How much do words matter?

I’m a poet, so words are important to me; specifically, finding the exact right word for what I want to express. Is it pretentious to care about using the exact word in informal conversations? If other people get what you’re trying to say, is it okay to misuse words?

In high school I learned that disinterested means something different from uninterested. It was in one of the 9 years of American history classes that a teacher told me: George Washington was a disinterested president. As in, he was not ambitious; he was not eager to gain power. He was righteous. Meanwhile, uninterested means, point-blank, not interested.

The point of this spiel is that many people use disinterested and uninterested interchangeably, and it bothers me on a cellular level. I’m seeing a band I love, Why?, in a month for an album anniversary tour and they’re playing the song “Good Friday,” which is a great song, except for the misuse of the word disinterested. I just can’t get past it.

Here’s the turn.

While reading a critique of Infinite Jest for fun because I’m a fucking nerd, I learned a couple of things about words that humbled me. I’m the first to call someone out for misusing words, but it turns out I misuse words all the time without knowing it.

Did you know that nauseous doesn’t mean nauseated? It means causing nausea. As in, the old seafood my roommate’s heating up is nauseous. I’ve apparently never heard someone correctly use nauseous. It sounds bizarre.

And also, presently doesn’t mean at present?? It means ‘soon.’ This just seems dumb to me, but okay.

This realization has got me thinking: maybe I’m too pretentious about words and should chill out. Maybe, since everyone knows what people mean when they misuse disinterested, it doesn’t matter, and I should let it slide.*

*People thinking that ambivalent and indifferent are synonyms also bothers me to no end, and this one I feel justified for since they’re nearly antonyms.

Mark Strand

Keeping Things Whole
By Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

At first glance, this poem’s dismissible. A short poem with some lines only two words like it’s saying something pseudo-profound in the beat era. But it’s… actually really sad.

The 2-5 word lines work to make the reader pay attention and to connect the image to the idea in the poem.

The image is of the speaker moving through space. Wherever he moves, the space breaks for him, and when he leaves, the space can come back together. He is the disruption in space.

The metaphor is particularly powerful because the image works on a literal sense. It makes sense to think how when you walk, you part the air — that it opens for you and closes back when you move away. But clearly this poet isn’t talking about literally moving to keep the air in place. He’s using air as a metaphor for life situations, and for other people.

This speaker feels a fight-or-flight instinct — that urge to pull out in any situation before it turns sour, that urge to leave cold turkey. He doesn’t want anyone else to suffer because of him so he doesn’t stay for long enough to cause the damage.

“Keeping Things Whole” reminds me of some of my own poems about leaving prematurely. I relate to the speaker, in that way. I fuck everything up eventually, so in order to spare other people the mess, it’s best to make a quick exit.

It’s a cynical view of connection and attachments with other people, but hey, at least he got a kick-ass poem out of it.

John Ruff on Marie Howe: “Recognizing the Sacred in the Ordinary”

With Marie Howe’s Magdalene being my favorite poetry collection of late, I find a comfort in reading other’s reviews of it — as though I’m in dialogue with the authors, as though there’s a secret book club in my mind. I’m choosing John Ruff’s review to discuss, mainly because I love his anecdote about old religious women giggling in a chapel while Howe reads a monologue poem about penises, but also because it’s entirely involved with the text — both its presence on the page as well as its allusions. If I sound, in this review, as though I’m being hard on Ruff, it’s only because I respect his work and hold it to high standards.

John Ruff separates his review of Mary Howe’s 2017 poetry book Magdalene into three parts, opening by discussing the current renaissance of Catholicism in 21st century literature. He mentions other writers with similar non-secular styles, such as Franz Wright and Mary Karr, then gives a short synopsis of Howe’s body of work.

In the second part, he opens with a description of the image of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance art — specifically, Donatello’s carved wooden statue of her. He points out his fascination at her profound ugliness and agedness, which is unlike her representation elsewhere. Finally, he brings up the book he’s reviewing, justifying his digression on Donatello’s Magdalene by loosely comparing the two.

He begins his analysis of Howe’s work with a stylistic deconstruction. He makes it clear that he believes it is due to the stylistic choices — simple grammar of syntax and diction, along with lineation, spacing, capitalization, etc. — that “nothing distances the reader.” He breaks down its structure, mentioning that the double spacing “giv[es] more light and space to the language [and] creates more time and encourages greater attention.” Through these means, he makes the claim that the book’s persona Magdalene “seems to take great pains to be understood, to make plain and present what she thinks, sees, and feels.” He provides specific poems in the collections as examples, pointing out the choice of capitalization as a break in the pattern to create emphasis in her poem “The Affliction:” “as if Nothing Had Happened.”

In part three, Ruff gets into the meat of the review; he hits us with the important questions that any decent review should attempt to answer: “So who is Howe’s Magdalene? And what’s the matter with her? And what happens to her?” It’s also in this last section that Ruff attempts to further justify his earlier art history digression, stating that Howe’s Magdalene too exists in dialogue with the traditional, biblical character (though this seems an obvious statement, based on the mere title of the collection). However, he also remarks that, though she’s a traditional character, she’s also uniquely of her time-period, that is, 21st century America. She has mental health, medication, and relationship issues. Ruff brings in Augustine when he calls her plight a case of “disordered desire,” a smart juxtaposition in his point of Magdalene transgressing time.

After this analysis, he goes back to the beginning of the book to provide evidence of his claims, working in order from the epigraph to each early poem that follows. He points out that the epigraph is from an apocryphal gospel, setting the religiously transgressive tone for the rest of the book.

Ruff discusses one of my favorite poems in the collection, an untitled, completely italicized vignette, calling it a tender and redemptive scene of lovemaking. While I can see how one can get that take-away from the poem, I also find it grossly simplistic. Here’s the poem:

Looking down at him   my tears fell onto his chest

and he looked at me with such pity

raising his hand to wipe my cheek

before he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me

down to the bed so he could press inside me deeper

To me, this is an incredibly sorrowful scene, laced with (and perhaps veiled by) the erotic. The speaker has a difficulty with her mental relationship between sex and sadness. This poem takes place as a man is inside her, and she’s crying. He doesn’t pull out and ask what’s wrong, but continues — and goes deeper. To me, this represents the speaker’s belief that she’s a lost cause; and the man is reiterating to Magdalene that she’s hopeless, or at least he’s telling her that he can’t help her, that only she can help herself. That he’s using her body, and she’s complicit in it. She gets off on it, further emotionally complicating the passage. If Ruff understands my reading and still considers the passage redemptive, I’d love to hear his definition.

And then, my favorite part of Ruff’s review: the penis monologue. Personally, if I had written this review, I would’ve opened with this part that he closes with. It’s captivating, funny, and transgressive, instantly drawing in any reader with taste. I understand though that, if not to open with it, the next best choice is to close with it. Here’s the passage:

“I was in the second row, behind a group of middle-aged women who turned out to be the book club of a friend and colleague from Chesterton, Indiana, a little town near Lake Michigan and the steel mills. As Marie began to read, you could hear the chapel go quieter. You might have heard my heart as it began to beat louder and faster. Not too long into Marie’s reading of the poem, those ladies in front of me began to giggle, and then to laugh, which gave the rest of us permission to laugh, to relax and let the poem do its good work, and give us its good news. Their laughter was like a benediction they conferred upon the poem, upon Marie, upon all of us there, those middle-aged ladies enjoying heartily their first penis monologue, the best, most human and holy they will ever hear.”

Aside from certain digressions, my beef with the ordering of ideas, and the friction between my stubborn views and his, John Ruff’s review of Howe’s Magdalene is a highly satisfying read. He’s clearly a great writer and pays close attention to the ways in which words work when placed next to, around, below and above each other. It’s clear that he cares about poetry, which is the most I can ask for in a great review.

Joyce Mansour

Since one of my favorite bands is Joyce Manor, I was immediately attracted to the poet Joyce Mansour. I quickly found out that, unlike the pop-punk band, her words are much more abstract than explicit. She conjures up images in order to build emotion.

