My goodness, another post. Once again, I’ll pitch the Refinery for those who’d care to send me something: I will happily do my level best to pick apart elements of you poem for public consumption, if you’ve a stomach for it! The fact that I’m not exactly accredited or authorized to do this should not deter you. (I mean, if nothing else, I’ll do it for free.) Send me an email (if you don’t have it or can’t find it, comment with how to reach you), and toss me a poem. This week, we have a repeat guest:
“Tom’s Beach: A View Inside Out” by Misky
Those who remember Misky’s last appearance at the Refinery may recall my extensive plaudits and whatnot about her presence in the blogosphere. The poem is rather long, so I do want to leap in pretty quickly, but I do recommend dropping by her blog for her particular blend of heartfelt, everyday whimsy. Now, the poem:
Tom’s mother knew the doctors wrong,
of this she had few doubts. Her love
for him was strong and sure.
He wasn’t broken, as they said.
He wasn’t fragile, as she feared.
He was her Tom, and every word
spoken she knew he heard.
Her Tom was a universe
on to himself.
He’s awoken by clattering
again. They’re spinning,
those two busy toys of his.
… And today is his birthday …
He calls one of his toys Mum,
it looks like the letter B
set firmly upon skinny sticks.
The other one’s called Da, it’s
much bigger, fussing and fretting,
and Tom’s fixated, listening
to its deep screechy, thumpy sounds.
Noise noise, his head echoes
with Mum and Da, and it
shakes him out of bed.
… Cake and ice cream for breakfast …
Tom stands detached, observing
shimmering shadows along
the edge of his hand. He often
brings his Mum and Da toys stride
up short. He sees what he wants
to see, not more. He’s the spark
in his own universe. Tom is
that sparkling speck of dust
in the sunlight, and he dances
with moon beams on the wall
when the house is asleep.
… and lit birthday candles. He doesn’t like those …
Tom twirls through words that curl like
the waves in his hair. He closes
his eyes, mesmerised by sparkling
colours and numbers splashing like rain.
And he counts 1-2-3. Tom counts
colours. Number sums are for counters,
and he’s not a counter. He’s a boy,
and he spins like a planet
as his throat strums the sound
of his name: Tom-Tom-Tom
His name is the beat of a drum.
… He’d wished for a bucket of stones …
And his lungs bellow out the sound
of a trombone, as he hums
a staccato happy birthday song.
Tom casts his glance at the toy
he calls mum, and then he dashes
off arms linked with bright humming
colours and small running numbers,
a periwinkle and a whelk,
all of them chasing after waves
that kiss and hug the edge
of his beach – It’s Tom’s Beach –
adorned with yellow smiley face stickers.
NB: the subject of the poem is a boy with Broad Spectrum Autism, as part of a series. Let’s begin:
- I don’t fear long poems. I welcome them. I say, bring it. I challenge them to try and overtake me. But, any long poem needs to not only captivate its reader enough to keep them from being daunted at first glance, it needs to keep captivating them to hold them in and prevent them from leaving early. In this case, I would say: tighten, tighten, tighten. My suspicion is that this was written as prose first, before being converted to poetry, because when you take out the line breaks, it becomes a pretty clear vignette. With sensitive subject matter, I’m always hesitant to suggest cutting X, Y, or Z, but there are a few points I think are weak links in the narrative. First: the lines with ellipses seem to draw the poem out of context too much, though I understand they contrast the “real world” with Tom’s “inner world”. Second: I’m not wild for the first stanza, because even though it sets up mitigation on what follows, let’s assume all the readers are human and will feel empathy for the subject. We don’t need the mother here, when she isn’t present in the rest of the poem. And third gets its own point, below.
- I’ve made the point before in these little discussions that long strings of similar words (i.e. three adjectives in a row) can leave us hanging, waiting for that final modified noun. For example, we have “deep, screechy, thumpy sounds” above; do we really need all three, or is there one adjective that can sum them up (like mechanical or cacophonous)? Even better, is there a less straightforward image word that will do the work even better (carburetor, locomotive)? The same principle holds for repeated phrases. I’m all for parallelism (important term!), but often it needs to serve a purpose beyond re-iteration. “He wasn’t broken, as…” and “He wasn’t fragile, as…” doesn’t have enough variety for me; by contrast, “his own universe” echoing through the poem has some appeal. Again, the repetition may be an echo of the subject matter; what Misky ought to do here is weigh how the effects of the poem’s sound and structure mimic the content against how difficult they make it for the reader to get caught in its flow. For my part, I usually err on the side of the latter, especially in a longer piece.
