Three-day weekend, you are a harsh mistress, but I think I’ve got this down to a science by now. I managed to juggle four different social event type things (coworkers, friends, family), stayed off the computer for a whole day yesterday, got some free books and board game time out of it, and finished my laundry + groceries by noon today. And now there’s another 36 hours of uninterrupted hum to enjoy: poems, job applications (what a way to spend Labor Day), etc.
I am getting evicted, though. Not for another couple months, but still, it’s on my mind and needs some attention… damn landlords renovating and whatnot. We’re looking at November for a probable move-out, which I like: in theory, we’ll be able to tell where there’s functional heat, but it won’t be so cold that moving is absolute misery yet. Still, it’s likely I’ll have to leave Chelsea/Village area. Who knows? It could be the making of me; or, I suppose it could be just the obvious. What if I move to Brooklyn and have to learn how to ride a bike? You’re nobody in Brooklyn unless you can do that.
But let’s talk Refinery. Today’s poem is, “Teaism” by Virginia Layton!
Virginia says this piece is a composite of a couple different ones that have appeared on her blog, and sent two version of this one; I’ll use the revised version for the purposes of this post. She has also helpfully included translations of the two Tagalog words that appear in the text: umaga means morning, and áraw means sun. I’ll add that to the list of dozen words I picked up when I had a Filipino boyfriend many moons ago (like when I started this blog; yikes).
I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl
and look out the iron-clad
window into the once lushly
overgrown garden district, waking up umaga.
I dredge the river, brown with silt or soot,
straddle the Mississippi with careful
dirge and scat-skittering trumpet; its scent
a stiff drink makes my vision
cloudy, reminiscing my search fruitless
for those ephemeral moments on the park bench when the page
was love supreme: job security, maternity leave, levees broken never entering
the labyrinthine archways of the city where
our souls played hide and seek through back alleys, crumbling
stone chips squalor—áraw
glints from the ring on my left
hand, as I press gently the desiccated leaves unfurling
in tepid water; I sit on this stool with uneven legs
and I can’t let myself go
soft or move too much without losing—
what was it? Art Tatum scampers in my head,
his fingers tapping it, yes, fleet arpeggios jive
into the Duke’s Mood Indigo and I forget
strident cries, “Life separates us!”
I get ready to leave, slip
into the cool, emerge soap-slick hands slack.
What-to-do’s top heavy sink,
Water hot and scald shock
discharged as hands wring: deliberate
pain disseminated, regret vaporizes.
The door’s locked ‘cause no one’s home.
And then off to the café where lonely rumors fly
in an earthy aroma, aphrodisiac for Fiona, legend
of naughty enticement,
a machine well-greased like Angelina
(Creole at ease with her sexy)
or like the way Yo-Yo handles a cello
(bravado upended) and the vision of the Crescent
City is a love flung far, a distance imminent…
All right, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s do what we can:
- The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t like this in two parts. I know it’s a composite, but here’s a rule of thumb I recommend: only separate the poem into discrete chunks like this if you feel that the themes/angles you’re working with are completely unable to be woven together. (And then, in that case, always err on the side of the ratio of one part to one such angle.) Take a look at all we have in this poem: a meditative experience with tea, a wistful (tragic?) portrait of the narrator in a city (New Orleans?), this musical angle, mixed with the domestic and moving from place to place (house and café?), and a sort of tension between loss and desire. Lots to work with, but I think it has the potential to be all married together. What I’d recommend for having multiple themes like that is to examine the arc you want them to take, then decide whether each stanza of the poem will advance that arc a little bit, or examine the entire thing from a unique point of view. Only break it into sections if you don’t have confidence the reader will consider it one unified whole, because that ends up being the effect.
- The risk we run with such a complicated poem is becoming too cryptic for our own good. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and with such a piece of machinery as this poem, it takes a lot of effort to find ways to keep it trim and moving. It’s not a problem to make personal allusions the reader won’t get, or refer to events that have significance for the author only. However, you have to make up for it by making those images equally enticing, with the potential to be meaningful to the reader in their own way. Take a look at the Art Tatum section, for example: even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve got his full name (Google away!), what he does, and how he relates to the overall narrative. There is emotion and connection in the way he’s presented. But in the last stanza, I have no idea who Fiona is, all I can think for Angelina is Angelina Jolie, and Yo-Yo is, I assume, Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not sure what they’re doing in here and how they relate to the narrative. Sometimes it’s better to cut things altogether than to leave them half-cryptic, and make room for the ones which can develop further.