Here’s my favorite poem by the French surrealist poet, from Rapaces (Birds of Prey):

Can you still remember the sweet aroma of plantains
How strange familiar things can be after departure
How sad the food
How dull the bed
And cats
Do you remember those cats with strident claws
Screaming on roofs when your tongue passed into me
And rose up when your nails skinned me
They vibrated when I gave in
I no longer know how to love
Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips
Let go of my leafy mask
A rose bush agonized under the bed
I no longer swing my hips among the stones
The cats deserted the roof

Her one-stanza, punctuation-less style adds to the surrealistic elements in the poem. One of my favorite lines is “And cats.” It causes a shift in the pace by breaking the anaphoric pattern it directly follows. It also creates curiosity. What about the cats? Mansour continues to spark our curiosity by giving us more detail about the cats in the following lines before she gets into what the cats really signify. She writes that they have strident claws, and then that they scream—and here’s the key part—”when your tongue passed into me.” She uses the cats as a means to avoid directly discussing how much she misses her former lover. Instead, she uses the objects around her—the food, the bed, the cats, the rose bush—to illustrate her loneliness.

After the veiled yet violently intense sex scene, Mansour paints out the speaker’s sub-drop with her famous line: “Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips.” Dolorous: dol·or·ous /dōlərəs/ adj. feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress. Intense sorrow from the loss of her lover drives the speaker to delirium; she nearly foams at the mouth from grief, and physical manifestation of this grief up to her mouth is reminiscent of the lover’s kiss. She feels it, the former love, and it’s the reality of the love being gone that brings her to a state of insanity and rapture over her past, which becomes her current fantasy. A beautiful expression of my favorite poetic topic: the leaving of love.

The next line, “Let go of my leafy mask,” is less straight-forward (to me, at least). Who is the speaker talking to? The ex-lover? How is he holding onto her “leafy mask?” I get that mask is facade—but what does “leafy” mean? Once ripped from the plant, leaves shrivel and they’re frail, though once they exuded life. Perhaps the “leafy mask” is a metaphor for her dying love—and her lover (in her mind, entirely of course) won’t let her be. She wants to rid her mind of this extreme sorrow, but the memory of her lover is vicious and resilient.

The rest of the poem gives in. To the loss, to the sorrow. The Phoenix burns in the middle of the poem and now turns to ash.

And, as always, just as after the poem, (since love and lust are common Joyce Mansour subjects), the spark returns.

Louise Glück

It’s finally October, which means it’s time for my favorite month-titled poem. Well, part 5 of it:

5.

It is true that there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception — At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

This section of “October” from Averno by Louise Glück gets me every time. Glück’s poetry overall is one of the reasons why I travelled to Greece. I just lent my book to a professor and I’m afraid how long it’ll take to get it back (if you’re reading this, Stuart, I’m lying; please take your time).

Glück’s voice is one of experience, cynicism, and exhaustion with the continual death and rebirth of the Earth. This poem can hit you so depressingly if you let it. It says: this has happened before, it will happen again, and nothing can protect us. It says: you are very alone, and anything telling you otherwise is a lie, “a device to refute perception.”

I love her diction in this section. The phrase just mentioned above, along with others like “Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use,” sound calculated. We trust the speaker’s intellect, causing her words and their meanings to cut deep.

When she writes “as though it were the artist’s / duty to create / hope, but out of what? what?” I linger. I reread the lines so as to savor them. I feel confronted: ‘what? what?’ twice for emphasis. I always wished the second ‘what’ was italicized (and thought it was for a while, when I would rewrite the poem in my notebook, letting my mind wander during class), but it’s not necessary. Especially with the stylistic choice to keep the second ‘what’ de-capitalized, showing that it’s a continuation of the same sentiment. Plus, we pay attention to it more than we would since the style is non-traditional, and breaks the pattern of traditional punctuation in the poem.

The poem means a lot to me, this section particularly, because it calls me out:

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

I was probably reading this exact snippet on the subway in NYC when I lived there at 19. And, I probably (definitely) freaked out and proclaimed “October” my new favorite poem. In a way, it justified my depression, and my cynicism despite my innocence. I will grow old, and poetry won’t save me.

If you wanna check out the whole poem, and even the whole book, it’s all online at a blogspot called The Floating Library — a great place to lose a few hours.

On Theodore Roethke, Depression

Hi. I have depression. Really bad depression, and I’m going through it. One thing I like to do to try to feel less awful is take baths. I have a lot of reading for my MFA program — say, 500, 600 pages a week — and most of it gets done in the tub.

