The Poet's Perspective: 'Solar' begins laureate's weekly video series

August 23, 2010

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.

Below, "Solar" is the first in a weekly video series 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.

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I think of this poem as my love song to the high desert of New Mexico. In the poem, I personify the desert as a woman and create a relationship between the speaker and her "companion." The details of weather, landscape, plants and animals derive from my study of natural and social history. The tensions in this relationship prove productive, as the desert is a great teacher.

Question to consider: If you were to personify a landscape as a beloved teacher, what landscape would you choose? What qualities would you examine or celebrate?


The desert is butch, she dismisses your illusions
about what you might do to make your life
work better, she stares you down and doesn't say
a word bout your past. She brings you a thousand days,
a thousand suns effortlessly each morning rising.
She lets you think what you want all afternoon.
Rain walks across her mesa, red-tailed hawks
write in fields of air, she lets you look at her.
She laughs at your study habits, your orderly house,
your need to name her "vainest woman you've ever met."
Then she turns you toward the voluptuous valleys,
she gives you dreams of green forests,
she doesn't care who else you love.
She sings in the grass, the sagebrush, the small trees
struggling and the tiny lizards scrambling
up the walls. You find her when you're ready
in the barbed wire and fence posts, on the scrub where you walk
with your parched story, where she walks, spendthrift,
tossing up sunflowers, throwing her indifferent
shadow across the mountain. Haven't you guesses?
She's the loneliest woman alive but that's her gift;
she makes you love your own loneliness,
the gates to darkness and memory. She is your best, indifferent
teacher, she knows you don't mean what you say.
She flings aside your technical equipment,
she requires you to survive in her high country
like the patient sheep and cattle who graze and take her
into their bodies. She says lightning, and
get used to it. Her storms are great moments
in the history of American weather, her rain remakes the world,
while your emotional life is run-off from a tin roof.
Like the painted clown at Picuris Pueblo
who started up the pole and then dropped into the crowd,
anonymous, she paws the ground, she gallops past.
What can you trust? This opening, this returning,
this arroyo, this struck gong inside your chest?
She wants you to stay open like the hibiscus
that opens its orange petals for a single day.
At night, a fool, you stand on the chilly mesa,
split open like the great cleft of the Rio Grande Gorge,
trying to catch a glimpse of her, your new, long-term companion.
She gives you a sliver of moon, howl of a distant dog,
windy premonition of winter.

"Solar" is from All-American Girl, by Robin Becker, © 1996. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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Robin Becker will visit several Penn State Commonwealth Campuses this fall; view her schedule of appearances at online. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss each poem, including "Solar," visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • Click on the title image above to watch Penn State Laureate Robin Becker recite 'Solar,' the first poem in her weekly video series.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010