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Duality

Perhaps I hold people to impossible ideals,
I tell them, something is wrong with your
personality
, (you’re a drinker, you’re
too dependent, or I think you have
a mother/son fixation). This is usually
followed by passionate lovemaking,
one good long and very well meaning
embrace, and then I’m out the door.

In daylight, I’ll tip my sunglasses forward,
buy a cup of tea and think of the good
I’ve done for the world, how satisfying
it feels to give a man something to contemplate.
The heart is a whittled twig. No, that is not
the right image, so I drop the heart in a pile
of wood and light that massive text on fire.

I walk the streets of Brooklyn looking
at this storefront and that, buy a pair of shoes
I can’t afford, pumps from London, pointed
at the tip and heartbreakingly high, hear
my new heels clicking, crushing the legs
of my shadow. The woman who wears
these shoes will be a warrior, will not think
about how wrong she is, how her calculations
look like the face of a clock with hands
ticking with each terrorizing minute.

She will for an instant feel so much
for the man, she left him lying in his bed
softly weeping. He whispers something
to himself like bitch, witch, cold hearted
_______,
but he’ll think back to the day
at the promenade when there was no one there
but the two of them, the entire city falling away
into a thin film of yellow and then black,

and how she squeezed his hand, kissed him
on his wrist which bore a beautifully healed
scar, he will love her between instances
of cursing her name. She will have long
fallen asleep in her own bed, a thin nude
with shoes like stilts, shoes squeezing
the blood out of her feet, and in her sleep
she rises above the disappearing city, her head
touching a remote heaven, though below her,
closer to the ground, she feels an ache at the bottom.

—Tina Chang

I’ve been reading Tina Chang’s two collections, Half-Lit Houses and ;Of Gods and Strangers, but I first stumbled across her several months ago through the website of The Academy of American Poets. I have not been able to forget this poem since I first read it, so even though I am really enjoying her actual collections of poems, I am really aching to write about “Duality.”

The most interesting thing about this poem is the way it captures the cost of independence; thus, the title “Duality.” The woman in this poem fancies herself to be above some of the men she leaves aching in their beds, which makes her seem confident and self-assured, qualities that are often associated with men. In fact, her actions are often associated with men. Women aren’t the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” types, unless, of course, there’s something wrong with them.

The woman in the poem is unable to commit, for whatever reason, to one person. She tells herself and the men that there’s something wrong with them. She rewards herself for her honesty. Someone has to tell the truth, right? The truth will set us free, but freedom has a price: in the end, she is alone. So the real question is: how honest should we be? How vulnerable should we let ourselves be?

The poem changes from first person and third person, which is really interesting to me. I think one reason for this change is to create more distance. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker is there with the lover. She’s honest, they make love, and she leaves to go shop for shoes. She’s proud of herself. But as the literal distance between her and the lover grows, so does the emotional distance. Actually, I almost wonder if the emotional distance narrows as the poem continues. I say that because she’s detached in the beginning. Physically, she’s there, but emotionally, she’s not. She’s moved on, or so she thinks.

As the poem moves forward, she practices a little retail therapy and purchases these beautiful, stylish shoes. She’s a modern woman; she needs modern shoes. Those shoes aren’t as great as they seem, and neither is the sacrifice of love. The shoes hurt her feet. She questions the purchase, and she begins to question her actions towards the lover. The speaker says, “She will for an instant feel so much / for the man she left him lying in his bed / softly weeping.” The poem continues on to imply the man both resents and loves her at once. He calls her names, but at the same time pictures when they were together and happy. While he’s thinking of her, she’s already asleep. This leads us to believe she doesn’t need him; she’s moved on. But she hasn’t. She’s asleep with:

                                 shoes squeezing
the blood out of her feet, and in her sleep
she rises above the disappearing city, her head
touching a remote heaven, though below her,
closer to the ground, she feels an ache at the bottom.

The ache from the shoes represents the ache she feels because of what she’s given up. She either feels guilty for what she said to her lover or she is lonely. It might be both. One could argue she doesn’t feel bad at all, but there’s something weighing her down. Honestly, though, isn’t there something that weighs all of us down? I also wonder if men in a similar situation ever feel this way.

