What, you thought I was done for the evening? Not a chance. Well, at least, I’m not done hanging out online, so I might as well do something constructive while I’m here, mightn’t I. And since I was reminded that the Refineries should still be going, I am carrying on through the chronology of poems languishing in my inbox. Tonight’s victim…
“In a Peninsula of Restaurant Windows” by Barbara Young
Most of us know Barbara already, as she is a poetic dynamo on the blogosphere scene. One of her poems was featured in the Refinery back in January, and I’m going to not look at what I said about her work previously when I say: she has one of the most unique minds for crafting images and personal voices that I’ve seen out there, with a very down-to-earth kind of dialogue punctuated by curve ball metaphors that bonk the side of your head. We all could take a page from her in that regard. The poem she’s sent this time is longer than her usual work, so let’s see what we can do to help (at her request) give it some firmer foundations to stand on:
Precipitously descend the big rain-y drops.
The indeterminate time of gray
resolves to nine AM with rain.
And watches without passion the woman the rain coming, come.
a series of events
some shy, some bold hard flashing, the mob mindless, only
Mrs J___, a thrift-store-purchase man’s white shirt,
four thin silver bracelets,
spreads the second-to-last crust of toast with peach puree.
no plans for rain or sun,
no pressing need for plans
Mrs J___ watches windless raining rain
Hello, my soul, my tethered soul, my fluttered kite
without me: brain and pain, complaining, shame and dreaming
what are you? Indistinguishable fleck from the head perfection
of cosmos discarnate, are you
alt-enjoying absolutely clear ideally amber perfectly Earl Gray
from the concept of a yellow teapot with a brown replacement lid
the pattern of a woman watching rain land bouncing and disintegrating
on the first gesture of factory paint faded below loving polish on
the pure form of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue, loved
within the mind of god, driven stoned into a ditch one slow summer evening,
dented and repaired and passed from hand of god to hand of god
through years (constructed in the mind of god)
and listens to the sound of water like a stream rushing somewhere
over and under the clank of flatware.
There’s a lot of richness here, and a lot to pick apart. Probably I could find several things in each of my usual categories to talk about, but I’ll keep it to the usual modest three, for fairness:
- It seems as though there are several different threads here, which I think are competing for attention, like we have three poems wound into one rope. First we have an establishing scene (those raindrops), then a character sketch (Miss J), and finally an internal monologue (perhaps Miss J’s). I think something as simple as labeling each part “1″, “2″, “3″ could help, but I suspect what would help more is separating these three into different poems, and focusing — at least, at first — on the strongest. Alternatively, the strongest individual aspects could be picked out from the three parts and joined together, allowing the rest of the poem to be discarded. I often find myself in this predicament too, unwilling to sacrifice any of the themes I want to get stewing together; but if the poem as a whole isn’t being served by the assortment, it’s time to let something go. The two elements I’d cut here are the at-times-too-fancy vocabulary and the at-times-too-chaotic stream of consciousness in the penultimate section. Not to say there isn’t a time and place for them, but too much can turn into a James Joyce kind of thing. I love James Joyce, but he’s great at keeping the reader at bay. Poets don’t (or shouldn’t?) have that luxury.
- To dig deeper into the word use, there are two things going on that I think take away from the poem. Right from the start, that word precipitously bothers me. Beginning with a five-syllable word is very risky, beginning with a Latinate word is very risky, and beginning with an adverb is… well, not that risky, but a little bit. I get the pun (rain/precipitation), but I think it’s too much to begin with. And there is a line of words I almost stumble over: indeterminate, indistinguishable, discarnate, disintegrating, etc. It may be Barbara’s intent to create these obstacles and demand our attention, but I don’t think the poem demands them, so we ought to let them wither into something more manageable. The other thing about word use is that there is some repetition I’m ambivalent about. (Some of it I love, which I’ll get to.) The word rain comes back again and again, but then there’s that plans section, and the coming, come up top… maybe my issue is that there are anaphora that seem to float, without a structure. Sometimes repetition is meant as almost a hysterical device, to beat something into our heads, but this doesn’t have that feel; I’d recommend either filling out the poem in between any given repetition (with a couple exceptions!), or using some other image/synonym.
