George Saunders on Revising

If you’re a writer, then revising is a religion you must actively practice.  I joined a writing group recently, and for the critique session, most of the members brought in their first draft.  No one should see your first draft but you, and even then, you should be cringing and giving that first draft the stink eye while you’re reworking it.

Revising is much more than running spellchecks and fixing grammatical mistakes.  Each draft is an opportunity to be more succinct and exact.  I ask myself the same question every time: does this detail move the narrative/poem forward and/or add to the evolution of my character(s)?  For me, there’s an exchange of respect between writer and reader.  I show my reader respect by taking pride in my craft; and the reader, in return, treats my work with the respect that it has inherited from my labor.

In his conversation with Seth Myers last week, George Saunders addressed the notion of revising as a form of respect, but he included a third party, whom I hadn’t considered.  He spoke of a triangle of respect among the writer, character and reader.  To Saunders, the writer shows respect for her reader’s intelligence by elevating her character into a genuine representative of humanity; and in return, the reader gives respect to the character and writer by taking the time to savor and understand the complexities of her richly developed fictional being.

How does one elevate a character through a series of revisions?  Below, I’ll walk you through a revising exercise similar to what Saunders had discussed on Seth Meyers’ show.

Draft #1:  I’ve written two perfectly acceptable sentences.

John is tall.  He can reach the top of the black bookcase.

Draft #2:  Let’s tighten this up.  If John can reach the top of the bookcase, is it necessary to also say that he’s tall?  No.  Does the bookcase being black contribute to the development of John’s character?  No.  This is what I’m left with:

John is tall.  He John can reach the top of the black bookcase.

Draft #3:  Let’s think about why the reader would care that John can reach the top of the bookcase.  Just being tall is not an interesting characteristic; but if I delete the bookcase, then I’d just be left with: John.  I need to give John some sort of existential motivation, a purpose for his ability to reach high places.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.

Now, I’ve implied that John might not be a trustworthy fella by introducing a character who feels she needs to hide money from him.  Jane adds a layer of complexity to John’s character with one simple action towards him.  But I haven’t given Jane’s suspicions towards John credibility, so let’s add a second sentence.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.  She suspects he goes to the tracks on nights when he should be attending AA meetings.

Draft #4:  John is now a tall, thieving gambler with an addiction problem that he may or may not be trying to get a handle on.  He’s more interesting than the original tall John, but he’s not yet a rounded human being.  No one is all bad all the time.  How can I make John more human and relatable?  He needs redeeming traits.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.  She suspects he’s back to boozing when he sneaks off to the dance hall, but he’s actually learning the tango to surprise her on their silver anniversary.

Now, John is not just a tall man, he’s a tall man who still loves his wife enough after twenty-five years of marriage to try and surprise her.  He’s also a man with a wife who’s still working on forgiveness.  John is starting to look human.

I thought Saunders’s exercise broke down the revision process in an interesting and digestible way, and I wanted to share my own take of it with you.  I don’t plan to return to the writing group that I’d joined, but I’m hopeful that I’ll soon find others who share my faith in revising.

Related Link

The Guardian: “George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

On “The Hanging Family Tree”

samantha_le-locci2Sometimes, I go through the exercise of explicating my own poem.  I find that it sharpens my critical skills and allows me to look at my work more objectively.  This is especially helpful when I don’t know how to finish a poem. I hope that this post will help you with your own writing.

–Samantha Lê

The Hanging Family Tree
–by Samantha Lê

I was Januaried, Februaried,
Marched—father’s furious footsteps felt lonely
down the hospital hallways.

I lunged forward;
skidded sideways—wrong decisions made all day.

Father watched and waited
six extra weeks for a son— hung his hopes on the fillings
in a sticky bun.

Five fingers fisted tight.
Five fingers reached for his to grab. Ten toes upright
like frantic crab legs searching

for the sapient sand. Two eyes opened, absorbed the sun,
but not a son.

Father took
a crooked look and said: I know
what to do to you—

dressed me
in dirty drags to imitate a boy, taught me to love
boxes instead of toys.

My skin map shrunk like a banana peel. I took rice paper, ink,
wrote peekaboo parts to cover the pink.

 

“The Hanging Family Tree” employs what Robert Pinsky, in his book The Sounds of Poetry,  calls “like and unlike sounds” in order to intensify the meaning of key thematic lines and to create shifts in the musical effects of the poem. “In a way parallel to how enjambment is a place where syntax might stop, but pushes forward instead, the shift away from a sound may mark a moment when things might chime, but depart instead.” (Pinsky 87) Repeated sounds are used so intensely in stanzas four and six that their absence in the other stanzas becomes an important factor in the musical undertone, which creates tension in the narrative and sets the emotional tone for the poem.

The reader may not understand or even notice the differences between like and unlike sounds, but they can be experienced and heard when the poem is read aloud. The complex audible presence of likeness and difference in sounds helps to emphasize the key moments, providing the reader cues on how to interpret the narrative in the poem, thus, enhances the reader’s understanding of its meaning.

One of the differences in sounds comes from the utilization of contrasting root words. Even if the reader does not know or recognize Germanic roots, which are plain, short and stubby, from Latin roots, which are longer and more clinical, the reader can still intuitively hear the difference in their sounds. In this poem, German root sounding words, such as “bun,” “crab” and “sun,” are paired with Latin root sounding words, such as “Februaried,” “hospital” and “banana,” to produce a sonic distinction between what Pinsky refers to as “crunchy and soft” words. “While the phrases involved sounds that are similar physically, the sounds of the words, in a more figurative or emotional sense of ‘sound,’ are in contrast.” (Pinsky 88)

Given the many Latinate words, the first stanza reads more smoothly and thus reads faster than the sixth stanza. Compare “I was Januaried, Februaried,/Marched—father’s furious footsteps felt lonely/down the hospital hallways,” which reads liquidly, with “Father took/a crooked look and said: I know/what to do to you,” which contains more abrupt and choppy Germanic words, making the lines more awkward and difficult to read aloud. This contrast in sounds produces an inconsistency in rhythm that helps to counter the iambic meter.

The iambic meter, though not dominant, is present throughout the poem. It acts as the underlying pulse of the poem to move the reader forward in the narrative. One can observe bits of iambic meter in the lines: “Five fingers fisted tight./Five fingers reached for his to grab” and “He dressed me/in dirty drags to imitate a boy.” Although the iambic meter does not appear consistently, and the poem’s rhythmic cadences are not often iambic, an iambic meter can still be felt beneath the poems variable rhythms.

However, there are some lines where the iambic pulse is reversed, and a strong trochaic meter emerges, creating tension in the poem. An example of the trochaic meter can be seen at the beginning of the poem where the mood and setting is established: “father’s furious footsteps felt lonely/down the hospital hallways.” The trochee is consistent and strong again at the moment the child is born. Butted right up against the iambs in the sixth stanza is: “Ten toes upright/like frantic crab.” This subtle reversal in meter signals an importance glimpse into the father’s turmoil state of mind.

At the same time, words of long and short duration appear jammed together to further add to the richness of the rhythm and sounds. In the last stanza, “skin map,” “rice” and the first syllable in “paper” are examples of long sounds, which are wedged against the shorter, more abrupt, stubby sounds of “shrunk” and “ink” to create a stop-and-go motion. By varying the usage of long and short syllables, a hurried pace is achieved through parts of the poem, while other parts require a slow approach. The varying of longer and shorter line lengths also aid in setting pace throughout poem.

The poem’s emotional tone is not only produced through sounds, meter and rhythm but also through alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes and the application of varying line lengths.

The poem deploys alliteration, such as “father’s furious footsteps felt” and “five fingers fisted,” at strategically placed clusters throughout the poem that add playfulness. The harrowing subject of a discontented father who decides to reshape the life of his daughter to match his own agenda in the narrative is hidden behind the playful, child-like diction, which creates an unsettling lightness around a heavy and serious theme.

The poem also features ends rhymes that add a folktale quality to the narrative. Though end rhymes appear throughout the poem, such as “Januaried” and “lonely,” “tight” and “upright,” and “ink” and “pink,” the sing-song effects often created by end rhymes are muted by enjambments combined with the utilization varying line lengths. The strategically placed line breaks act as a counterbalance against the end rhymes’ overpowering sonic effects. The balancing act between rhymes and line breaks achieves in adding a complexity to what Pinky calls the “audible web” of the poem. Aside from enjambments, internal rhymes are also employed within individual lines, such as “took/a crooked look” and “skidded sideways—wrong decisions made all day,” to create even richer and more energetic sounds that are then contrasted against the expected sounds of the end rhymes, adding yet another layer to the audible web.

In this poem, the rhymes play a part in both the sonic and emotional tones, but like line breaks and enjambment, they also drive the narrative of the poem for the reader. The packing together of internal rhymes in stanza six: “Father took/a crooked look and said: I know/what to do to you” signals the reader with sonic cues that a significant point in the narrative is being discussed. This is one of the voltas in the poem where the father, though dissatisfied with the gender of his child, has decided to make the best of the situation by turning his daughter into the boy for whom he had been waiting to have.

The resolution of the narrative is also marked by strong sonic cues. The last stanza in the poem is littered with “k” sounds: “My skin map shrunk like a banana peel. I took rice paper, ink,/wrote peekaboo parts to cover the pink.” The consonance creates a hacking sensation when the lines are read aloud, imitating the sounds  of the girl’s emotions and identity being choked back as she transforms into the person that her father wants.

In this poem, meter, variety in line lengths, rhymes, alliteration and the strategic juxtaposition of “like and unlike sounds” are employed to create a push and pull effect upon each other, building the poem’s sonic tension, a tension which mirrors the tension in the poem’s narrative. The ratcheting up of tension drives the poem’s narrative resolution to the moment the young girl surrenders, reshaping herself to fit into the space that her father has constructed for her.

(“The Hanging Family Tree” was published in Pinion Journal, Summer 1011) 

 

On “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost

 

Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” is constructed using a terza rima form. Consisting of fourteen lyrical lines written in iambic pentameter, terza rima is a verse form composed of three-line stanzas (or tercets) with interlocking rhymes. The second line of each tercet establishes the rhyme for the following tercet. This supplies the poem with a common thread, a way to link the stanzas.

The rhyme scheme for this poem is: aba, bcb, cdc, dad, aa, which is a slightly variation from the traditional terza rima rhyme scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee. The variation helps to emphasize Frost’s intention to create a circular structure for the poem. And by repeating the first line “I have been one acquainted with the night” at the end of the poem, and rhyming “night” and “light” in the first stanza to “right” and “night” in the last couplet, Frost further creates a sense of continuation, a walking and searching sensation that moves through the poem and return the speaker and the reader to the beginning of the journey.

The terza rima is also found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Similar to Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, the speaker in this poem is also taking a journey. The journey motif invites the reader to examine the three stages of conflict that the speaker experiences as he makes his way through the wasteland of the modern era. Stage one takes the speaker through the cityscape; its unfamiliar setting represents the speaker’s sense of alienation, a product of his physical and spiritual distance from the life he once knew. Stage two takes place in the speaker’s awareness of the lonely walk he is taking, which represents his isolation from his fellow man. And stage three is the speaker’s journey through the night. The speaker’s acquaintance with the night symbolizes a poet in crisis, reacting to the changes to his craft brought about by Modernism.

From the first stanza the theme of alienation is strongly evident:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

The setting of a cityscape is unusual for Frost since most of his poems are set in the rural, pastoral landscape of New England. This suggests an unfamiliar, out of place feeling, which the speaker is experiencing from having found himself in a place he does not know or understand; and although he has an acquaintance with the city lights and city lanes, the city is not home. To add to the feeling of estrangement and alienation, the speaker, having had “outwalked the furthest city light,” is finding himself even further on the outside. He has gone beyond the safety of the city limits, which echoes Dante’s journey. The speaker has wandered off the “path” and gone astray. But then having “walked out in rain,” he finds himself walking “back [again] in rain,” going through an exhausting act of trying to leave something behind, only having to return to it without having found any answers.

The second stanza begins with “I have looked down the saddest city lane.” The speaker looks down this lane but does not take it. Is it an act of giving up? Or is the speaker hesitant to discover or know his new surrounding?

The word lane can also be likened to a country lane, but instead, this is an unknown lane in an unfamiliar landscape where even the lanes are defamiliarized and sad.

The speaker’s only connection to nature in this place of estrangement is the moon. She is his only companion; however, she is out of reach at “an unearthly height.” She, too, alienates him in her own way.

antique-clockAnd further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Though the moon is the only positive image in the poem, she neither guides nor judges. The moon, the keeper of time, “proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right,” suggesting that time simply flows; it is indifferent to the speaker’s journey.

The alienation of the cityscape creates a profound sense of isolation, which is represented not just in the images but also in the construction of the lines. Every sentence in this poem begins with “I.” There are seven lines and seven “I”s. “I have been one acquainted with the night…I have passed by the watchman on his beat…I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet, etc….” Inside the setting of a vast modern world troubled by changes, the “I” draws attention to the singular entity, the solitary existence of man.

The only person the speaker encounters on his walk is in the fifth line, “the watchman on his beat.”

I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

The speaker and the watchman do not make eye-contact. The dropping of the eyes can be interpreted as shame, but I think in this case, it is about the speaker’s unwillingness to reveal his true self to the watchman. The watchman’s vocation is one of loneliness and isolation. He walks his beat alone. He knows the city and the night; this is knowledge that the speaker does not have. The isolation felt by both men is briefly interrupted by their chance meeting, however, neither can escape his own loneliness, and so they pass without connecting. This is also a commentary on the nature of modern city people who are so accustomed to solitude that they can no longer connect with one another.

By the third stanza, the speaker is alone again, so alone, in fact, that when he stops walking, there are no other footsteps to be heard. It is interesting that this is the only part of the poem where enjambment is used. Though the speaker has stopped, the lines are hurrying forward, creating a feeling of uneasiness and urgency.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

The speaker’s loneliness is further amplified by the “interrupted cry,” which comes “from another street.” It isn’t intended for him. It isn’t there to call him “back or say good-bye.” The speaker continues his journey, realizing that no one is missing him or wishing for his return. Though the city is populated with lives, none of those lifelines are connected to him.

On a philosophical level, I believe this poem is also an allegory for the poet’s struggles with his craft. As a poet, Frost is claiming to be “acquainted with the night,” which are the forms and subjects of his poems, but he does not possess true knowledge of them. The walk represents Frost’s exploration and experimentations in response to the changes taking place in Modernism.

In having “outwalked the furthest city light,” Frost strays from the “path” of traditions. “The watchman” represents a traditional poet whom he admires, and meeting this poet along the way, he is ashamed of the choices he has made and cannot meet this poet’s eyes. He is unable and “unwilling to explain” his need to explore new horizons. The “interrupted cry” from the distant is the collective voice of his contemporaries who have embraced new subjects and forms. He hears it, but realizes that the cry is not intended for him.

“I have walked out in rain” can also be interpreted as the poet’s admittance to having succumbed to experimentations, but he comes “back in rain” and decides to return to poetic tradition. And by starting and ending the poem with “I have been one acquainted with the night,” it can be concluded that Frost has come full circle. Yes, he was once “acquainted with the night,” but that is now in the past.

Though he knows that making a return to traditional verse would alienate him from the modernist landscape of free verse poetry and isolate him from his contemporaries, when Frost finds himself looking “down the saddest lane” of modern poetry, he does not take it. “The moon” acts as the poet’s inner voice, reminding him to come back to what he knows. Realizing that “the time was neither wrong nor right” for change, he stays true to the sound of his own voice rather than allowing himself to be swayed by the currents of time and culture. This decision eventually leads him back to the beginning, back to traditions. As the result, the construction of this poem in traditional verse with its rigid and difficult rhyme scheme is Frost taking a stance in favor of tradition amidst the changes of Modernism.

Resources:

Robert Frost ~ Clarity through Form and Suspension

 

In contrast to the experimental aesthetics of his modernist contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost’s traditional approach to poetry produced works that are both conversational and accessible to the masses. By doing so, Frost carved out a significant space for himself in the modern landscape and has also remained relevant in post-modern times. Unlike Pound’s “Cantos” and Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which are complicated by the utilization of oblique symbolism and allusions, Frost poems exploit mundane symbols, household philosophy and the cheerlessness of daily work to depict the profound darkness that is always present in all of his poems. Though not excessively complex like Pound and Eliot’s works, Frost’s poems still manage to capture the modern themes of isolation, alienation and godlessness. They are profound yet deceivingly simple, never saying what they mean directly.

In his essay, “Education by Poetry” Frost explained his methodology as follows:

…poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘race’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.

In this essay, I will discuss how Frost was able to achieve moments of clarity through the utilization of traditional nineteenth century forms and the theme of suspension. I will use Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” “Birches,” “Mending Walls” and “Acquainted with the Night” to point out various examples of where clarity is accomplished through the usage of form and suspension. Though Modernism was marked by revolutionary changes in aesthetics led by Pound who, with his ideogrammatic method, was paring down words and taking poetry in the direction of Chinese and Japanese imagism and by Eliot who created a new form in vers libre, Frost continued to write using hypotactic syntax, traditional blank verse and rhymes, but without trapping himself in the romantic, abstract approach to poetry of the nineteenth century.

robertfrost
Robert Frost

The moments of clarity in Frost’s poems, his “momentary stays against confusion,” are achieved through form. Frost brought narrative elements to his poetry through the employment of blank verse written in loose iambic feet. Paying close attention to rhythm and rhyme, the music of his poetry comes from the cleverly placed internal rhymes and enjambments. Though a concrete rhyme scheme is not usually present, internal and end rhymes are littered throughout most of his poems. In a letter to John Bartlett, Frost wrote, “One who concerns himself with it [the sound] more than the subject is an artist.” And it is through sounds that he achieved rhythm in his poetry. “…the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible…” (Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”). The sounds in Frost’s poetry are enriched by the placement of traditional iambic meter against natural speech, utilizing the accents of soft-spoken, New England speech to make the poems’ diction more conversational.

Frost’s moments of clarity are also achieved through one of his major themes of suspension, the in-between of two states, moments where the material world and divine world overlap. These are moments of rest and renewal. This theme connects to his belief that “a poem is a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost explored these moments of suspension and renewal in many of his poems, supplying his readers with an escape from the chaotic, puzzling and alienated wasteland. Even the use of loose metrical verse could be interpreted as a form of suspension.

Both form and suspension can be found in Frost’s “After Apple Picking.” A dramatic dialogue, this poem is written in a strange, loosely constructed blank verse. It is written mostly in iambic pentameter, but not all the lines have five feet. For example, there are twelve syllables in the first line, “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree,” but there are only five stresses: “long,” “point,” “lad,” “stick” and “tree.” However, in the second line, “Toward heaven still,” there are only five syllables and three stresses, “tow,” “heav” and still,” which unlike the first line, is in a trochaic meter. This switch in the meter brings emphasis to the theme of suspension. The ladder takes the speaker away from the earth, which somehow spoils the things that touch it, as is indicated in the lines: “For all/ That struck the earth,/ No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,/ Went surely to the cider-apple heap/As of no worth.” Therefore, it is in the simple, daily act of picking apples, the speaker can achieve a moment of suspension between heaven and earth where clarity is found.

Suspended states can also be found in other lines such as: “Essence of winter sleep is on the night,/ The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.” After the apple picking is done, the speaker, from the exhaustion of hard work, is rewarded with renewal as he doses off to suspended sleep.

This poem employs what Robert Pinsky, in his book The Sounds of Poetry, calls “like and unlike sounds” to create shifts in the musical effects of the poem. “In a way parallel to how enjambment is a place where syntax might stop, but pushes forward instead, the shift away from a sound may mark a moment when things might chime, but depart instead” (Pinsky 87). First, the unlike sounds come from the combination of long and short duration words, such as “essence,” “winter,” and “drowsing” in contrast to “night” and “off” in the following lines: “Essence of winter sleep is on the night,/ The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.” Second, the like sounds are formed from the rhymes as well as the conversational language. Though there is no rhyme scheme, the like sounds of end rhymes can be found throughout the poem, such as: “over,” “tired” and “desired” in the lines: “For I have had too much/ Of apple-picking; I am overtired/ Of the great harvest I myself desired,” or “gone” and “on” in: “Were he not gone,/ The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his/ Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,/ Or just some human sleep.” However, since the end rhymes are hidden with enjambments, the sounds they create flow smoothly from line to line, instead of overwhelming and chopping up the poem. Because “the syntax does not coincide with the rhythmical unit of the line” (Pinsky 39), the sing-song nature of the end rhymes is softened.

As the poem continues, the loose iambic establishes a rhythm. There are lines in the poem where the meter is exact, such as: “I got from looking through a pane of glass” and “What form my dreaming was about to take.” These lines help to reinforce the iambic rhythm, but without overpowering the poem with what Pinky refers to as the “more artificial, regular divisions of metrical feet.”  An anapest is used in the following line: “I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,” which adds an unexpected unstressed sound, hustling the line along, but still keeping with a consistent rhythm. Thus, the reader is made aware of the music of the poem on an intuitive rather than intellectual level.

The “s” sounds found throughout the poem, such as in the lines: “The scent of apples; I am drowsing off./ I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight,” create a soft-spoken speech that is soothing when the poem is read aloud. It acts to put the reader in the same suspended dreaming, dosing off state as the speaker. The combination of well-placed rhymes, rhythm and soft sounds produce not only complex and rich like and unlike sounds, but also a feeling of intimacy between the speaker and reader.

The conversational language also aid in creating intimacy. The reader believes and can relate to the speaker because the diction, tone and syntax come from an authentic place. On the subject of authenticity, Frost wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows” (Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”).

Similar to “After Apple Picking,” the language in “Birches” is also conversational. The tone is created through common speech. As Carol Frost wrote in her essay, “Sincerity and Inventions: On Robert Frost”:

In a letter to Walter Pritchard Eaton, written in 1913, Frost explains the particular nature of his preoccupation with “tones that are not usually regarded as poetical.” He doesn’t claim to invent these tones; he talks about their always being there and of his role as both listener and “summoner.” “All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book,” he tells Pritchard, and talks about searching them out: “No one makes them or adds them. They are always there…. The most creative imagination is only their summoner.”

In “Birches,” the speaker is lamenting on the subject of love, but not by using Eliot’s over-intellectualized, Prufrock-like language or Pound’s oblique allusions to obscure places in “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” instead the speaker talks about the everyday, universal things, such as, “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun” or “Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,/ Whose only play was what he found himself,/ Summer or winter, and could play alone.” The beauty in Frost’s poem is in the accessibility of the images and the readability of the narrative. Whether or not he/she is educated, living in the twentieth or the twenty-first century, the reader can put him/herself directly in the poem and the feel its heartbeat in the language, rhythm and sounds.

Unlike “After Apple Picking,” “Birches is written in a strict blank verse, except for the first few syllables. The first line reads: “When I see birches bend to left and right.” The stresses in this first line are in the syllables: “see,” “birch,” “bend,” “left,” and “right.” Beginning with the fifth syllable, a regular iambic rhythm begins to surface, placing emphasis on “birches bend to left and right,” instead of “When I see,” which is not the significant part of the line. After this first line, the rest of the poem is written in a fairly consistent iambic pentameter. This consistent rhythm produces sounds that parallel the predictability and innocence of childhood.

This poem is not broken into stanzas. It sits heavy and solid on the page. The content and images are dense and compacted as if the poem is trying to pack in as much living and experiences as possible before it has to end.

These two lines: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches./ And so I dream of going back to be,” signal a turn in the narrative. The poet has refrained from inserting the pronoun “I” until this moment in the poem where the speaker finds himself in a state of suspension. In this dream state of remember, the speaker is returned to childhood. Though the meter in these lines is consistently iambic, the poem breaks out of the meter with “swinger of birches,” and then quickly picking it back up again in the very next line.

The poem states, without saying so directly, that though life can be painful, there are moments of love which makes it worthwhile. It is “a pathless wood/ Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it,” but with love there is peace. The physical love that is only possible on earth also creates a state of suspension.

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.

During sex, one is transported into a moment of suspension, going toward heaven, but not actually getting to heaven, existing instead in a state between earth and heaven where the bodies are rejuvenated and the minds are cleansed.

Comparable to “Birches,” “Mending Wall” is also written in a fairly strict blank verse. The rising cadence is consistent throughout the poem. However, due to the interesting syntax used, the first two syllables are read as a trochaic foot, which places more emphasis on the word “something.”  In the same way, the iamb in the following line is switched to a trochee in order to emphasize the irony in the poem: “Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

This poem relies heavily on the meter to provide the music; it doesn’t often utilize contrasting root words to create differences in sounds. However, given the many Latinate root words, whenever a Germanic root word is used, the reader can immediately hear the difference in their sounds. “…sometimes, the unlike sounds serve to dramatize the like sounds” (Pinsky 87).  In the line, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them,” the word “rough,” a German-sounding word in the midst of Latin-sounding words such as “fingers” and “handling,” creates a sonic distinction between what Pinsky refers to as “crunchy and soft” words. “While the phrases involved sounds that are similar physically, the sounds of the words, in a more figurative or emotional sense of ‘sound,’ are in contrast” (Pinsky 88).

Though there are no rhyme schemes present in this poem, the sounds are made rich by the end rhymes, such as “neighbors,” “wonder” and “neighbors” in the lines: “He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’/ Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder/ If I could put a notion in his head:/ ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’” Internal rhymes, such as the “e” assonance in the following lines also contribute to a poem’s rich sonic make-up: “The gaps I mean,/ No one has seen them made or heard them made,/ But at spring mending-time we find them there.”

Clear and unpoetic diction can be found in this poem just as in the previous example. The conversational nature of speech counters the structural limitations of the blank verse form, allowing the poem to tug and pull on itself in the same way that the two neighbors tug and pull on each other.

[This unpoetic diction adds] a deceptive sense of the mundane to the action; yet the aphoristic structure of the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” stays with the reader as a maxim that borders on an axiom. The sense of universal truth, or at least applicable observation that can be assumed into the shape of a law or saying, is an essential part of the poem’s containment. The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations. This containment, the unified limitation of both time and space and the focus on a very simple and uncomplicated action, is yet another means by which Frost uses understatement to his advantage (Bruce Meyer, “Critical Essay on ‘Mending Wall’”).

The state of suspension in “Mending Wall” is the space between the two speakers where lays the wall. In the hard work of building something, even though it gets torn down every year by nature, the two speakers can find clarity and meaning for their existence. The momentary stay against confusion is present in the mundane task of the yearly inspection and the laying down of stone after stone. When asked about the wall, Frost explained:

…throughout history, “fences are always being set up and falling down.” And as for his line, “good fences make good neighbors,” he paused for a moment, then added, “it’s the other fellow in the poem who says that. I don’t know. Maybe I was both fellows in the poem” (Stanley Burnshaw, “Transcript: Robert Frost’s Contrarieties”).

In an essay for The Reaper magazine titled “How to Write Narrative Poetry,” Robert McDowell and Mark Jarman suggest that a successful narrative poem must consist of the following ten points: a beginning, a middle and an end; observation; compression of time; containment; illumination of private gestures; understatement; humor; a distinct sense location or setting; memorable characters; and a compelling subject. “Mending Wall” achieves these ten points by narrating a story of two neighbors repairing a stone wall, but the result of is not just a well-crafted story and a detailed depiction of the characters and their experiences, but the poem also makes a statement on the nature of boundaries and human relationships.

In the same aspect, Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” also aims to reach for a lofty message through a simple narrative, and it, too, achieves the same profound result. This poem tackles the themes of alienation and isolation and comments on the state of modern civilization and human relationships through a simple walk through the cityscape on a rainy night. The setting of a cityscape is unusual for Frost since most of his poems are set in the rural, pastoral landscape of New England. This suggests an unfamiliar, out-of-place, suspended feeling, which the speaker is experiencing from having found himself in a setting he does not know or understand; and although he has an acquaintance with the city lights and city lanes, the city is not home to him.

This poem is the most rigid in form of all the poems being discussed in this essay. Consisting of fourteen lyrical lines written in iambic pentameter, the poem follows the structure of the sonnet but uses a terza rima rhyme scheme. Terza rima is a verse form composed of tercets with interlocking rhymes. The second line of each tercet establishes the rhyme for the following tercet. This supplies the poem with a common thread, a way to link the stanzas. All the rhymes are true rhymes, occurring at the end of each line. Enjambments are only used in three places, after “beat,” “feet” and “cry” in the following lines:

I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
And since these enjambments are used at natural pauses in the syntax, their intention is not to mask the rhymes. However, it is interesting to note that one of the enjambments is at a place in the poem where the speaker has stopped: “I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/ When far away an interrupted cry…”  Even though the speaker has stopped, the enjambment causes the line to hurry forward, creating a feeling of uneasiness and urgency.

The rhyme scheme for this poem is: aba, bcb, cdc, dad, aa, which is a slightly variation from the traditional terza rima rhyme scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee. The variation helps to emphasize Frost’s intention to create a circular structure inside which the speaker of the poem is suspended. And by repeating the first line “I have been one acquainted with the night” at the end of the poem, and rhyming “night” and “light” in the first stanza to “right” and “night” in the last couplet, Frost further creates a sense of continued suspension, a walking and searching sensation that moves through the poem and return the speaker and the reader to the same place from which they began.

The terza rima is also found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Similar to Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, the speaker in this poem is also taking a journey. The journey motif invites the reader to examine the conflict that the speaker experiences as he makes his way through the wasteland of the modern world, which is represented by the alien cityscape. The speaker is suspended between a world in which he is acquainted but does not know, and one in which he once knew but is now far removed from, both physically and emotionally. But in the mundane act of walking, the speaker achieves clarity. “I have walked out in rain — and back in rain./ I have outwalked the furthest city light.” Allegorically, this is more than just a lonely night walk; it is a walk through life.

Influenced by Thomas Hardy, Frost’s poetry embodied the disturbing modernist themes of isolation, alienation and the sense of profound loneliness resulted from the questioning of religion; but he used diction and syntax that can be easily digest to deliver his themes, while paying homage to the tradition of form and meter. As Leonard Unger and William Van O’Connor pointed out in Poems for Study, “Frost’s poetry, unlike that of such contemporaries as Eliot, Stevens, and the later Yeats, shows no marked departure from the poetic practices of the nineteenth century.”

The darkness in Frost’s poem tend to strike harder when they hit because they are packed tight by the meter, the rhythm and the rhymes, which compound and stack on top of each other, line after line, creating a hard-hitting punch when the message is finally delivered.

Frost believed that poetry should be a heighten use of language, but this does not mean that the language should be difficult or incomprehensible. He used conversational speech to convey disturbing and profound subject matters. He also never indulged excessively in experimentation like Pound and Eliot, whose poetry, becomes less accessible as the writers’ messages became tangled in their attempts to creatively alter the usage of language.

In the essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wrote, “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because deeper and from wider experience.” And thus, clarity is achieved through the hard work of form, meter and sounds, mirroring the hard work that is often depicted in Frost’s poems. Moments of suspensions are then created when the reader is taken temporary outside of his earthy world and is delivered to an in-between place created by poetry, where he/she can find clarity, peace and “a momentary stay against confusion.”

Resources:

Ai ~ Annotated Bibliography

aiAi is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father’s identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.

My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I’ve been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.

            — (Modern American Poetry)

INTRODUCTION

A Buddhist and Creative Writing Professor. The poetess Ai is a pseudonym of Florence Anthony. Born in Tucson, Arizona, Ai is multiethnic: Japanese, Black, Choctaw, and Irish. Known for her mastery of dramatic monologues, Ai uses the different voices in her poetry to tear at the vulgar sores of our human condition, uncovering hunger, sexual deviations, social disconnection, violence, and vengeance.

Ai has received awards from the Guggenheim Fellowship (1975) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1978 & 1985), as well as multiple Book Awards for her collections.

POETRY

Cruelty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Edition(s): 1973 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-17714-6
Page count: 46
Book Design by:

About this Book: The poems in this book deal with hard-edged topics such as suicide, abortions, hanging, and domestic violence. This book takes an unfliching look at the unpredictability of our gross desires.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “After a Long Time” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Anniversary” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Before You Leave” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Corpse Hauler’s Elegy” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Deserter” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Dwarf” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Estranged” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Everything: Eloy, Arizona 1956” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Forty-Three-Year-Old Woman, Masturbating” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Hitchhiker” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Indecision” – The American Poetry Review
  • “New Crops for a Free Man” – The American Poetry Review
  • “One Man Down” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Possessions” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Prostitute” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Tennant Farmer” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Tired Old Whore” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Twenty-Year Marriage” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Unexpected” – The American Poetry Review
  • “But What I’m trying to Say Mother Is” – The Iowa Review
  • “Abortion” – Ironwood
  • “The Cripple” – Ironwood
  • “Cuba, 1962” – Ironwood
  • “Why Can’t I Leave You” – Ironwood
  • “The Widow” – Ironwood
  • “Woman” – Ironwood
  • “Young Farm Woman Alone” – Ironwood
  • “I Have Got to Stop Loving You” – Lillabullero
  • “Cruelty” – Renaissance
  • “Disregard” – Renaissance

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal  that “this book… has the smell of life about it. Ai writes with power” and efficiency, shining light on taboo subjects.

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Killing Floor: poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Edition(s):  1979 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-27593-8
Page count: 49
Book Design by:

Award(s): 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet from the American Academy of Poets

About this Book: In this collection, Ai paints intensifying images of sexuality and violence. She expands on Cruelty’s theme of dark human tendencies. In “The Kid,” she assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, who emerges unperturbed after destroying his family.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Father and Son” – Antaeus
  • “He Kept on Burning” – Antaeus
  • “Confession” – Antaeus
  • “The Kid” – Antaeus
  • “The Singers” – Antaeus
  • “The Gilded Man” – Agni
  • “Lesson, Lesson” – Black Box
  • “Sleep Like a Hammer” – Chicago Review
  • “Ice” – Chicago Review
  • “Almost Grown” – Choice
  • “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son” – Exile
  • “Jericho” – Iowa Review
  • “The Ravine” – Ironwood
  • “She Didn’t Even Wave” – Ironwood
  • “The Expectant Father” – Ironwood
  • “The German Army, Russia, 1942” – Ironwood
  • “Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “29 ( A Dream in Two Parts)” – Ms.
  • “The Ravine” – Ms.
  • “Nothing But Color” – Paris Review
  • “Killing Floor” – Paris Review
  • “Guadalajara Hospital” – Virginia Quarterly Review

Critical Response: Though no one doubts Ai’s talent, most critics agree with The New York Times Book Review, which has the following to say on the “emotional excesses” in this collection. “The poems’ context is often murky; strange, terrible and ‘beautiful’ images of mutilation… sex, death and violence recur with a predictable monotony…”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Cruelty; Killing Floor: poems. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1987.

Edition(s): 1987 / paperback / ISBN 0-938-41038-5
Page count: 99
Book Design by:

About this Book: This collection is a reprint of Ai’s first two collections.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Critical Response: See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Publisher Website: Thunder’s Mouth Press was an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group Inc. Thunder’s Mouth Press no longer exists. The Perseus Books Group purchased the Avalon Publishing Group.

Sin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Edition(s):      1986 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-37908-3
Page count: 80
Book Design by:

Award(s): American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation

About this Book: Chilling voices of powerful men and mass-murderers eminate from the pages of Sin. In “The Good Sheperd: Atlanta, 1981,” the killer speaks of “devouring his children.” “…A man like me eats and is full./Only God is never satisfied.”

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Priest’s Confession” – Agni Review
  • “The Emigre” – Agni Review
  • “Saint Anne’s Reel, 1870” – The American Literary Review
  • “The Man with the Saxaphone” – The American Voice
  • “Solome” – Antaeus
  • “Kristallnacht, Part 1” – Bennington Review
  • “The Death of Francisco Pizatto” – Bennington Review
  • “The Detective” – Cambridge University Poetry Magazine
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, No. 26 (Winter, 1986) pp. 1-5
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No. 3, the Best of Callaloo Poetry.
    A Special 25th Anniversary Issue (Summer, 2001) pp. 683-687
  • “More” – Crazy Horse
  • “Elegy” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Mother’s Tale” – Crazy Horse
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – The Iowa Review
  • “They Shall Not Pass” – The Iowa Review
  • “Two Brothers” – Ironwood
  • “The Testimony of Robert Oppenheimer” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “The Journalist” – Missouri Review
  • “Conversation” – Paris Review
  • “Kristallnacht, Parts 2 – 4 ” – Poetry
  • “Immortality” – The Seatle Review

Critical Response: According to The New York Times Book Review, this is Ai’s best collection. Other critics echo an admiration for her ability to “penetrate” her characters. However, according to Poetry (Modern Poetry Association), “… all Ai’s monologists sound like Ai.”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Fate: New Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Edition(s): 1991 / paperback / ISBN – 0-395-55637-6
Page count: 77
Book Design by: Robert Overholtzer

About this Book: Fate is littered with dark themes. The poetry in this collection gives voice to the dead, which includes General George Custer, President Lydon Johnson, James Dean and Elvis Prestley.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Jimmy Hoffa’s Odyssey” – Agni Review
  • “Lyndon Libre” – Alembic
  • “Go” – Areté
  • “The Cockfighter’s Daughter” – Café Solo
  • “The Resurrection of Elvis Presley” – Chelsea
  • “General George Armstrong Custer: My Life in the Theater” – Hayden’s Ferry Review
  • “James Dean” – Ironwood
  • “Capture” – Ironwood
  • “Fate” – Manoa
  • “The Shadowboxer” – Manoa
  • “Last Seen” – Pequod
  • “Eve’s Story” – Pequod
  • “Evidence: From a Reporter’s Notebook” – Pequod
  • “Boys and Girls, Lenny Bruce, or Back from the Dead” – Ploughshares
  • “Interview with a Policeman” – Poetry
  • “Reunions with a Ghost” – Quarterly West

Critical Response: Poetry (Modern Poetry Association) concludes, “Instead of harrowing our nervous systems, {the book’s} assault on the senses ultimately desensitizes.” On the contrary Library Journal praises the strength of Ai’s unnamed, down-and-out characters and defends the poet. “Ai’s horrific, surreal vision continues to mature with each book.”

Publisher Website: http://www.hmco.com/indexf.html

Greed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Edition(s): 1993 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-31201-1
Page count: 96
Book Design by: Guenet Abraham

About this Book: Poems from this collection are markers for the times, depicting the harsh, truthful realities of inner-city life. Ai tackles important, historical moments like the L.A. riots, the Rodney King’s beating and Mayor Marion Barry’s drug charges.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Self Defense” – Agni Review, No 36
  • “Life Story” – Agni Review
  • “Hoover, Edgar J.” – Agni Review
  • “Knockout” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 880-881
  • “Self Defense” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 877-879
  • “Finished” – Caprice
  • “Appomatox” – Caprice
  • “Penis Envy” – Caprice
  • “Zero Velocity, II” – Graham House Review
  • “Respect, 1967” – Lingo
  • “Jack Ruby on Ice” – