Let this be the official call for Refinery submissions! After this one, the current stack is empty, unless I am just being thick-headed and missed something you asked me to look at for this little feature. And if you believe in groundhogs, there will be an early spring coming along: what better way to celebrate than by poem-revision? (As an aside: last night I took the train home from a party uptown with a couple friends-of-friends I met last night. The one was really drunk, and kept trying to ask about Punxsutawney Phil, but couldn’t get the word out correctly. We were having a mad laugh over everything from “Punky-foxy Flynn” to “Hooked-on-Phonics Bill” and everything in between, most of them too vulgar to post here.)
So, for our Refinery poem this time, we’ve got:
“If I Should Have a Son” by Irene Toh
Irene is another of those poetry blog superstars, who you’ve probably crossed paths with even if you don’t think you have. Another frequent contributor to several prompt sites, she also helps run We Write Poems and provides some of those weekly writing suggestions that it’s so easy to get hooked on. In her poems, I tend to look for specificity and unique uses of language; her metaphors often come out of left field and bop you on the nose with their originality. She writes about (in my impression) family and visionary dreams most often. Here is the one she sent in, which is a good representative of her work:
When someone is filled with longing,
a moth usually flutters to land
on the palm of a pillar, and you think,
has someone died?
When Timmy died, he sent
a dragonfly, with diaphanous wings,
unfazed, seething onto
the hall’s couch. Did he remember
where he used to lay whenever
he visited us, drank his milk
listening to our laughter?
You don’t know me, my son said.
Why, because I thought you’d be better off
doing something else, than us,
and when it is turning out that
you’re no different than us,
that your path would be in words,
not numbers, that just by the smell of
ginseng, you had confirmed its root
soaked in a bottle, uncapped.
And listening to a poet’s spoken
performance this morning,
it dawned on me that your gift
had already blossomed good. All the best
speaker trophies you had brought home
from school, why, I had forgotten.
Your birth, a year later than Timmy’s,
I’d often thought as wrought in destiny.
As if for all of life’s ill uncertainties
you need an aromatic cure:
a parsnip-looking prized root.
A powerful piece, and we want to make sure the theme doesn’t get lost in the mix. I’ll start with a few issues I think Irene ought to address, and then soften the blow with some positive reinforcement. :)
- Matt Groening talks about poets needing a complex and private system of symbols, which is true; I readily admit guilt to doing this. But I don’t think it’s the system of symbols itself that causes friction, because there are several things I want to stay: the dragonfly and moth, the ginseng in a bottle, the parsnip. I don’t need to know exactly what they mean, as long as there is some context to give me a hint. The poem is very mysterious in getting the significance of those items across, though, and I’m left with questions that are valuable, but distract from the raw enjoyment of the piece. I want to know what Timmy’s relation is to the speaker; I want to know (vis-a-vis the title) whether she actually has a son or not (though I’m pretty sure it’s the latter); and I’m not sure what the “path of words” proves, or why the speaker thought her son would be “better off doing something else”. Private significance is completely acceptable, but I want to see the door cracked open a little bit wider, because I’m afraid of interpreting the poem completely wrong.
- What also comes through strongly is the narrative: the speaker has a son, there was another boy named Timmy who died, the speaker is expressing emotions about her son. But again, there are questions I want answered, because the individual elements of the narrative need connective tissue. The transition from the first to the second (and then third) stanza is abrupt, but without a payoff; Timmy comes back briefly at the end, but I’m still not sure what the context of emotions surrounding the son are. Were they best friends, were they cousins, did they look alike and love the same things? There is a sense of disconnection between the speaker and her son; how did it come about, and is there a concrete resolution to those “ill uncertainties”? The poem could use expansion, but I suspect it doesn’t need to be longer; it would suffice to replace a thing or two with a bit more exposition (which can accommodate some more of those beautiful images).
- Therefore, what to replace? As I said, there are numerous excellent moments to keep, but also a couple of things to trim. Looking through the poem, everything I can pick out is extremely delicate, and must be carefully done, like heart surgery. (Some poems, you can cut out lines wholesale, but this isn’t one of them.) That “parsnip-looking prized root” at the end, for example: I want to cut it down to “prized parsnip” (or, if it’s referring to the ginseng “prized (some adjective like knobbly or wizened) root”), and immediately stanch the blood flow with another descriptive word or two. Some of the structure, too: “And listening to a poet’s spoken / performance this morning“, I want to change to something like, “This morning I listened to a poet,” followed by a replacement second line that makes the connection to the dawning comprehension that follows. Language can almost always be pulled more taut, unless you’re doing haiku. Then you have more room to build your poem’s body.
Enough griping! Let’s talk about some of the things that I refuse to allow to change:
- As I’ve alluded to, those images! Love them. The best speaker trophies brought home from school is a nice touch, and the ginseng in the bottle is one that’s going to stick with me long after reading this one. I get a sense of the personality of the son, and it’s paired with a nice sensory image that triggers specific thoughts. The idea of that wizened root (see what I did there? I’m going to keep voting for wizened) as an aromatic cure is touching, and I want to see more of its curative properties in action with some freshly-trimmed space higher up in the poem.The moth/dragonfly pairing; priceless.
- And that first stanza. Those first four lines especially. This poem comes to the party with an immediate presence: a nice motion from the general to the specific and almost surreal, a transition from “someone” to “you”. But it begins conversational, and continues through, changing it from your story to the speaker’s story. I loved “diaphanous” and “unfazed” and “seething”; the sound of the stanza is very rich. It gets a little bit weaker near the end (I think I’d rather see it as a statement rather than a question, since it leaves just the lead-off question at the beginning, making it that much stronger), and there needs to be tightening/connection to the next stanza as I mentioned before, but otherwise: very powerful. It resonates through the rest of the poem.
- I don’t see love in here. This might be a mixed blessing for Irene and her intention, so I’m going to defend my position: to me, this is a poem about acknowledging, confronting, and minimizing the cerebral aspects of having a child. This is not a poem about the speaker’s love for her son. We have information about this other figure who died, Timmy (unless — see below — that is another son?), plenty of uninflected comparison, and information about the son being misunderstood, being placed off because that was what the parents thought were best. (That line “I had forgotten” and “wrought in destiny”: the son just kind of happened, it seems like.) But then there is a glimmer of rediscovery at the end (which could use expanding!), because obviously the speaker loves her son. It’s a rare poem that confronts this aspect of interaction, and I think it’s brave, elegantly handled, and unique for that.
A few more random bits:
- The title is overall just confusing me too much about the nature of the people in the poem, I think.
- Tell me more about the ginseng in a bottle! I want to know more!
- A couple repetitions that I think could be excised: that “why” of surprise, the second “when” in the first stanza, the “and” at the top of the third.
- There are a couple points where the grammar seems to break a little bit, particularly in the second stanza; I’m looking for a main verb clause after that “and when”…
- Despite everything I’ve just said, don’t kill the mystery. There’s an air of peeping into someone else’s family life that demands a little bit of standoffishness from the reader. Have you read Aimee Nezhukumatathil? Several of her poems create this sense in me when she discusses her sons.
So, Irene: I hope this helped! And everyone else: I think what I’ve been leaning towards (and shamelessly stealing from Donna Vorreyer a little bit with this) is crafting a prompt based on the poem here and my reactions to it. Let’s do it in italics:
Write a poem focusing on aspects of a family relationship that are rarely discussed, which are neither positive nor negative. Obfuscate your narrative a bit with some very carefully-crafted symbols; instead of leading us by the hand or eye, try leading us by the ear or nose, but always stay just around the corner. Bonus points for kicking off with a question, rhetorical or otherwise.