-S

Ode to the Midwest

The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
                        —Bob Dylan

I want to be doused
in cheese

& fried. I want
to wander

the aisles, my heart’s
supermarket stocked high

as cholesterol. I want to die
wearing a sweatsuit—

I want to live
forever in a Christmas sweater,

a teddy bear nursing
off the front. I want to write

a check in the express lane.
I want to scrape

my driveway clean

myself, early, before
anyone’s awake—

that’ll put em to shame—
I want to see what the sun

sees before it tells
the snow to go. I want to be

the only black person I know.

I want to throw
out my back & not

complain about it.
I wanta drive

two blocks. Why walk—

I want love, n stuff—

I want to cut
my sutures myself.

I want to jog
down to the river

& make it my bed—

I want to walk
its muddy banks

& make me a withdrawal.

I tried jumping in,
found it frozen—

I’ll go home, I guess,
to my rooms where the moon

changes & shines
like television.

—Kevin Young

When Julie Marie Wade mentioned Kevin Young’s poem “Ode to the Midwest” in an interview, I tracked it down and loved it so much I read the entire collection it appears in, Dear Darkness.

This poem has several things going for it. First, its images are killer: “my heart’s / supermarket stocked high // as cholesterol.” Second, the poem’s got incredible rhythm and subtle rhymes like “fried,” “high,” and “die” in the first few stanzas, or later, “go,” “know,” and “throw.” Notice the repetition of “I want”—it serves as an anchor to come back to: I want, I want, I want. It’s very American, very capitalist, very consumer. So are sweatsuits and television. So is shoveling your driveway early just so you can put your neighbors to shame.

I love how much this poem reinforces its Americana with its choices at every turn; language like “n stuff,” “wanta,” and “em” are very colloquial, as is the phrase “make me [a withdrawal].” And then there are the paradoxes here: “I want to write // a check in the express line.” Or, “I want to be // the only black person I know.” (Does the speaker really?) Or, “I wanta drive / two blocks. Why walk—”

Now, back up a second. Do you see how great some of these individual lines are? They’re working hard: “a check in the express line,” “the only black person I know,” “two blocks. Why walk—” Did you even need the lines “I want to write” or “I want to be” or “I wanta drive”? No, but the repetition of “I want” really reinforces the things Americans want but don’t need. Now go back and look for other lines. I’ll wait. Do you see the lines “supermarket stocked high” and “my sutures myself”? Those are pretty perfect standalone lines, too. It’s rare to have so many in one poem.

But you have to wonder: Does the speaker really want that stuff, this version of the midwest? Does he love it because it is ridiculous, or is he making fun of Christmas sweaters and sweatsuits? My answer, as always, is: probably both, which is why this poem is so textured. This love/hate relationship is one many of us feel about America, too.

When I talk about contemporary poetry and all the amazing things it does, this poem is what I mean. If you like this poem, Kevin Young’s got a new collection out this year, Book of Hours. My friend Bailey recently sent me a copy, and I can’t wait to dig into it.

-R

If an end of a line in poetry isn't end-stopped and isn't enjambed, then what is it?

Asked by
Anonymous

Hi there. This is an interesting question, because it is a trick question (though we don’t necessarily think you’re trying to trick us). A poetic line can be end stopped (via a dash, a period, a comma, or any similar punctuation) or it can be enjambed (continuing the idea or sentence to the next line without a pause). There is no other option.

For our second birthday in July 2013, S. wrote a really great essay called "The Poetic Line"—and I highly recommend it for further reading. She does a really wonderful job of pointing out how both of these techniques (end stops and enjambments) can be used to great effect, especially in some of our favorite poems by Jan Beatty and Matthew Dickman.

-R

Does poetry always have to rhyme?

Asked by
Anonymous

Oh boy. This could be a short answer or a long answer, but I’ll try to keep it in between.

The short answer: nope.

The long answer: Most contemporary poems don’t use end rhyme, and I’m glad.

I used to teach a writing about literature class and an introduction to creative writing class during grad school, and I brought in a lot of contemporary poetry and some Modernism favorites. Most of it didn’t rhyme. Most of my students complained: “It doesn’t feel like a poem if it doesn’t rhyme.” Meaning: end rhyme.

