One of America’s finest twentieth century poets, Amy Clampitt left an oeuvre that has much of what John Keats held was essential in excellent art: “momentous depth of speculation.” Conveying the intensity of her speculative powers, “A Procession at Candlemas” examines how “such a loathing” of the mother through human history spawned the title’s Christian feast on February second, a “Mosaic insult” in which “even a virgin, / having given birth, needs purifying.” “Nudged from their stanchions / outside the terminal, anonymous of purpose” in an elegy that believes God “might actually need a mother,” a caravan of lives transfigures the act of travelling into a funeral cortege for the lost knowledge of our common maternal origin. The discordant piling-up of run-on clauses pores over more than three millenia of erroneous mythologizing, even the goddess Athene having no mother, “born—it’s declared— / of some man’s brain like every other pure idea.” Severed from the memory of our maternal primogenitor, we wander like nomads from a mysterious death (birth, the “rest-in-peace of the placental coracle”) to a mysterious birth (death, where “birds re-enter the ancestral flyway”). In between we drift like an “entity that cannot look into itself and know / what makes it what it is.”
Journeying “through a Stonehenge / of fuel pumps” at highway gas stations where “jellies glitter / cream-capped in the cafeteria showcase,” the “self’s imponderable substance” compels us to create objects and surround ourselves with them only to confirm we do in fact exist: “What is real except / what’s fabricated?” The elegy plumbs this question simply by recording the minutiae of every junction at which it stops on its voyage from one “nowhere oasis” to the next. Memory, “that exquisite blunderer,” like a “migrant bird that finds the flyway / it hardly knew it knew except by instinct,” leads us “down the long-unentered nave of childhood.” As we travel inexorably toward death, we circle back to our birth.
Unrhymed tercets, overflowing and spilling into one another, structure the poem’s procession from conception in the womb, through a life of mothers “living / unthanked, unpaid but in the sour coin / of resentment,” to a retracing of the “lost connection” between mother and child. Often gnarled diction and syntax brood over the blunders of history reified in the masculine elegy, spurning its role of consolation for death. Instead “A Procession at Candlemas” mourns the “hampered obscurity that has been / for centuries the mumbling lot of women.” The ending accelerates a recovery of the “ancestral flyway” back to the “placental coracle” of the ur-mother. Purified and dying, we plunge into the
nucleus of fire, the lost connection
hallowing the wizened effigy, the mother
curtained in Intensive Care: a Candlemas
of moving lights along route 80, at nightfall,
in falling snow, the stillness and the sorrow
of things moving back to where they came from.