- And thirdly, there are a few odd moments with the language. Overall, I’m very happy with it (which I’ll get to below), but the poem rockets pretty strongly a few times between a casual, everyday mode of speech, and a florid one. There are plenty of poems that do this, and generally it’s not a problem: but I suspect the effect created here is not one Virginia wants. (I could be wrong.) “I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl” is a killer opening line, very plain yet distinctive, with that highly specific gem tossed in the middle. To go from that style into “reminiscing”, “ephemeral”, and “labyrinthine” makes me wonder if there’s a focus on the elaboration of memory and vision; I think that distracts from the meatier themes in the poem. Some of the lines also get a lot longer as a result and disrupt some of the poem’s flow. I’d rather see more Tagalog (maybe a whole line?), and more of the pattern with very simple language elaborated through unique structure and sudden detail.
- Continuing my previous point, there is great value to linguistic quirkiness. I don’t mean the SAT words that turn up in poems just because they are, admittedly, wonderful words that deserve a second chance outside a sophomore English class. In my opinion, the goal should always be to use words everybody knows in ways they’ve never considered ordering them before (with the possible specific or unknown word they have to reach for, woven in, naturally). Lots of spaces in the poem demonstrate this: I like “slip into the cool” better than “deliberate pain disseminated”, “I dredge the river… straddle the Mississippi” better than “crumbling stone chips squalor”, “off to the café where lonely rumors fly” better than “a distance imminent… craving undrenched.” As I said above, both modes are fine, and even having both in the poem are fine if that’s the effect you want, but in my opinion, the poem as a whole works better with just that first mode.
- And part of the reason for that is, it creates a more believable Voice, with a capital V. There seems to be very little contrived about the poem: I can completely picture the speaker in my head as the center point around which the poem is revolving. Consider that combination of daily domestic and meditative relaxation; the careful description of her surroundings blended with memory; the details of Tagalog and proper nouns to define her setting. Always ask yourself when you write a line in the first person, “would my speaker (who doesn’t necessarily have to be me) say/write this?” I think this poem only breaks down in that regard when it goes out of its way to use these long, fancy words.
- Finally, there are also some nice things going on mechanically in the poem. With one huge exception (see below), I think the line breaks follow the general rule of good line breakage: end with an interesting word always, start with an interesting word if possible. There is some carefully done alliteration and sound similarity that might have even been subconscious on Virginia’s part: “once lushly overgrown garden district” has a lovely chain of vowel harmony and L, G, D alliteration in there. (This is, to me, always preferable to in-your-face alliteration; “soap-slick hands slack” is a bit much.) And there is a rhythm to the poem that keeps it moving at a nice clip. We lose steam at a few points, but always come back, an important quality in a poem of this length. I’d hazard that trimming some of the fancy language that isn’t needed, and maybe entirely removing some of the distracting references the reader won’t understand, would help even more.
Whew. A lot to get through. But of course, I must throw a few more things in as well:
- Is the stanza break after áraw an error? It’s so distant from “glints”. Not fond of this.
- The poem’s title calls to mind a tea shop in DC I used to go all the time, and a play on the word Taoism. If either of these was intentional, well-done, I say.
- An ellipsis! Get it out get it out get it out.
- Although the narrative is sometimes tough to tease out for the reasons mentioned above, there does seem to be a simple (but thoroughly explored) narrative here. I dig that. This is getting an after-mention because pieces of this concept are already covered in the longer talk.
- I’m not wild about a couple of the grammatical structures, though. “Silt-brown” might be better than “brown with silt or soot”; and how about “what-if’s bubble slowly / as they’re submerged”? What would the poem’s narrator say?
That’s a wrap. Virginia, I hope this has been helpful, and gives you the confidence to further tweak the poem; you’ve got something good going here! And for everyone else (who are, of course, always welcome to send poems as well…), here is a prompt to get your brain-juices flowing:
Pick a mundane event during your day and describe how you do it differently from everybody else, in whatever small ways: use specific, but not uncommon, words. Then pick an event you (sometimes) do/that happens immediately afterward, and describe it in the same way. Free-write for a bit, and explore the tension between the two, and what memories/emotions they summon up: separately, together, and placed against each other. Let this be the basis of your poem. Try to write in a voice that is the Most Honest Version of yourself; try to get at least three points where a complex chain of sound similarity (several vowels and consonants alliterating and in harmony) sneaks in under the radar.
A lot of work, for this one! But I think you all can handle it, you superstars, you.