Contemporary poems won’t feel like real poems if what you’ve been reading was written before the twentieth century—or by Shel Silverstein. I didn’t grow up with Shel Silverstein (and I could be the worse for it), so my first real exposure to poetry was Robert Frost in my eighth grade language arts class, and then later in college, Homer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets, the Romantics, the Modernists, Frost, the Harlem Renaissance, the Confessionalists, etc. I didn’t like most of it, but it felt like real poetry. And when living human beings—contemporary poets—came to my campus for readings, the poems they read didn’t feel real/weighty/important. But it was a lot easier to understand.

There’s a long history of how we got here to poems that don’t rhyme, and it’s too hard to trace in a blog post. It’s worth looking up the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Jorie Graham. But the short version of history is: it’s taken a long time for verse to become truly free, and it’s not going away.

That’s because contemporary poets are writing out of the same time period we live in, and in 2014, our lives are big and messy and skittery. We feel free to do what we want (socio-economic statuses, politics, and patriarchy aside). Our attention goes everywhere. Language is changing; even high school English teachers use “lol” at the beginning and end of their sentences, v. is a stand-in for “very” and p. is a stand-in for “pretty” among even the most educated, and we are all trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. It’s exciting, but it’s also v. scary (see what I did there?) to be a writer right now. And in poetry, that leads to a lot of freedom.

In the classes I taught, we brainstormed ways in which poems were poems: line breaks, mostly, and I gave them four more: rhythm, heightened imagery, density, and sound. Poems are distinctive, even without end rhyme, and there’s still a great deal of sound in most poems through internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Poems are still working hard to be poems, even when they don’t rhyme.

I guess what I’m saying is: most contemporary poems don’t use end rhyme, and they work well. If you like poems that rhyme, there are centuries of it and books and books and books of it. If that’s your bag, cool. If you’re open to exploration without end rhyme, cool. Come on in. We write about new poems every week. You can start with our favorite poems for National Poetry Month.

We want you to love poetry however you love it.

-R

Cruising the Blue Belt

Driving 51 North to Pittsburgh,
I saw the graffiti chalked on the underpass:

Things to do:
1. Kill Satan
2. Free Larouche
3. Buy milk

At last! I thought,
someone who thinks like me!
No, it’s not that I want
to kill Satan or free Larouche,
it’s that list—the things
we want to do each day,
how do you make it?

When you stop and realize
that even Satan-killers
need to think about milk,
it really takes you back.

And what should my list be
on an average day in this aching world:

1. Kill Rush Limbaugh
2. Find a cure for AIDS
3. Buy chocolate

Sounds just as stupid as the Larouche thing
—that’s my point—
Like when I was driving home
after teaching a class on meter
in poetry, and feeling pretty good
about it, too—Terry Gross
had to come on Fresh Air and talk
about gangs in L.A.—and my list
for the day, which had been:

1. Prepare for class
2. Go work out
3. Meet Carole at Ali Baba’s

—my list became silly, shallow—
and why was I on the planet anyway,
and what was my real list?

Like the time I met my husband
for lunch downtown, and, you know,
we were in the mood for Italian, something
with fresh basil and garlic, as we walked
past the YMCA on the way to Oxford Center,
there was a woman and her child wrapped
in dirty pink blankets, lying smack
against the wall with mounds of brown
paper bags around them, and what was I
thinking about—

Your list? None of
my business—but I’m asking.
Have you found a way
to walk around the world, have you
found a way to negotiate the pain? And
where do you hold it, the pain, and please,
if you find that list, scratch it
on the underpass next to Satan, and
leave your name, please,
leave your name.

—Jan Beatty

I like this poem, the last one in Jan Beatty’s 2002 collection Boneshaker, because it doesn’t seem overtly feminist, though it is political and quietly feminist, and because she doesn’t use her trademark forward slash (“/”) to break the lines without literally breaking the lines (e.g. "Love Poem w/Strat"), though she does use stanzas and dashes to great effect.

Lately, S. and I have been talking about the fact that critics say poets don’t write political poems and instead stay in their own lives and their heads, and that’s just not true. This poem is political. Sure, our speaker is trying to reconcile her mundane life with Big Ideas, but that’s already a way of looking out at the world. She also lists Rush Limbaugh on her “kill” list and says she wouldn’t free Larouche. And even if Rush Limbaugh seems outdated as the biggest conservative threat now and I had to wikipedia Lyndon Larouche to see he’d been imprisoned for conspiracy to commit mail fraud (though he still received presidential votes in jail), I still appreciate the politics of this poem and its place in history (e.g. AIDS epidemic). You can never predict whether the politics of your piece will survive or not, but your poem will always survive as a record of time and place.

