Monday, March 1, 2010

Polar Knight’s Salon: Kat Mortensen’s "Lament of the Fiddleheads"

There are days when I do nothing at all. When I let myself wander through the polar night, or just curl up along the satisfying curve of a frozen drift and feel the curve of every leaf, every petal, every plum that ever was. When a single snow-crystal makes a lens into eons of springtimes… splendorous, that’s the word.

It was this kind of day when a tundra mycelium that I had never noticed before started speaking to me. (Note from Bink: Mycelium is: the underground mass of tiny branching threads that produce mushrooms; it can be thousands of acres in size, or the size of a fairy ring of mushrooms.)

This particular polar fairy ring contained one mushroom I knew as "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti, whose name resounds in the tundra underground! Then I noticed that the interconnected underground threads of this mycelium had mushroomed also into "Childhood and Interruption" by Stevie Smith and Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. And there in the circle stood Lament of the Fiddleheads by Kat Mortensen - winking at me in friendly amusement. (I just noticed the “muse” in “amusement”...)

Poetikat, as many bloggers know, adventures in the land of rhyme and meter, taking humor, philosophy, and dramatic narrative in her stride. All these meet intoxicatingly in "Lament of the Fiddleheads" - one of those mysterious elixirs whose recipe can never be codified but only experienced – as a forest complete in itself, a dirge with comic moments, questions that catch you by surprise with their sudden depth: “Who has us in peril? Who is our true foe?” These spring as naturally from the language of the poem as the comically human moments: “…our sharp-shooting rival – Asparagus!”

Probably everyone remembers some moment of awe in a forest – when it seemed to speak and you were filled with silence, when a gaze into branches or down the vista of a path or following the determined doings of a beetle became infused with more stories than you could put words to. Poetikat’s evocation of such a moment is remarkarble – splendorous!

When I first read Kat’s Lament of the Fiddlehead, it took me into a very particular landscape I associate with Christina’s "Goblin Market"; this made a great deal of sense as I thought more about it – Christina uses the kind of simplicity and strong meter often associated with children’s poetry to create a landscape that is as untamed as our own imaginations once were. It’s a landscape we might remember in fragments, but never completely.

“One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry-scurry.
Lizzie heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.”

The poem with its splendorously playful rhyme and meter (Christina wrote children’s verse too) tells a serious story of temptation and near-death, and the redemptive necessity of sisterly love.

What these poets do for me is reconnect the serious “play” of imagination known mostly by my childhood self with my other selves – the adult perspective that is humor and a different kind of knowledge of the world. Stevie Smith also uses the meter and rhyme of lullabyes, nursery rhymes, hymns, to embody descriptions of intense loss, betrayal, isolation – she often includes (a rather sharp-edged) humor in the mix as well:

“…And underneath the pram cover lies my brother Jake
He is not old enough yet to be properly awake
He is alone in his sleep; no arrangement they make
For him can touch him at all, he is alone,
For a little while yet, it is as if he had not been born
Rest in infancy, brother Jake; childhood and interruption come swiftly on.”

Beatrix Potter is usually thought of as a children’s author, though she herself considered her work as literature worthy of standing among the “great” – and I agree with her. The way she combines the imagination that can place meticulously dressed animals in human scenes acting out the most profound existential themes (and humor!) comes over me periodically with a kind of electric jolt. I think my favorite character of hers is the hedgehog version of John the Baptist – the washerwoman Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle who appears to a young girl and then vanishes as mysteriously. Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle collects the outer coverings of many animals (including Peter Rabbit and other characters in Potter’s stories) and washes them clean – the feet of Sally Henny-penny, the white fronts of Tom Titmouse, and the skins of the little lambs. When the girl marvels that the skins of lambs can be removed and washed and even replaced, each to its proper lamb, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle tells her “Oh yes… they’re always marked at washing!”

It has been Polar Knight’s great pleasure to discover Kat Mortensen’s work and to pull Monster E. along into the poetic adventure that is reading! Kat has given us here at P-in-B new insight into poets long beloved – and on-going delight in reading Poetikat’s own evolving work. Kat has announced that she is putting a book together for publication and we are all looking forward to this with serious excitement. Thanks Kat!

Mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns by Beatrix Potter
Illustration for "Goblin Market" by D.G. Rossetti
Stevie Smith's illustration for "Childhood and Interruption"
Beatrix Potter's illustration, "Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Wink"


  1. Excellent post. I'm heading over to read Kat's Lament of the Fiddleheads...

  2. My gratitude for your appreciation of and support of this piece of mine and my work in general, is hard to articulate. It transcends the earthly and emanates through the cosmos on a spiritual quest to your mind and heart. (You'll get that, I know.)
    Thank you.


  3. A beautiful post to go along with some truly beautiful writing.

    I love how you understand that childhood and the imagination of the child is not something to be dismissed as nothing of consequence (and you point out writers who get that too, to wonderful effect).

    And from your words, I found these to be especially exquisite:
    or just curl up along the satisfying curve of a frozen drift and feel the curve of every leaf, every petal, every plum that ever was.

  4. Dear Willow,
    thanks so much! And I think you'll really appreciate Kat's poem. A number of my friends have enjoyed it very much.

    Dear Kat,
    I do get that, and how beautifully put. I think a dynamic relationship between writers who are inspired by each other is one of the greatest adventures we can know - in ways that are literary, spiritual, and personal meaning cosmic!

    Dear HKatz,
    I'm really happy you enjoyed the connections to childhood experience and imagination- more and more, it seems to me these days, this is such an inappropriately marginalized part of our humanity - and there's so much to be learned through re-encountering it in oneself or (as I am currently discovering in teaching music improvization to small groups of children) in the current inhabitants of that region.

    I've really been enjoying your blog and the weeks in seven words. I love how you write.

  5. kat is one of my favs...she is the one that got me started writing poetry...was fun to see your work through her eyes.

  6. Dear Brian,
    that's cool to hear you were inspired by Kat to write poetry - she has inspired me as well.

  7. I agree, Kat is a delight! Thank you for the shout out for her & her poetry, it is much deserved!

  8. Dear Terresa,
    glad you stopped by! I've only recently started blogging and I really enjoy the community of writers and readers online.