After an hour or so, the water gets cold. I add more hot water. After another hour or so, it gets cold again. This time I have to drain some to make room for more, warmer water. Repeat.

One of my favorite poems is “Meditation in Hydrotherapy” by Theodore Roethke:

Six hours a day I lay me down
Within this tub but cannot drown.

The ice cap at my rigid neck
Has served to keep me with the quick.

This water, heated like my blood,
Refits me for the true and good.

Within this primal element
The flesh is willing to repent.

I do not laugh; I do not cry;
I’m sweating out the will to die.

My past is sliding down the drain;
I soon will be myself again.

I have bathtub crayons — god bless Crayola — and lately I’ve found myself writing memorized verse on the shower wall. I don’t care if I mess up I just write what I remember. And I leave it, for how ever long I need the poem up, or until I decide to replace it with another. I soak under the poem like it’s a shrine of flowers and candles and I’m in a casket, unmoving, at my own vigil. But really I’m just a melodramatic Jewish 22-year-old woman finding adolescence— teenagehood— hard to let go of. This poem’s on the wall right now.

What I love about this poem is its form. Its precision. The careful couplets. That calm awareness of mental strife, of being a prisoner to emotion, and the acceptance of being out of control. What can I do? I write; I soak.

I didn’t realize that hydrotherapy — at least, in this way, for depression — was a ‘thing.’ That Roethke underwent what I do, soaking in a tub for hours each day, as treatment for suicidal depression in a sanitarium. And that the act has a technical term. It’s incredibly validating to have a term for my experience, and to see it called something so professional as ‘treatment.’ And it’s incredibly validating to have this poem — the mere fact that it was written, and also that it’s readily available to me. Of course, I had to commit it to memory. I had to.

Federico García Lorca

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I saw this mural in Bushwick a year or so ago and freaked out (in a good, nerdy way). Though it’s not my favorite translation, it is one of my favorite poems.

The poem is Sleepless City and my preferred translation is by José Chapa, who reads it chillingly in the video in that link. (By the way, the Tumblr onesurrealistaday has introduced me to so many wonderful poems and poets — Dean Young, Joyce Mansour, and Picasso’s poetry, to name a few).

I heard about this poem before reading it. In the movie “Waking Life,” a character states, “‘On this bridge,’ Lorca warns, ‘life is not a dream. Beware. And beware. And beware.’ ….  Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write 100 stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration, as he realized that at last something was happening to him. An assumption develops that you cannot understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely. Which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion. Before you drift off, don’t forget. Which is to say, remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And as one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream, that is self awareness.”

I thought – I gotta check out that poem. To me, with this context, the poem is about making sure to live life fully, and not to sleep-walk through waking life. But to also maintain a balance between dreaming and living — because dreaming makes us want to live, to fulfill those dreams.

Then I read the poem.

Life is not a dream. Beware! Beware! Beware!
We fall down flights of stairs and fill our mouths with dirt.
Or we rise to the edge of snowfall under the choir of dead dahlias.
But there is no forgetting. No dream. Living flesh. Kisses tie mouths in a bundle of new veins.
And he who feels pain will feel pain without rest.
And he who fears death will carry death on his shoulders.

This poem is much, much darker than “Waking Life” portrays it to be. It critiques both the individual and society as a whole, for barely living, for being sad meaningless creatures destined to die and plagued by that knowledge. And it doesn’t end well, either:

On Earth, nobody sleeps. Nobody, nobody.
I have this before.
Nobody sleeps.
But if someone, by night, has an excess of moss on their temples,
open the trapdoors so they may see under the moon
the false wine cups, the poison, and the skull of theaters.

Even if we do, beyond the grave, rise to meet life, wake from our dream to exist for once, we will be disillusioned. To put it bluntly, life sux. It’s full of treachery, evil intensions, and laughing memento moris. The skull of theaters reminds me of Max Bechmann’s Still Life With Three Skulls:

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These guys are dead, and laughing at the living. We’re terrified of our own existence, and obsessing over the fact that we must die. These guys are eating that shit up. They belong to a theater of skulls.

