Working Through The Maze

IF the simplest experiences and the most profound are two different paths, then poetry stands at their intersection. Poets perfect the most primitive drives - to speak and to explore; they are constantly on the verge of discovery.

Perhaps that's why it's so appropriate that Amy Clampitt's new book, ``A Silence Opens,'' contains a poem called ``Discovery.'' The poem makes connections between sea and sky, manatees and astronauts, past and present. On the surface, it's a recounting of specific explorations at a specific time, but more than that, it's a record of how poets work their way through any mazes they may encounter.

The process often begins with a simple observation or question. In this poem, the starting point is a pod of manatees, which the speaker describes as ``lolling, jacketed, elephantine.'' The poet might not have realized why she chose those words at first, but the second adjective serves as a foundation for the rest of the poem. Without it, there can be no transformation and no understanding. But the rightness of the word - felt by both writer and reader - is all that matters at this point in the journey.

The next few steps might seem to be unnecessary diversions. A reader could ask why Clampitt mentions that manatees were once thought to be mermaids or that Disney World is not far away. Interesting tidbits, yes, but what do they contribute other than richness of detail?

The answer is that you must continue reading. Poet and audience both must trust the creative process to reveal itself little by little. Clampitt gives just enough information when it's needed - and you know you're on the right track because the process is so satisfying. She is much like a researcher gathering data from previous studies.

A breakthrough comes about two-thirds of the way through the poem, when the shuttle Discovery releases itself ``jacket by jacket'' as it breaks its bonds with the earth. Suddenly the connections are becoming clearer: The speaker has realized that the humans and the manatees share a similar quest - and that each group's success depends on its ability to become more like the other.

But as with any worthwhile exploration, the steps leading up to the discovery pale in comparison with the end product. The poem's last stanza is breathtaking for its insight and depth. The manatees have left behind some of their awkwardness and are moving toward new understanding. The poet, too, has grown in her ability to see continuity in the natural world and to reexamine the nature of myth and reality.

And therein lies the payoff. The speaker is no longer the same person she was when she started. Every detail in the poem is elevated because of the understanding she has come to - and the maze through which the poem seemed to be moving is now recognized as an inevitable, necessary path.

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