It’s the end of a year and fittingly and by happenstance, I loved (short,) end-stopped poems this month.
From the start I was told I was a powerful speaker I was told when & how I should speak
It’s true I made a feast of my own misery after all I was 29
I’d had a narrow escape from becoming Julian of Norwich
This poem transmutes again and again, but bookending in flight—the deathly flight of the city birds at the beginning, the bees stopped mid-pollination to be consumed—and disappearing acts—the “special crew” of people who sweep away evidence of violence, of failure, the beautification. I’ve been thinking a lot about disappearing acts over the last year, mainly women’s (which is touched on in this poem—the speaker asking “Is it antifeminist to starve myself over a boy?”); but this erasure of violence, male or natural or bureaucratic—the assistance in disappearing, the poem dawned that on me. Yes, dawned with a direct object.
The constant in the poem is the form, its stability and confidence, even with the punctuation erased. The lack of punctuation and longer lines is in tension with how the entire poem is end-stopped, which adds authority; it allows the pace to build, release, build, release, each line break a gasp for breath between punches. I love a poem about uncertainty and anxiety written with authority.
Meanwhile, the poet is doing something spectacular with tone: the outlook is bleak, it’s pretty much Handmaid’s Tale, yet, she inserts flowers, she has perspective and humor: understanding the reality of falling apart around 30 and how young 30 is and therefore how hilarious, in retrospect. (It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend about someone so young he didn’t even realize he was young. That.) She does this swiftly–in the three lines above, saving her former self from the threat of Julian of Norwichdom (a state of being a highly literate writer nun). The poem confesses how writers “feast” on their miseries.
The speaker offers a sort-of epithalamium to marriages who watch her with bees in her mouth. The violence still happens, the hurt still happens, but it’s pretty. I wonder about this in a poem about the coexistence of love and violence; I wonder if maybe the only way people who are brutalized can control violence is through beautification or acknowledgement, sweeping the streets or opening a mouth full of a bees. Can one read a contemporary poem with bees in it and not think of Plath? Inserting that ghost into a poem and the poem still standing on its own is a miracle and a testament to the work its writer has done. Praise be for this one.
Read it in its entirety (it’s short) here, and start the New Year wondering whether you’d live your life over.
Let them be vain.
Let them be jealous.
Let them, on their own earth,
await their own heaven.
And when they call out
in prayers, in the terrible dark,
let us be present, and watching,
and silent as stars.
If you read my last post, you know how I came to Phillips’ poetry. But it’s not the poem that was most affecting that was my favorite this month. Instead, it’s another, more lyric poem from his same collection Elegy for a Broken Machine.
This near-litany shows the power of anaphora when used sparingly, when inverted. “Let them” repeats itself throughout the poem, syntax shifts to enhance its musicality, so the rhythm exists but isn’t tiresome. Like a bass guitar, it always comes in on time, heavy, but sparingly. “Let them” puts the stank on this poem. (Apologies to this poem.) I’m trying to learn to love anaphora again because I learned over the last decade of my life not to trust it: Its musicality can hide nonsense, unoriginal conceits, all number of ills. Just because it sounds good doesn’t mean its good. But in poetry, in my opinion, if it doesn’t sound good, it ain’t good either. “Spell Against Gods” meets the mark.
The conceit isn’t totally original: “What if gods had to deal with being human and we got to play god?” The gods in this poem are watching us passively like a TV, and so maybe they deserve our cruelty. The word “let” is a passive one, but of course, sometimes it’s the thoughtlessness, the casual cruelties, that cause the most pain.
I love what this poem does to stars, too. Often an image used as a sentimental symbol, “Spell Against Gods” is disgusted with them, how they stare down at us, with their heavens hunkered there, not helping. The description given is not what the stars are but an absence of what they could be, a profound disappointment: they don’t speak. A human might want to disappoint as the stars do, glinting like the tips of faraway knives.
The truth is the river flows into the canyon
As sooner or later we have to cease to be somewhere.
No place to get lost like too far in the distance.
It may be a mercy the dark closes round us
So broodingly soon in every direction.
Grateful to Mario Chard for sharing this poem on Facebook. To be honest, I have not thought about why I love this poem at all. I just do, and plan on memorizing it in the New Year. Hope you’re 2017 “’twas the effort, the essay of love.”