In Lorca’s poem, he states, “the skull of theaters,” as in abandoned art, and what once was lively being now only a shell in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape.

I guess, in a way, “Waking Life” used the poem correctly, since the poem is about living life incorrectly, and turning life itself into hell. Still, they missed the ending; there is no happy ending. Either way, you end up in hell. Living life not in a dream places you in the truth, where you see how everyone else lives, and what has become of society, and you grow depressed from the sight. I’ve always viewed depression as seeing things for what they are. Is that better? Is truth better than illusion? Would we rather live only in dream, and spend our waking life contributing to an auto-pilot society, or experience reality from the lens of how fucked up that way of living is? I can’t say, but I can tell you that, as a functioning member of society, I’m on meds.

Elizabeth Spencer and Charles Simic

This week in my reading of Elizabeth Spencer’s The Light in the Piazza, I noticed a particular phrase: “in a forest of question marks.” I’ve read that phrase before, though this week was my first encounter with Spencer.

I realized soon after where I’ve seen that phrase before: in Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. Now, Simic’s poem was published in 1990 while Spencer’s work was published in 1960. The phrase is too specific, in my opinion, for this to be mere coincidence. Why did Simic lift that phrase?

In The Light in the Piazza, Mrs. Johnson uses the phrase in her thinking over a moral dilemma involving marrying off her autistic daughter to an unwitting Italian man during their trip to Florence. She muses, “in a forest of question marks, the largest one was her husband” (Spencer 40). As in, how is she going to handle keeping this a secret from her husband? Is she going to go through with it all without his knowledge? She is sure that if she tells him, he will ruin her plan, and call the wedding off, or have too many questions, or in general somehow make the process more difficult.

I thought—wonderful. I actually understand what she’s trying to say with that phrase! Mind you, Simic’s surreal poetry often leaves much room for mystery, and in the case of this particular poem—for me at least—confusion.

From Page 26 of The World Doesn’t End:

In a forest of question marks you were no bigger than an asterisk.

O the season of mists! Someone blew the hunting horn.

The dictionary said you were a sign indicating an omission; then it changed the subject abruptly and spoke of “asterisms,” which supposedly have to do with crystals showing a starlike luminous figure.

You didn’t believe a word of it. The question marks had valentines carved on their trunks so you wouldn’t look up and notice the ropes.

Greasy ropes with baby nooses.

Chilling, no? The ‘you’ in the poem is of little mystery to the speaker, apparently—the speaker has few questions about the person. And the person thinks she knows better than the dictionary, and knows about the world in a sort of Plato’s Cave trap by trusting her senses. She focuses on what’s in front of her—the valentines carvings—instead of looking up, to see the horrifying image of baby nooses hanging from the trees.

As clear as the imagery is, the meaning of the poem still seems rather elusive. Who is the person to the speaker? Why is the speaker in a forest? What do the greasy ropes represent? Are they greasy from blood? Can blood be considered…greasy? (Perhaps only when fresh, I suppose.)

But still—why, Simic? Why did you lift a phrase from Spencer? Did you think no one would notice? After scouring the internet, it seems I’m the only one neurotic enough not only to notice, but to fixate on the fact. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe there is no reason, maybe it was an accident. Maybe it was, after all, a coincidence.

Or maybe, the person in Simic’s poem is Mrs. Johnson, and Simic is critiquing her morality (perhaps comparable to that of Medea whatwith the dead baby imagery) and her lack of concern for her daughter’s 10-year-old mind within her 26-year-old body, having to bear a child in this strange new country. Perhaps Simic read The Light in the Piazza and found Mrs. Johnson’s thoughts and fixations vile and cruel enough to write a scathing poem about her.

Poem Comparison: Ross Gay and Melissa Broder

How To Fall in Love With Your Father

Ross Gay

Put your hands beneath his armpits, bend your knees,
wait for the clasp of his thinning arms; the best lock
cheek to cheek. Move slow. Do not, right now,
recall the shapes he traced yesterday
on your back, moments before being wheeled to surgery.
Do not pretend the anxious calligraphy of touch
was sign beyond some unspeakable animal stammer. Do not
go back further into the landscape of silence you both
tended, with body and breath, until it nearly obscured all
but the genetic gravity between you.
And do not imagine wind now blowing that landscape
into a river which spills into a sea. Because it doesn’t.
That’s not this love poem. In this love poem
the son trains himself on the task at hand,
which is simple, which is, finally, the only task
he has ever had, which is lifting
the father to his feet.

