Mark Cunningham


It seems to me any time you use "I" in a poem, you're using/presenting a persona. Since you can present a limited angle in any one sentence or piece, no matter how long, the "I," even if it is supposed to be the "real you," is only a fragment foregrounded, an invention. Thus, to write in another person's persona does not seem to me to be that big a leap from writing about "yourself," whatever that may be. This said, I think a persona poem should be in some way a critical look at the subject--critical in the sense of foregrounding explicitly some element of the person's life, personality, work, whatever, acknowledging that your piece is not the "complete" person, but an important element or part of that person: in other words, you have a thesis, an argument you're putting forward: consider this view of the person. My piece on Emerson does not pretend to deal with all of Emerson's life, or present a balanced view of him; rather, it presents one view/interpretation of an experience from relatively late in his life.




Ralph Waldo Emerson in Mammoth Cave


When the guide dimmed our lamps, the night sky
kindled above us, stuffed with stars. I knew I saw
only crystal-shine far beneath Kentucky earth,
but had I woke here, I would have thought

I'd slept on a hillside on a clear October night.
As so of ten of late, my senses told me one thing,
my mind another. Once, I believed that the self
was clear, a transparent eye allowing experience

to pass through without break or distortion.
Then I realized the world had no center:
the eye may be a first circle, the horizon a second,
but all around me others broke and dissolved

the way a downpour scatters patter across a pond's
surface. Thoreau said, "Stir in a clear stream long
enough and you'll make it murky." So I took the lamp
and entered the hole and crossed the streams Lethe

and Styx and watched the coals of the world burn.
Perhaps I contributed a part to the radiance.
Perhaps the fires within and without
are continuous still, banked at this late day

but glimmering, stirred still by breath or breeze—
the flames shifted—surely they were flames—
yet no warmth broke from me to stone or from stone
to me. I had already become transparent darkness.



Mark Cunningham lives in Virginia.  Poems are in recent or forthcoming issues of BlazeVox's, Practice, and Parcel.  He has two books appearing soon:  80 Beetles (Otoliths) and, around November, Body Language from Tarpaulin Sky Press, which will include two collections, one titled Body (on parts of the body) and one titled Primer (on numbers and letters).