The Poet's Perspective: 'Understory' reflects exotic travel memories

April 18, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Understory," Becker reflects surprising sensory memories from a trip within the poem's pacing and language.

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The poem emerged from the tangle of images and sounds I discovered in Costa Rica's rain forests. Creatures and plants with adaptive camouflage caught me, repeatedly, off guard. Misled by my eyes and ears, I took concealment and trickery as part of the literal and metaphorical landscape. In music, a "deceptive cadence" surprises listeners by refusing to resolve a musical phrase as expected. The two words evoked my experience (of the rain forest and of human failure) and led me to couplets.

Question to consider: Where and when did you feel most like a stranger and what concrete images of that experience come to mind?


I woke to howler monkeys screaming at dawn.
The false-eyed iguana changed from orange to green.

In the raftered lobby, a teal-winged macaw
screeched hello baby and the Jesus

lizard ran across the infinity pool
that met the sky. The deceptive cadence

of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor
rang in the forest that made its own clouds

and thus continually wept. Del Monte pineapples
flanked the road to Tortuguero

where the forbidden Caribbean sparkled
with sharks. In the mangrove, fallen trees turned

into caymen and leaves doubled in size every day
above a chevroned tiger-heron wading in the slough.

I beached the kayak below tiered and pedestaled
trees festooned in droplets, trees studded with pink

epiphytes, their holdfasts strong as barbed wire.
After a brief sortie with bullet ants and poison

frogs, I regrouped at the thatched tiki bar
and added a grey-headed kite to my life

list beneath boa constrictor and sloth.
Seven years together, now we no longer speak.

The rainforest absorbs decay in a lyric.
Like a bird in a mist net, the half-life of betrayal.

"Understory" originally appeared in The American Poetry Review, November/December 2009.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Understory,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated April 25, 2011