I got super excited today because I forgot it was January: I thought, for a moment, that the date was 11/12/13. (And yes, I know everyone in the rest of the world reverses the date; pardon my Americana.) Numerically interesting dates, ages, and the like always tickle me a bit, so when I remembered that it was actually 1/12/13, I was kind of disappointed. But then I remembered that it was a Saturday, and a fine morning, and I had many exceptional things to do. One of which is: this post! As mentioned before, if people are interested in having a poem critiqued, please comment/email me and I will pop it into the box. (The box is far from full right now, so I hope you’ll send things in!) Today, though, we have the honor of introducing:
“When She Was Venus” by Barbara Young
Barbara is one of the first people I met in the Internet poetry sphere, way back during the 2009 April poetry challenge at Poetic Asides. Her poetry immediately stood out for its unique range of voices and her penchant for finding these images that have a dreamlike specificity. Check out her poem 24, nominated for a Pushcart prize, for (what I think is) one of the best examples of her work. And then, we’re going to pick apart what she sent (which, by the way, I’m grateful she trusts me enough to handle):
When She Was Venus
Thoughts reside inside other thoughts. Sometimes.
And memories, in memories. Both set up house in women.
Nesting dolls, hollowed from souvenirs, or ivory. One day,
the woman was in the next room between doing one unremarkable
thing and the next, when an old movie began to sing to her. “Speak low,”
sang the television in the den, “when you speak love” and
she was on a beach between a bonfire and the moon,
barefoot in the cooling sand, a dancer, a dancer.
A dancer with her back to the partner who lifted
her just as a wave lifts foam; or a fire, its light. How
could she have forgotten that? She smiled. And later
that day, suddenly, smiled again. And the next.
As I did before, I’ll do three things I thought didn’t work, three things that did, and some assorted things afterward. Whether you (or Barbara) choose to take them to heart is up to you (and her)!
- I think the theme could be more clearly stated, since I can tell there’s something under the surface, but as a reader, I keep feeling I’m not quite getting it. The immediate thought I had seeing that nesting dolls line was that the goddess of love is a concept that is embodied by a woman in a given time and place, which is a beautiful take on the subject: but then the “thoughts” and “memories” reference threw me off (is it them that are embodied, not Venus?), and the sudden transitions between sections (embodiment – old movie – dancing on a beach) left me wondering if I was missing another point entirely. It’s okay to be mysterious and cryptic in your poem, I do it all the time, but if the particular idea doesn’t across to the reader, the poem won’t stick in their brain. It’s good to have someone read through a piece and tell you what they thought it was about (but not what it “means”), and then reconsider both the themes you had in mind and how they are stated.
- Related to that is the notion of how to get the themes to be more fully expressed; for this particular poem, I would like to see more exposition. I really wanted to see that nesting dolls idea expanded, and the sudden transition was a bit jarring. Then, I wanted to know more about the old movie, and we were tugged sideways again. All three segments are essential to the full body of the poem, moving from thoughtful to miraculous to fantasy in (what I took to be) the idea of “being Venus”, and they could benefit from another line or two each, to more strongly develop their connection to the theme and to ease the transitions. As a result, the structure might have to change a bit: if I were to set up the skeleton of the poem, I would probably do it in couplets or tercets, with fewer periods to separate the thoughts. (That’s how I usually write, though, and you should punctuate as you want.) Ask questions about the stories you tell: what is the significance of “sometimes”? why did that old movie trigger that memory/fantasy? which one was it, and why should she have not forgotten? And the answers to all of these should tie back, once again, to the theme.
- One thing I always look for in a poem is specificity, which this poem has several opportunities to take advantage of. “Nesting dolls” and “ivory” are good, but then I want to know which thoughts and memories, which old movie was on the television, what kind of dance the woman was doing, what unremarkable thing she was doing, etc. You don’t have to get into fine detail with every single noun and verb in the poem, but keeping them all rather general trades vibrancy for universality very unevenly. I like that the TV “sang”: in addition to the context that I wanted to see above, was it Grace Kelly with the volume down? I like the beach moment: was it Pensacola in February? Details also are a good place to sneak in cryptic bits without making the whole poem do the job of veiling carefully the ideas.
And to balance that:
- As I mentioned above, if I was right about what I believe to be the theme, I found it utterly charming: this notion of a woman taking on the persona of Venus, using this very particular arrangement of images and moments. I felt like I was opening a tiny chocolate box, with carefully selected things placed just so: the nesting dolls, the rooms in the house, the old movie, the beach under the moonlight. (Also, I am a sucker for the post/modernist mythological stuff.) There is great potential in the topic, much more than only one poem could capture; so I say, why limit oneself in any given poem? You won’t exhaust the topic, so you might as well blossom as much as it can without getting overly weighty.
- There is a dreaminess to the poem that gives it a great mood, from which one can infer a lot about the character of the woman, in only a few short lines: this is the hallmark of a good character sketch. My impression is that she’s a homebody (retired dancer, perhaps?) who is sometimes unhappy with her lot (her marriage? her accomplishments?) and needs sometimes to retreat into those memories and fantasies of her youth to know that she has done more/been more/is more than she might think. And I might have completely misread Barbara’s intention, but a poem like this changes shape for different readers, resonates in different ways. The mood/tone of a poem does not need to be spelled out: if you are writing a sad poem, never use the word “sad”, but say “tears”, “silence”, “huddled under the covers with the lights out”. The word “wistful” doesn’t appear here, and that’s the word I’d choose to describe it; instead, we have numerous other things to draw from.
- The personification, metaphor, and simile in this were well done. Respectively, this would be the old TV singing, the nesting dolls, and the wave/fire comparisons near the end. I like when poets handle all three of these poetic toolbox essentials with grace, deftly and easily, intertwining them without missing a beat. The dancer being lifted by a partner she can’t see like the foam on a wave is probably my favorite. And also, it makes for a subtle mythological allusion to Venus herself (from the foam), which might have been intentional, might have not. Similes are hard to pull off, but when done well, they kick hard.
Other thoughts summoned up by another reading (the fifth, I think):
- The ending is superb, in my opinion…
- …except I think it could be structured differently. But that’s probably tied in to wanting to see a few breaks in the poetic flow.
- I keep coming back to the transition from TV to beach, because it really is jarring to me. The first transition isn’t as surprising, but the mid-sentence turn really throws me.
- That repetition of “a dancer” is hypnotic, like falling into a memory, or perhaps taking on an aspect of the goddess. I thought this was a smart move.
- I did think the opening line could use some tweaking. Whether by introducing the woman (with a simple pronoun: “thoughts reside inside her thoughts” or something) or making “sometimes” part of the initial sentence to avoid choppiness… it doesn’t grip the way the end does.
I hope that this critique has not been too harsh! Barbara, if you’re reading: please have a look at these suggestions and let us know if you intend to take any/some/all of them. (I suggest letting us know by posting an updated draft.) And for everyone else, focus more on getting some word-specificity and more visible connections between images/themes, standing on that as a foundation to set the tone of your poem, create a unique palette of beauty, and further strengthen the communication of your idea. (You are welcome to share too.) Once again, the doors are open for you to submit something of your own, and I will pick it apart like a bit of twine. Til next time…!