- And a note about syntax. Messing with it is always tricky, and even when you get away with it, you are always giving your poem a layer of difficulty that you may not want. Some poets build their career around that element of their voice (W.S. Merwin, e.e. cummings, Frank O’Hara, etc.), and Barbara has a pretty keen sense of it, but I think it’s shifting too much here. The needle moves back and forth between language that is sparse or inverted, where nouns and verbs aren’t always needed in their proper order, if at all, and immensely lush, where subordinate clauses hook together like monkeys in a barrel. Again, it creates a particular effect that may have been intended, but which I don’t think serves the poem well; probably it’s better to move in one direction or the other (and I’m leaning towards the sparseness of the second section, with Miss J).
OK. All that being said…
- That second section is marvelous. The “plans” thing and the “raining rain” are the only things I’d immediately change, though maybe with careful tweaking of the rest of the poem, the middle would also need some work. Look at that portrait with the second-to-last crust of toast; beautiful! With only a few lines, we get an immediate sense of who this person is, what she’s doing, what her relationship is to where she is and what’s going on in the world around her. I would like to see more of her in the poem, because she seems to be the centerpiece (both literally and figuratively), and she is compelling. Note also that no fancy words or structures are needed for her to be powerful: “peach puree” on that crust is powerful because it is specific, not because it’s fancy.
- Despite the fact that I think the stream of consciousness in the latter half of the poem becomes a series of whitewater rapids, I do love some of the turns of phrase that appear. My fluttered kite / without me, the pattern of a woman, passed from hand of god to hand of god, a stream rushing somewhere / over and under the clank of flatware… all lovely. I think I understand the intention here: this simple moment is full of inner voice and a chain of specific memories that key other specific memories, leading to what we call in interactional sociolinguistics a nexus predicated on all kinds of previous information. What I fear is that some greater point is being obscured by the information; can we pull away some of the clumps that are only there to give substance, and not lyric? I don’t think we need absolutely, ideally, and perfectly all in the same line, and while I like this Platonism in “pattern of a woman”, there is also a concept and pure form overdoing the concept a bit.
- Overall, the theme of the poem is one I like, because I’m a sucker for those momentary-slice-of-life poems that dig deep to show there’s always more going on underneath the surface than you expect. (Hell, there’s that whole journal devoted to the idea that I’ve been doing.) If that is the kind of tone we should be drawing out of the poem, I think it’s coming across. It’s just a matter of cleaning and clarifying the bits that don’t serve the poem’s purpose. For Barbara, I would ask two questions: what is the intent of the poem, and what is the tone of the poem? By this I mean, first, it’s important to decide what you’re trying to convince us of/illustrate on a hidden level/arrange in a three-dimensional pattern, and then try to get in the reader’s shoes to see what effect the poem has towards that goal (and whether it’s what you want).
A few minor things:
- Not sure about the title? I suppose it was the setting of the thing, but the title is prime real estate for tackling theme, intent, or tone, or maybe all three at once, with brevity the soul of your wit.
- The notion of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue being “loved within the mind of god“, moving from the highly specific to the broadly religious, is fantastic.
- There are so many poems waiting to be spun from this one! Why not split it?
- Sound devices are usually pretty cool, but I think that in a poem with so much else going, you might want to drop them. Specifically I’m thinking of brain and pain, complaining, shame. It’s a bit jarring.
- Coming back to that specificity: the contrast between it and the universal is great, and flows nicely through the poem. I would say, draw it out into the open even more.
So, Barbara, I hope that helped! And for the rest of you, if you’d like a bonus prompt in addition to the daily Recursions that are going on right now (which I hope you’re finding helpful!), try this one on for size too:
Write a poem in three stanzas that features a place, a person in that place, and the thoughts going through their mind. Include at least one image that is both highly specific to each of those three, and one description for each that is very general. Try to keep it colloquial, but also try to include any of: a car model, a color name with a proper noun in it, and a specific time of day. Don’t meander all the way through: have a point by the end!
And that is that. OK, now I’m really done for the evening, at least on the blog. Too much computer makes Joe a headached boy.