But let’s talk about the meat of this poem. Look at the things we must do to survive, the way our quotidian needs are constantly bumping up against our ideals: “When you stop and realize / that even Satan-killers / need to think about milk, / it really takes you back.” Look at the way Jan Beatty separates her lists into stanzas, in order to give them space and set them apart: “1. Kill Rush Limbaugh / 2. Find a cure for AIDS / 3. Buy chocolate.” Doesn’t that list stand out to you? Don’t you want to play “Which of these things does not belong?” But that’s the speaker’s point, and she says so in the next stanza: “—that’s my point—” Those dashes leave no room for argument. Later, the dash is used in the penultimate stanza to shut down the conversation again: “and what was I / thinking about—” No period. There is no need for a period. Do you want to know what her list was the last time she had to re-evaluate? Well, the speaker does not want to tell you and she will not tell you. Instead, she wants to ask you about your list.

"Have you found a way / to walk around the world, have you / found a way to negotiate the pain?" the speaker asks in the last stanza. I don’t think she really believes we’ll find the right balance, but the speaker hopes we will. The last two lines beg: "leave your name, please, / leave your name." If you find a balance, if it’s possible, she wants to know how. In the meantime, she has faith that you care about the Big Ideas, too.

-R

Athazagoraphobia

Fear of Being Ignored

I used to bury plum pits between houses. Buried
bits of wire there too. Used to bury matches
but nothing ever burned and nothing ever thrived
so I set fire to a mattress, disassembled a stereo,
attacked flies with a water pistol, and drowned ants
in perfume. I pierced my eyebrow, inserted
a stainless steel bar, traded that for a scar in a melee, pressed
tongue to nipple in a well-lit parking lot, swerved
into traffic while unbuttoning my shirt—
                                                                There is a woman
waiting for me to marry her or forget her name
forever—whichever loosens the ribbons from her hair.
I fill the bathtub for an enemy, lick the earlobe
of my nemesis. I try to dance like firelight
without setting anyone ablaze. I am leaning over
the railing of a bridge, seeing my face shimmer
on the river below—it’s everywhere now—
                                                                 Look for me
in scattered windshield beneath an overpass,
on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater—look. Even the blade
of a knife holds my quickly fading likeness
while I run out of ways to say I am here.

—Jamaal May

This poem is from May’s collection Hum, which won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award. The poem was also published in the Indiana Review. The collection itself considers man as a machine, and the book is anchored by six phobia poems. “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” is the first phobia poem in the collection.

This poem is a laundry list of the things we do to draw attention to ourselves. Sometimes we do these things on purpose, and other times, we don’t realize what we’re doing, but, especially in today’s society, there’s this ache to be noticed. Of course, it’s one thing to be noticed simply by one’s family, friends, and peers, and it’s something completely different to be noticed by the world at large. It’s also very hard to understand why we want attention or why we fear being ignored. One could almost argue that by today’s standards, we’re taught that any attention is good because it means people are paying attention, but I am not sure that’s always true. The poem captures the way it feels to be overlooked, regardless of who is overlooking us.

I like how this poem, as well as other poems throughout the collection, pinpoints the things that make us vulnerable. It’s not easy to admit our fears, particularly one like the fear of being ignored, because it opens us up to criticism; it increases our chances of getting hurt. The speaker in this poem is very honest about the things he’s done to gain attention: burying things, burning items, piercings, public sexual encounters, and on and on. At the same time, he’s reflective about why he does these things and why he’s afraid of being ignored, and this is the heart of the poem. If we’re ignored, then no one is paying attention to us and no one will remember us when we’re gone. The core of this collection rests in the existential crisis. What happens when we “run out of ways to say I am here?”

I really love what May does with sound in this poem. There’s a lot of rhyme within the stanzas, like “matches” and “mattresses,” “stereo” and “pistol,” “enemy” and “nemesis,” and “overpass,” “grafts,” and “mud-draggled.” There is a clear rhythm in the poem, and I think it works to accentuate the vulnerability of the speaker.

