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Poem of the week: Present Tense by Michael Schmidt

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Recalling Donne's sermon on Job 19:26, with a bit of Ovidian metamorphosis thrown in, this modern meditation on memory and resurrection shifts between past, present and future

Resurrection takes various forms in this week's poem, Present Tense, from Stories of My Life by Michael Schmidt. In the opening lines, it's an organic recycling, begun by worms and helped by the digestive processes of other small industrious creatures. The geographical dimension of bodily decomposition ("north and south") recalls John Donne's sermon on Job 19:26: "Shall I imagine a difficulty in my body because I have lost an Arme in the East and a leg in the West some bloud in the North and some bones in the South?" But here there's nothing distressed or macabre in this. A calmly regular trimeter pulse helps the process seem natural and benign, while the verb "travels" lets light into underground darkness. As for Donne, the bodily dispersal complicates, but in no way cancels, the promise of personal resurrection: "Christ will have to raise/ An entire field "

There's also an Ovidian kind of metamorphosis that is central to the poem. The literalised concept of resurrection on judgment day ("an entire field") leads to the older, pagan image of woman as tree ("like Laura"). When Daphne was changed into a laurel tree in Metamorphosis, her first awareness began with finding "her feet benumb'd and fastened to the ground." So the woman in Schmidt's poem will "stand/ On trunks for feet and pray/ Like Laura turned to tree/ With bough and bloom " The simile: "like Laura," leads, of course, to Petrarch, Number 23 of the Canzoniere, as well as to Ovid. At Apollo's decree, laurel provided the wreath for acclaimed poets and military victors. Is either profession significant to the old man?

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