 

Hope This Helps

Melissa Broder

We need a loving grown-up to give us advice
and that loving grown-up is the universe.
Who wants to go to the universe for help?
You can’t touch the universe
or kiss its mouth
or stick your fingers in its mouth
though sometimes the universe works horizontally through people
and I like that.
My friend channeled the universe
when he said I was milk.
My friend said I was born milk
but the grown-ups poured in lemon juice
because I’ve always felt like rotten cottage cheese
and I’ve been running around the planet
like I don’t want to be this
when in fact I am milk
and was always milk the son trains himself on the task at hand,
and will always be milk. which is simple, which is, finally, the only task
I don’t think this is a story about blaming grown-ups
for the ways we are ruined.
I think this is a story about knowing what we are up against
mostly ourselves
and what our essential consistency is
which in my case is milk
and in your case is milk
you are milk you are
milk you are
so milk.

 

When I was choosing a poem to memorize for class, I remembered this poem by Ross Gay. I keep coming back to it — the vulnerability and lack of shame, which breeds its own sort of proud embarrassment (or am I projecting?) — and found myself thinking of Melissa Broder.

I’m a poet who frequents weird Twitter, so naturally I’m obsessed with Melissa Broder via So Sad Today. A couple of years ago I found her poem “Hope This Helps” in Iowa Review, and I memorized it so I can always carry it with me.

These two poems, though different in their language as Broder has a more stripped-down style, both have the same goal: to desperately express to the reader a seemingly simple yet complex, vulnerable emotion.

Both poems remind the reader throughout not to get distracted by the rest of the poem. And in the end, there is a conclusion that says: Here. This is what this whole thing is about.

Just look:

Gay’s “That’s not this love poem. In this love poem
the son trains himself on the task at hand,
which is simple, which is, finally, the only task
he has ever had, which is lifting
the father to his feet.”

Broder’s “I don’t think this is a story about blaming grown-ups
for the ways we are ruined.
I think this is a story about knowing what we are up against
mostly ourselves
and what our essential consistency is
which in my case is milk
and in your case is milk
you are milk you are
milk you are
so milk.”

And that’s such a powerful move! To create the whole poem in such a way that it pretends the entirety of it is unimportant, and the only important part is the conclusion. But we need the whole poem to understand the gravity of the conclusion. Without elaborating on “the landscape of silence,” we are unaware of the intensity of emotion “lifting the father to his feet” conveys. And who the hell would think “you are so milk” is a heart-warming statement without understanding the metaphor Melissa Broder lays out before us?

I hope to write a poem incorporating this technique, and as effectively as the ones by these incredible poets.

Jack Gilbert

I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmation. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.

Standing on a pillar at Delphi away from the group I attempted to recite this poem to an empty stage. Might’ve recorded it — but never got it right. And how could I do this piece justice? I’ve never experienced the death of a lover, and been lonely enough to believe in her reincarnation as a dalmatian.*

A structural element that makes this piece so powerful is that there’s nothing extraneous involved; each sentence brings in a new idea or furthers the action in order to get us to the position to feel a different emotion. The gentle descriptions at the end (“When she finally quiets…..  She likes it best when I touch her head and tell her small things…”) entrance the reader so that when the last line hits, we’re dumbstruck with the second-hand power of grief. The penultimate line too, where he writes, “our friends,” conveys a tragic undertone. We almost forgot that the speaker believes this animal to be his dead wife, but boy, does he remind us.

I love the secretive nature of the scene — “If nobody is around, I sit on the grass.” Gilbert brings us into the scene, into the speaker’s secret.

This whole poem just gets it all right. It’s one of those pieces that everyone can enjoy — the elitist poetry-know-it-all (me?) as well as the Plumber Joe. You don’t need to understand why a poem works to understand that it does.

*After some intense Googling, I’ve found that Gilbert spelled dalmatian wrong. Does this mean I can refer to him as Jack?