I also really love some of these line breaks and the way the lines function individually. For me, the most intriguing lines are “but nothing ever burned and nothing ever thrived,” “of my nemesis. I try to dance like firelight,” “in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers,” and “circling leaves in rainwater—look. Even the blade.” The lines are broken in unexpected places, which keeps us reading on.

The poem is also organized in an interesting way. If you just glance at it, it looks like three stanzas, but it’s not. It’s one long poem. There are two lines that stick out on the right hand side, and I think that is to give the reader a moment to breathe. This is a heavy poem, so we need a little bit of a pause, but we don’t want to break into completely new stanzas because we want to keep the rhythm going. It’s also interesting to see the two lines that stick out on the right hand side: “There is a woman” and “Look for me.” It’s almost like the speaker is, via this poem, still begging for attention.

I really recommend this entire collection. I know I’ll be examining these poems more closely for quite a while.

-S

National Poetry Month

We really like to celebrate poetry and we also love to celebrate readers of poetry, so S. and I thought we’d let you know that for National Poetry Month, we’re revisiting our favorite poems that we’ve written about in the nearly three years since we started. We’re tweeting and facebooking one favorite poem a day, and we’re keeping a list. If you’re new to our blog, these poems are a good sample of what poems we like and how we write about them. If you’ve been reading all along, might we remind you to revisit some good poems?

  1. "Getting It Right" by Matthew Dickman
  2. "Antilamentation" by Dorianne Laux
  3. "Poet-Spouse Observer-Thoughts" by Albert Goldbarth
  4. "Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy" by Terrance Hayes
  5. "Fugu Soup Blues" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  6. "Desire" by Mary Ellen Miller
  7. "Splittings" by Adrienne Rich
  8. “‘Gymnopédies No. 1’” by Adrian Matejka
  9. "Miss Peach Gets Lucky" by Catie Rosemurgy
  10. "Love Poem w/Strat" by Jan Beatty
  11. "Good Girl" by Kim Addonizio
  12. "A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country" by Barbara Ras
  13. "To My Heart As I Go Along" by Kenneth Koch
  14. "Public Transportation" by Elaine Sexton
  15. "Lucifer" by Dean Young
  16. "Heat" by Janice N. Harrington
  17. "Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down" by Bob Hicok
  18. "Willed in Autumn" by Tracy K. Smith
  19. "What the Living Do" by Marie Howe
  20. "The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist" by Mary Oliver
  21. "Just The Tip" by Carrie Murphy

If you bookmark this post and check back, we’ll update it as we go through the month. In the meantime, you can also search our archives.

-R

Do you guys take submissions or can I link you to my poetry sites?

Asked by
cojack7

Hi there! We don’t currently take submissions, as most of the time it is just the two of us writing about poetry that we’re reading. We do, however, feature a guest star who writes about a poem of his or her choice on the first Sunday of every month; usually the guest star is a friend or acquaintance who has published poems or books/collections of poems. We are always on the lookout for published poets that we’ve missed, though. If you send us a message with suggestions, we will do our best to check out the poets and poems that you like. We might even write about them.

Thanks for reading our blog. We are humbled by the attention we are receiving after being recognized by tumblr’s staff and we hope to keep giving a wide range of poets and their poems all the love they deserve.

-R

Heat Lightning

Storm windows rattle and fall out of place. Clouds move in.
My daughter turns a small house upside down.

The idea of rain comes. Then light. The widow at her door,
her plants hung off the side porch. First a long drought,

and then fireworks. A little dog up against the chain link,
howling. July Fourth, four children die in Missouri and Tennessee lakes,

electrocuted by a line running out for a light
on a dock, some charge carried down a houseboat’s pontoon.

Was there music playing? The obituaries are too factual;
the elegies, too romantic. My daughter turns her house

right-side up, the tiny people fall out. Midnight or later
two days ago, someone drove their car into our neighbor’s house.

A bed moved across the room. A window bent like a willow.
Today she’s out in her flower bed dividing lilies.

Anger somehow has a certain charm with roots.
All these years, and we can never thank her

for anything that might grow. There are curses,
and there are blessings. Things happen, you see,

and then they happen again. I have nothing decent to say
to someone in pain. I hear a child scream up the road,

an old tire rolls down the street. A storm moves in,
the sky blossoms with light and shades of green gone gray,

but no thunder follows. Still we wait for it, our eyes
lifted and held there. Sometimes it never comes.

