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Poets of Franklin County

Honoring mystery

Reading celebrates Ashfield poet’s new book Friday

Ashfield poet Abbot Cutler’s new book, “Say Dance, Say Night,” makes a sturdy 10th addition to the Slate Roof Press list of books by local poets. The collection gathers poems from 12 years of writing, ranging from a poem about Cutler’s experiences in Borneo in the Peace Corps in the late ’60s to recent poems about his father’s passing.

Retired now from 30 years of teaching literature and writing at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Cutler has long kept in touch with other poets. For about 30 years, he has been a regular participant at poet Robert Bly’s “Great Mother & New Father” Conference, now held in Maine. It was through Bly that Cutler met Terry Dobson, a friend whose death prompted the poem “Letter to Terry.”

“Letter to Terry” begins very concretely and proceeds with plain, un-romanticized statements: “Today I miss you./ You and your big belly, the wake-the-dead snore ...” The narrator’s fondness for Terry is clear but there’s no pathos here. At the end, the poem’s simple language opens out into a series of questions that Cutler says some readers have found bewildering.

“People I’ve shown this poem to want to do something to the ending,” Cutler said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, what does “beehive” have to do with it?’”

Cutler says he may have been thinking of an image from a poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. In one of the stanzas of “Last Night as I Lay Sleeping,” the poem’s speaker dreams that, “I had a beehive/ here inside my heart./ And the golden bees/ were making white combs/ and sweet honey/ from my old failures.”

Though he’s happy to explore connections between his poem and Machado’s, Cutler is just as comfortable not knowing why those last lines came to him or what they mean. He doesn’t feel a need to expound on or translate them. He refers to a letter in Poetry magazine that he’s recently read, recalling that the writer of the letter, “said something like, ‘Sometimes we mistake confusion for mystery.’ And I love that! I thought that was right on.

“Mystery in a poem is wonderful. That’s why we go back and read them again and again because we’re not sure: ‘What is going on?’ But that’s very different from confusion.”

Some poems “don’t have a door into them,” Cutler said. Sometimes a poet’s “deftness with words,” as Cutler put it, can hold a reader out of a poem. “And that’s confusion. Mystery is another thing. For me, that beehive at the end is about mystery. I don’t know why it came in there but it feels right. That’s all I can say.”

Maintaining a sense of mystery was always important to Cutler when he was teaching. He tried to persuade his students to stop approaching poems as if they were crossword puzzles. Instead, he suggested that they read a poem aloud, “Let the poem kind of wash over you and see what it brings up ... This idea of, ‘Well, we’re gonna figure out what everything means in here,’ can kill a poem,” Cutler said.

The idea of honoring mystery applies to Cutler’s writing process as well. He seldom knows what he’s going to write when he sits down, he said. What ended up becoming “Letter to Terry” began in a writing session. “I sat down and I had been thinking about him, so I started where I was.”

Literally where he was: In Maine, in June, on an overcast day.

Setting a poem in a specific place is important to Cutler. Even if the poem never mentions its setting, Cutler believes that the poet needs to know where the poem is located.

“The poems are grounded somewhere,” Cutler said. “Then they can take off.”

And the taking off is what leads to mystery. Again, Cutler quotes from Machado: “The substance of poetry does not lie in the sound value of the word nor in its color, nor in the metric line or the complex of sensations but in the deep pulse of the spirit.”

“I suppose you could say that’s just kind of an excuse to not bother about form,” Cutler says, laughing. “But all he’s saying is that form is one thing but what really matters is whether the soul or the spirit gets into the poem.”

“I think that poems really should ask questions,” Cutler said. “Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, is to figure things out when we write poems?”

Cutler and Slate Roof Press will celebrate the launch of “Say Dance, Say Night,” with a reading Friday, May 10, 7 p.m. at 9 Mill Street in Greenfield. The evening will also feature an exhibit of photographs, “Rowing with Abbot,” by his wife, photographer Sarah Holbrook. Doors open at 5:30. For more information contact: info@SlateRoofPress.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. One of the founders of Slate Roof, Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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