- Even though this is part of a series, I feel as though the poem is trying to do too much work at once. Let’s presume (and maybe I shouldn’t, not being the poet) that the point of the series is to create some humanity and empathy for a child who might not otherwise receive it. In one poem, we have the outside (family) vs. inner (Tom) perspective, an assortment of ways in which autism can express itself (synesthesia, personalizing objects), the special event (birthday) peeking through the usual patterns, and the humanity/empathy element on top of it all. Couldn’t some of these be saved for other poems in the series, and this one focused on one particular aspect? To all poets: ask yourself, what is the most compelling moment in this poem? What questions do you still have unanswered about it? (If it were up to me, and it’s not, I’d zoom in on the birthday element and/or the Mum/Da toys element.) Once you can focus on that, a lot of the extraneous stuff can fall away, to be saved and used elsewhere. Save the liver.
But aside from that:
- I do think the poem picks up steam as you go through it, which is why I want to cut that first stanza entirely. It could start with “He calls one of his toys Mum”, without a problem. The “Tom twirls” stanza is probably my favorite out of the lot, and look how far down it is! Lead off strong, and get strong near the end; you can laze a bit in the middle and right at the end (though you probably ought not to) if you want. In a short story, you can get away with more exposition and slow build, but poems are creatures of in media res, even if you want to tell a complete narrative: start with a bang. Proceed to have a series of bangs.
- Back to those Mum and Da toys. Taking the mother herself out of the poem changes the poem entirely, and makes me much more interested in the story. Why does Tom fixate on the toys and give them those names? How are they similar to/different from his actual parents? There’s a meaty story underneath that concept which we get glimmers of, but not enough for us to get a direct answer. I would want just the barest hint more of information, maybe keeping the frame narrative of the birthday, and the rest of the piece I would shift to another poem. Having too many other things going on in the poem (by which I mean the explanations, not just the simple facts of synesthesia or objects: you can easily keep them in by themselves, without feeling the need to justify their presence) distracts from those bits that draw is in and give us pause.
- There are, of course, some nice turns of phrase throughout. “A periwinkle and a whelk” might be my favorite line in the poem, but “his throat strums the sound / of his name: Tom-Tom-Tom”, and “the letter B / set firmly upon skinny sticks” are good too. Nowadays, I don’t stick as closely to my rule of “use one word I’ve never used in a poem before”, but more generally, pay attention when a rare or surprising word/arrangement of words finds its way into your work, especially if it happens unconsciously. Trust those moments! And build upon them, because they are just as effective a skeleton as any rhyme/meter scheme.
A few more thoughts for your consumption:
- Change the title. I was waiting for that beach to appear through the entire poem, and unless it’s essential to understanding the rest of the series, its brief flash at the end doesn’t justify the name of the piece to me. Something like “Tom’s Birthday” or “Tom Turns Six” or “Tom Turns Six (Green)” would be more honest. Without the title, I’d proceed to cut the beach itself, too.
- Kudos to Misky for getting so thoroughly into the persona here. It would be awkward to ask direct questions about her connection with the subject, but I presume she’s had personal experience with Tom, or someone like him.
- There are a few phrases that I might be missing because of dialect, but I find them confusing. What is “stride up short”? And I’m not sure “Number sums are for counters, and he’s not a counter” is clear enough.
- I just came back to that bucket of stones. A boy asking for a bucket of stones for his birthday has huge potential; let’s see more of it!
That’s a lot to go through, and Misky, I apologize, but I hope that it was constructive, at least. And what kind of Refinery operator would I be if I didn’t follow up with some kind of prompt thing for the rest of you?
Choose a subject who is often marginalized, ignored, or ridiculed in society. Write a poem that addresses this injustice, but without spelling it out for the reader or getting into first-person. Rely on the visual more than the mental. Frame this portrait with some kind of significant life event, and include the following: a shade of blue, a sea creature, a musical instrument, and at least one verb with three syllables.
Best of luck!