—Clay Matthews

It takes years to cultivate a dark and mysterious aura. I’m still learning to tailor the guise to accommodate any situation: pained looks in the grocery store, oscillating between a bag of store brand frosted cereal in one hand and a box of unfrosted name brand in the other. Aloof lean in the office elevator, peeking over the pages of an open book as the numbers alight floor by agonizing floor, like a man counting his steps to the guillotine. Drinks of all sorts are to be stared into quizzically, longingly, and especially those of the alcoholic variety. If the stars are out, then my head is upturned and the slow dance I do in the middle of the abandoned street, tangled in my dog’s leash, is the dance of awe.

Probably, these tableaus succeed only in making me feel better about my own loneliness, as if I could project alienation onto a version of myself. If I could parse my identity into a reliable cast of characters, then I could sustain the story I tell myself about that charming and boisterous alter ego—the one who makes wild and unexpected appearances, grand gestures of love, and sweeping assurances of solidarity. I could go on believing that a better me could be summoned like an understudy to stage—or, better yet, like a genie who could cure all of our ailments with the snap of his fingers.

But how many years until your persona becomes your life? How long until that glass, that cereal box, and all of those empty expanses of night become more important than the people orbiting them? How long until you can’t even remember who it is you set out to be? Or why?

Lately, despite my best efforts to be silent and stormy, a monologue keeps pouring out of me. This tends to happen when I reach a certain threshold of drinks, and each narration contains blurry revisions to the particulars. Patterns. Entropy. Tragedy. The kinds of catchphrases and bar blather that only capture the attention of burnt out hippies hoping for a coup, as if a single justified conspiracy among millions could validate a lifetime. If you would just shut up, my friends say. But sometimes I prefer bums to blondes, blank stares to quick smiles, open arms to open legs.

Which may just be another story I tell. Most days, whoever I seem to be probably has more to do with pleasing the person in front of me than sorting out crises of identity. Ultimately, this makes me a pretty likable guy. Most days, I’ll appease you. I’ll bury my inner life because it tends to step on the toes of everyday life. I’ll ride the elevator to my blue collar office job and I’ll put my book away and prattle about the weather or the boss or can you believe Suzie was late again this morning? And was her mascara running? I don’t hand her a tissue. I’m not sure she’d want me to.

Most days, I’ll walk right past those burnt out hippies and say whatever it is I think I need to say to the most beautiful girl in the bar. And maybe I’ll take her home for a night or a year. Regardless, we’ll wake up one morning to find that we’re strangers, and we’ll be amazed it took us so long to recognize our incompatibility. Maybe there’ll be fights or tears or maybe just the hurried collection of disheveled clothes, but someone will walk out the door and never come back. And I sense this doom in all of my relationships—the way I navigate them feeling like a fraud that will eventually be found out. Worse, I don’t know what it is I’m afraid people will find, whom I’m doing this for or why—questions I’ve always put off for another time, another place, another life.

Maybe it’s the dawning of an adult routine, the meaningless tedium of office work, of getting by, or maybe it’s my burgeoning fascination with the way people keep quietly bowing out of my story—but, whatever the reason, my inner life won’t stay buried these days. Effusiveness storms my consciousness like a throb of the undead—confused and disoriented. Relentless. Hungry for something it cannot name.

*

I’ve been trying to follow the line to the center of this thing, the crux where Matthews’ poem, the world, and my life intersect. This has very little to do with scholarly exposition, and nearly everything to do with the haunts of the world, the way they follow me to even the most mundane corners of my life. And, assuming you’re the type of person I think you are—an assumption for which you’ve implicated yourself by your very presence—then you know all too well the way contradictions and memories fester, how they tug at your shirt, whisper in your ear, and then crash through the fucking ceiling. I’m talking about the urgency of everyday life, the self you’re left to reckon with when you shut the door behind you and there’s no one there to reflect the person you want to see.

If these concerns seem conflated, that’s because they’re conflated. Often, what I see best in the fog, is the fog.

