Recommended Reading: “The Kingfisher” and The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt

IThe Kingfisher on the couch picked up Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher at a used bookstore in Central Square sometime in January. It’s a gorgeous book in more ways than one; originally published in 1983, my copy is from the eighth printing in 1989, and it’s pristine. Heavy, unyellowed paper, gorgeous design. Well done, Knopf.

I came to the book knowing nothing about Amy Clampitt, but it was an utterly delectable reading experience; Clampitt’s facility with aural language reminded me of the fun I had reading Hailey Leithauser’s Swoop last year. (More on the language in a moment.)

As I read, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard more about this wonderful poet, and once I did a bit of research, I started to see why: born in 1920, Amy Clampitt died in 1994. The Kingfisher was her first major book, and remains her most famous.

My favorite poems in the book are those that appear first, largely set along the rocky Maine coastline (of which I am quite fond), but all six of the book’s wide-ranging sections are spectacular. The poems are erudite without being condescending (the poet provides notes after the text), controlled but bursting with language’s multitudinous possibilities. In these pages whales are “basking reservoirs of fuel” (116) and a poem about the Dakota hotel finds the speaker telling us “Grief / is original, but it / repeats itself: there’s nothing / more original it can do.”

Here are some lines from “The Cove”:

Where at low tide the rocks, like the
back of an old sheepdog or spaniel, are
rugg’d with wet seaweed, the cove
embays a pavement of ocean, at times
wrinkling like tinfoil, at others
all isinglass flakes, or sun-pounded
gritty glitter of mica; or hanging
intact, a curtain wall just frescoed
indigo, so immense a hue, a blue
of such majesty it can’t be looked at,
at whose apex there pulses, even
in daylight, a lighthouse, lightpierced
like a needle’s eye.

Stunning, yes?

The only other writer I’ve come across in the last half decade with Amy Clampitt’s command of English vocabulary is A.S. Byatt (who, by the way, Clampitt mentions in this fascinating interview with the Paris Review, which I highly recommend; unsurprisingly, she had great taste in poetry and fiction—she names Alice Munro as her favorite contemporary fiction writer 20 years before Ms. Munro won the Nobel). If (and I hope when) you pick up The Kingfisher, you’ll want a dictionary close at hand for words like these:

  • repoussé
  • pannicled
  • plissé
  • chrysoprase
  • grisaille
  • bizarrerie
  • catalpa
  • peplos
  • aconite
  • sozzled
  • gasconades
  • traghetto
  • curveting
  • loess
  • clepsydra
  • maguey

I could go on. At length.

I was enchanted by The Kingfisheryou can read the title poem here—and I hope you’ll let me know if you read it so we can compare notes, and maybe word lists.

8 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: “The Kingfisher” and The Kingfisher, by Amy Clampitt

  1. I am often astounded by the number of words I still have never come across in the English language. I am glad that you found such a treasure. What would the world be without treasure troves like used book stores?

  2. I can’t pretend to understand the poem yet, but I do like all the fowl language. ‘”the poetry is gone,” she quailed’ and “down on down, the uninhabitable sorrow.” What a fun used book find.

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