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A Poem with the Word “Chrysalis” in it

UD returned to her Garrett Park garden from a week at the beach to discover, on a long curved strand of one of her grasses, the white husk left by a dethroned monarch. A facsimile is on the far right of this image; and

though UD missed the moment when the butterfly twisted out of it and flew off, she felt privileged anyway to have seen in the first season of her garden the beginnings of this metamorphosis, the eggs and caterpillars and pupa, and then to have collected yesterday and held up to the light the thin discarded shell.

She found a very good poem with the word chrysalis in it; in the first line! It’s by John Unterecker. Title: …Within, Into, Inside, Under, Within…

UD will interrupt each of its five parts (each word of its five-word title corresponds to a form of movement in each part) to comment in brackets.


Beginnings: a chrysalis improvisation
in the wings, roles
taking on flesh before a role begins…

as light begins in the elm,
pushing the long elm branches into night,
a ghost light pressing sky…

or actors, swollen with strange selves,
distended to the edges of tight skin,
a brightness under moth-wing fingertips.

White arms stretch out toward truth.
The stage is full of light.
Your brightness gloves my skin.

[Soooo – Here you have a poet considering the mysterious elasticity of identity — in particular, the way an actor can become, can embody, an entirely other identity from her own. A bizarre human metamorphosis, getting inside another skin, goes on, and no one, including the actor, has much of an idea how it’s accomplished. She waits in the wing (wonderful pun!), improvising this new role before she even steps on the stage to perform it. And it’s like – how does the tree become rooted and become a tree and grow into a full-bodied elm under the influence of the sun? How does that start, that ghost light casting existence on something that’s still nothing? … Grappling here, in other words, with nothing less than the mystery of creation as well as the mystery of multiple identities — the question of why and how there’s something rather than nothing, how a ghost takes from the light in some way and stops being a ghost and assumes not merely existence, but several forms and attributes of existence.

How? Haven’t a ghost of an idea. As in a more famous formulation of this problem —

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

(Unterecker wrote a guide to Yeats.)

But – yes – we do have a ghost of an idea, which somehow in Unterecker’s poem successfully becomes a fully formed idea. This poem has an idea. An idea which, as the poem proceeds, branches out like an enormous elm.

In embodying that new role, that new identity, the actor conveys to the audience the mystery and excitement and illumination of being and becoming: Your brightness gloves my skin.]


Alice, grown huge, swollen to fit of the tunnels,
tiny, unable to reach a gold key,
knew what gardens were for—

yet never knelt in tunnels of rough sunlight
to will flamboyance from green buds.
The swollen poppy twists within its cap,

a pink invention wrestling light.
How often I think of tunneling roots,
curtains of roots, white ropes

that stroked our hair when we entered tunnels.
Here, we are rubbed on gold.
This wedge of pink beginnings troubles gardens.

[Well, he would think of Alice, wouldn’t he? Her surreal metamorphoses in wonderland amplify in vivid dream the dreams of all of us — to be human is to sleep and watch oneself in dream contort to the dimensions of various spectral tunnels and rooms and lakes and caves and bridges. A reassuring exercise, perhaps, in the business of possibility, enterprise, strategy, reincarnation, foxiness. Alice understands that gardens stage the impossible overabundance of being, and she floats around in them throughout the adventures; the poet, however, is a material, sublunary sort who gets his knees dirty as he plants pink poppy seeds in a mood of desperate hope that these lowly tiny dark nothings will somehow morph into flamboyant color, insanely infused being. Let’s make this happen, people!

And now a tendril of Roethke appears as the poet goes deeper, recalling the creepy/delightful feel of dangling roots against your skin in the dark, in tunnels (UD, a snorkeler, thinks of the skin-crawling/fantastic feel of seagrass) — all that dark life suddenly welling up out of the dark and fingering you.]


A robin listens to darkness.
I think of worms, grubs, moles,
the slow ballet of rootlets twisting down,

of cave fish, blacksnakes,
and, asleep at Nieux, the great black bulls
that thunder on dark walls.

When we wear another self,
do our souls darken? On a bright stage,
do we enter darkest places?

[Robins feed by listening for worms underground; UD watches them do this every day. So an expansion of the poet’s theme – life lurks, crawls, twists, unaccountably begins, in darkness, and we listen for it. A beautiful line occurs in this part of the poem:

the slow ballet of rootlets twisting down

All those L‘s – their gentle insinuating liquidity – somehow enact the strange grace (ballet) of organic processes… Yet the poet is after not merely passive, natural, coming to life; the reference to ballet reminds us that he’s keeping going at the same time a meditation on art as the active, deliberate, human instance of this earthy alchemy. Think of the palaeolithic caves at Niaux (the poet has incorrectly rendered the town Nieux). You can burrow down there and think you’re simply getting deeper into the earth; but we’ve taken our animating and transformative energies even there, and made of dead walls immortal, thundering art.

So is the actor who assumes new being in fact consorting with – listening like the robin to – these deeply rooted, mysterious, even insidious places? The question, for those who think about the incomparable, enigmatic, transformative power of art, welling up from our depths, answers itself.]


There is darkness clinging to the undersides of leaves.

For we are entering darkness. It skuffs along cave walls,
stumbling and skuffing fingertips.
At Mycenae, it is a heavy must,
a musty heavy breath in the hundred-step cistern.

They wait, dark passageways in old houses, their worn
silence frayed under a blur
of footsteps. Our stretched-out hands
manipulate evasive cellar shadows.

Within the garden, silence darkens windblown leaves.

[The eggs of the butterfly cling to the undersides of leaves. We can’t see them, they rest in darkness, but they live a vivid life in that shade. So too the long-resting-in-darkness ruins at Mycenae, whose deep cistern the poet visits, thinking as he moves along its walls of all the life – the generations of human breath – hidden in it. See here, also, this poem; and this one.]


Oh I think of Alice gone down, down
under groundcover dreams,
a man’s tunneled night.

Who are these actors? On dream stages, I forget
lines. My tongue-tied
silence foundering…     Stage props
mumble rigidities.        The audience…

I think of silences at Nieux,
at Mycenae, the tourists
gone, guides returned
to wives, houses….

And those silences of capricious light.
The calex splits, an abrupt pink flame.
Orpheus’ torch descends and still descends through
    arias of reddest blossom.

[And how does the poet conclude? He brings all his images and allusions together (Alice, dream, theater, ancient caves with paintings of bulls in them, the Mycenae cistern, the poppy) and gets personal, takes us into his own not at all Carrollian dreamlife, where his all-too-human, pre-aesthetic reality is just a blurry mess: Who are these people I’m seeing in this dream? What was I supposed to say in this dream? Why are the objects around me silent and dead rather than expressive and figurative?

Hopeless. Niaux and Mycenae, left to themselves alone, are also silent…

Yet even abandoned by tourists and guides, they breathe the bright aura of all those artists and audiences along the walls; the dark poppy’s calyx suddenly falls off and out flashes bright pink… And yes, art is the torch that takes us down there, Orpheus in the underworld scoping out amid the dreadful chaos high-builded arias.]

Margaret Soltan, September 20, 2020 6:00AM
Posted in: poem

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