The first event to cut through this most recent bout of murkiness was the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370. I kept obsessing over its symbolism (and god…what a thing to do, to turn tragedy into metaphor). About a week or so after the plane disappeared, I watched an interview with the wife of one of the lost passengers. She said her husband had portentous visions of disaster during the weeks leading up to his departure. Right before he left, he took off his wedding ring, handed it to his wife, and instructed her to give it to their son should anything happen to him. Here, the camera cut to a fullscreen shot of the wife, snot and tears and swollen eyes. In between sobs, she coughed up her rebellion to the audience. Even now, she said, I refuse to give the ring to my son, refuse to give it to anyone but my husband, because I KNOW he’s coming home. I know he’s alive. She must have sensed the impossibility of what she was saying. And we sat and watched in our houses and apartments, in cities and states with names and numbers, sex crimes and taxes—something resembling permanence.

How many doses of delusion does it take for each of us to get through the day? How many gods must we create? What would we do if we could, for once, really see ourselves?

And then the event itself. The disappearing act. If there are bodies to bury, then the flight’s narrative changes—it’s tough to swallow, to live, of course, but it fits a pattern. We were promised an end, and maybe it will come quicker than we expected, but there will be a box and a long line of loved ones and a touching toast. There will be some kind of understanding. But this sudden departure into oblivion reminds me that it’s all a vanishing, of sorts. A grave marker and a coffin don’t make any more sense than a ring without a finger. And at the heart of this is the entropy we try to resist and to ignore and to subdue and to deny and it always, always wins—and, often, it makes the routines we try to establish even more painful—the grocery store, the kid kicking the back of your seat, small talk on the elevator.

The flight feels like a synecdoche, a reminder that it’s all unanswerable and what did we expect? And from whom? I keep wishing for the improbable—the crash landing on a deserted island—and I want that interlude for all of us, for all of our stories. But the truth is in the oil slicks. Rings. The ineffable. The unchangeable. Out there and in me. Powerlessness.

*

The monologue devolves like this into a litany I can neither control nor understand. And then there’s the quiet that follows, the emptiness I swim in for days as if it were the middle of the ocean.

That silence is the right place for poetry.

I find all of these complexities in Clay Matthews’ poem, and they feel clarified and true. Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, what I need to see (it would certainly be fitting), but I don’t think so.

Calamitous vignettes are strewn throughout: a widow tormented by draught, the absurdity of a car suddenly appearing where it should not, children taken in the midst of play by the very thing meant to contribute to their leisure, their youth. A little dog howling. All of these images point to questions: Howling at what? What do we really know about the forces that surround us, electricity, for example? What about the tranquility we’re told will spring from tragedy?

But this poem looks out as we look out—panoramic, a lack of linearity. Mostly sadness. And if not sadness, then the “idea of” it, which is enough. Maybe, even, the idea of rain summons the rain, and that’s how everything begins—the seed from which suffering blossoms.

Then the question of what to do with pain. It would be forgivable, even redeemable, if we could understand its purpose. But “Things happen, you see, // and then they happen again.” A widow finds no peace—she plants her anger again and again despite herself, despite the draught. A car crashes into a house, but there’s no mention of its inhabitants, of the body that may’ve been in the bed that was launched across the room. Even a simple question like, “Was there music playing?” can’t be answered. The obituaries and elegies have already rewritten that story, burying the truth right along with the dead. There’s no good way to talk about these things. There’s nothing decent to say because all we can offer are lies—things will get easier, they’re in a better place now—or the truth, which is maybe even worse.

But the poem resists this kind of synthesis, resists telling us how we should feel about these things we can’t control. As if on queue, an old tire rolls down the street—an eerie and displaced image. It’s a tumbleweed that’s wandered onto the wrong set, a strange remnant of desolation, as if the poem, too, is caught up in the narrative of itself—as if by telling one story, you have to tell them all.

And this, I think, is the crux I’ve set out to find, the synecdoche that summons the fog.

These threads, seemingly disconnected, can only be held together by the story writ large. And who’s writing that book? God? Fate? Our speaker gives us his daughter, and she seems oddly in control. She’s a benevolent god. Innocent. But even this is of little solace. She “turns her house // right-side up, the tiny people fall out.” Regardless of her efforts to fix the world she created, things still fall apart—the story is writing itself. Ultimately, we aren’t plucked by fate, by god, or by a little girl tipping her dollhouse, nor is there much of a difference between the three. Entropy is the writer, the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

This isn’t a nod to nihilism. It’s not meant to be hopeless. I want to understand these “things that happen.” I want to sort out their implications and to arrange them in a way that makes sense for us, for me. Maybe I should know better than to obsess over these things. But this, I suspect, will be my life’s work—to agonize over intricacies, the unexplainable. A plane disappears. A widow waters her plants. Four children go for a swim and never come back. A dog howls. I dance in the street or I don’t. Regardless, I want to believe these things mean. Like the wife in the interview, I want to say that I KNOW they’re all connected.

David Foster Wallace calls this feeling “the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” Maybe, in this way, we’re all widows—angry, plunging our hands into the soil. Maybe we all have rings in our palms, and the ubiquitous sky is a constant reminder of what’s been taken from us.

But what can we do but wait for the next thing to happen? Something to make us believe in the cohesiveness of our existence. Or, even, something to shatter that fallacy, once and for all. I only want the truth. “There are curses, / and there are blessings. Things happen, you see, // and then they happen again.” Patterns and explanations are rarely satisfying or complete—they’re only a partial glimpse into a story we can’t begin to conceive, though “still we wait for it” and “sometimes it never comes.” Despite myself, I try to imagine those other times, those blessings. Seedlings push through soil. An empty bed means someone gets to go on living. The night tells me exactly who I am.

Sometimes the sky blossoms with light and shades of green gone gray.

Sometimes the midday quiet is broken by the unmistakable hum of a faraway engine—growing louder, roaring closer.

-T.J. Sandella

*T.J. Sandella is a recent graduate of Georgia College’s MFA program, where he was the assistant poetry editor for Arts & Letters. He’s the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry (Passages North) and two Academy of American Poets University Prizes. He was a finalist for Agnes Scott’s Writers’ Festival Award, and has been nominated for the AWP Intro Awards and Best New Poets 2014.

Most recently, his poetry won a William Matthews Poetry Prize, which was selected by Billy Collins. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Passages North, Asheville Poetry Review, The Tusculum Review, and The Fourth River, among others. For the moment, he lives, works, and wanderlusts in Cleveland, Ohio.

——

On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style will feature a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our seventh month with a guest post.

244 plays

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

—Philip Levine

When Philip Levine was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in 2011, I hadn’t read any of his work, but I remember being struck by the phrases used to describe his work: “industrial heartland” and “American voice.” Three years later I’m returning to his work, in particular the collection What Work Is, because I don’t know what work is.

Of course, I know that I’m supposed to work, because I’m American. Levine states plainly in line three:

          You know what work is—if you’re
          old enough to read this you know what
          work is, although you may not do it.
          Forget you. This is about waiting,
          shifting from one foot to another.

Of course I know that. Of course I know about “waiting,” too; Levine mentions that word four times but I could mention the various ways I’ve waited for work: waiting for a PhD program to decide if I’m good enough to attend, waiting to hear about an internship, waiting for a phone call from one of hundreds of jobs I’ve applied to and meanwhile rent is due and I don’t have a backup plan. I’m an American. To be an American is to have your identity tied to work, and for most Americans, to work is to be at the mercy of another, someone “waiting who will say, ‘No, / we’re not hiring today,’ for any /reason he wants.”

The speaker’s brother has a job at Cadillac—note how rooted in Detroit Philip Levine’s poems are—but his job is just a job to support his real passion: “Wagner, the opera you hate most, / the worst music ever invented.”

Notice how much endstopping Levine uses here, the form supporting his simple declarations about work. Pause at the end of most of these lines and think about how true they are. Think about the shift from second person you where the speaker is addressing the reader—“You know what work is”—to the later you, which is really a substitute for the speaker himself and the uncomfortable feelings about his brother that he has trouble admitting:

          How long has it been since you told him
          you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
          opened your eyes wide and said those words,
          and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
          done something so simple, so obvious,
          not because you’re too young or too dumb,
          not because you’re jealous or even mean
          or incapable of crying in
          the presence of another man, no,
          just because you don’t know what work is.

And notice how the speaker is so sure in the beginning that “You know what work is,” but the last line is “just because you don’t know what work is.” Is he referring to the difference between backbreaking work and writing poems, or is he referring to the work of being a vulnerable human?

That work seems hardest, especially in an American culture so focused on the kind of work you can put on a resume. We’re too busy waiting.

-R