” invoking the resurrection, but also rearing. “Raised up” is also rearing, so that there is a tenderness in the gesture, even though the worm will be devoured, later. The line breaks only work if there is the possibility of the phrases taking other directions, and on this occasion “raised up” raises expectation of feet or head; but worm is no surprise, is earthly, natural and right, its rightness colliding with the thought that, this poem being an Easter poem, the culmination, if neither feet or head, would possess a symbolic grandeur; even the contrast of “worm” and Christ does not seem intended to suggest “All Men are Worms”; instead, the contrast is between the entire act of “raising up” as God raised up Christ (as a Son, from the dead) and the naturalness of the bird’s raising up a worm. Perhaps we are supposed to notice that “worm” is a letter away from “word,” and Christ was the word.
“Raised up” at any rate has a connotation of ceremony, and the difference is between the self-conscious ceremony of the priest holding the host and God performing this one act upon which all Christian Faith rests, and this unself-conscious routine of the bird; the natural and supernatural, animal and divine, are not supposed to collapse into each other though; they are held apart. We are not to see divinity in the raising up the worm, except in so far as we see its absence. It is not a full allusion, but a poem about a bird on Easter, with the word “porch” (the Church Porch is the relevant echo, the title of first section of the collection, The Temple) recalls Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” This bird, though, “stands.” That word is grounded, as is Niedecker’s observation, and the shape of the poem is relevant in an utterly different way from Herbert’s, which is to be taken in at once, a typographical illustration; Niedecker’s shaping reveals synchronously, each word an event as it is read.
This poem, like others by her, is so much a matter of words suddenly darkening into focus from the white of the page that it would seem to push against the voice, but the cadence is remarkable, with the strong spondaic “side-eyed” and “raised up” giving way into the flatness of “a worm,” the word “worm” itself begging for a lingered pronunciation of contempt or disgust, neither of which is appropriate here, but which are, once again, to be consciously excluded; the last two words are instead a falling off, without revelation, but with completeness (this too a contrast to the Biblical story, which reveals but reveals also the incompleteness of human history).
Her poems can be deftly introspective, too, so that she seems to be encountering her own life as a riddle, and in so encountering it making it salient, without the pretense that such a matter might have a solution. Here, untitled:
Now in one year
a book published
took a lifetime
“Now in one year” is privately exhausted and publicly an advertising boast, announcing a new project. The latter is easier to make sense of: but why the word “Now” if fatigued? And if that is a question, why the sense of fatigue? It is because both “in one year” and “now” announce a surfeit, either of all that has been accomplished in a year, or of an additional item of strain. We might expect to hear “Now in one year, x to do and y to do,” looking forward, but not “Now in one year” in retrospective exhalation. It is even possible to hear the phrase as looking ahead with the “will be” elided: “now in one year, a book will be published and plumbing.”
“Now” is the root over confusion about time, and also a means of resolving it: we can hear the word as a digging in, anchoring the speaker in the present, a firm vantage point of utterance from which to look back, tired and proud both. It feels almost like an “Ah” or “Oh” but with semantic substance. From the now, she surveys the year that has past, and possibly the year that will come, or else the year in whose midst she writes. “One year” is the measure of time because it is a natural unit of history, but also because it is the count of age, and the book “took a lifetime.”
“Now” is relieved, since writing the book took a lifetime of weeping a deep trickle: the deep trickle itself the words on the page, their typography, bound together by the rhyme of weep and deep, and resolving (as in the last poem) with a dwindling of “trickle,” anti-climactic in cadence as well as in meaning: what could a deep trickle be? Profound? That would, to return to the point in the poem whence I jumped, make sense of “plumbing” which refers to the movement of the trickle, through the plumbing of the book, but also to submerged exploration, as in “plumb the depths.” That requires a plumb-line: for Niedecker’s poetry the plumb-line is the line of verse, her short lines capable of going deep, trickling out through line-breaks over the page. If the subject of “plumbing” is book, then she is exhausted and exhilarated by both the release of the book and also what the book does, actively, living with each reading as a work of literature, continually “plumbing” her lifetime, or something else, which she does not say. It might also suggest, in the background, plunging sales, in which case we could hear the dash as replacing a phrase like “[and all that after it] took a lifetime to weep,” uttered in resignation or mild irritation, or even more profound sadness—or else we could think this a cause for finally weeping, but not too much.
Of course, the subject of “plumbing” might not be book at all; it might be that she spent that year plumbing and searching, that when she announces that it took a lifetime to weep, she refers both to the book and to her own sudden access to her sadness. But it is no good to ignore the chief meaning of “plumbing”: “Now in one year, I have both published a book and [perhaps with the sales] installed indoor plumbing—it took a lifetime, and now in joy at having done all of that I will weep a deep trickle” or else “installed indoor plumbing—it took a lifetime to weep; a deep trickle,” with the last phrase standing as a sort of imagistic contrast, the trickle of plumbing similar to, but not the same as, the weeping. Or else, near to the first, “installed indoor plumbing—to get it took me a lifetime in order to weep a deep enough trickle of feeling to publish the book and install it.” Or: “installed indoor plumbing—it took a lifetime; and now, to weep a deep trickle” with both trickle of urine and of tears in mind.
The trickle of tears are deep because the sadness is real and profound; the trickle of urine is deep because the plumbing passes the urine to greater depths than before. It might be thought absurd to suggest that she is implying she weeps a trickle of pee, but it is a sort of humor that I think belongs in her poetry: the very real relief at having achieved some success coinciding with the relief of urination, a relief so great as to feel like weeping; why can “weep” not be a metaphor in this way? It would not lower the dignity of tears, so many of which are false, but would instead acknowledge the dignity of the needs of life, the real goodness of plumbing, which also seems like something Niedecker would do. The clearest objection to a trickle of urine lies in the force of expulsion: “trickle” is so meager, and even suggests an unhealthy viscosity. But that is only to admit a simultaneous comedic and pathetic bathos into the image: and after a lifetime seeking relief, only a trickle. It could also be that the trickle is not the urine as it passes from the body, but as it runs along the depths of the plumbing works.
There is another sense of “plumbing” in play: she might refer to plumbing as something accomplished separately from the book, so that it is not the book that is doing the plumbing, but she might still mean something inward, so that it is “inner plumbing” as well as “indoors plumbing.”( I would like, of course, to think she means both). The accomplishment of having sorted out the inner plumbing of her feelings, in the same year as her book, allows her to weep the deep trickle. If you put all of the possibilities together, the result is quite complex to summarize but they easily co-exist and reinforce: the book is a form of weeping that took a lifetime, so is the inner plumbing of her feelings that might be a consequence of the book, or else might be the work done by the book, and the very the lines of the book, with the various senses of plumbing, and the plumbing might also be material success, a household necessity achieved after a lifetime, a cause for weeping, in both urine and tears. “Plumbing,” though, cannot help but suggest the toilet and the relief is heard in the onset of “now,” the poem itself running its course like a stream of urinary excretion. Not quite the excremental imagination, but poetry as both waste and necessity.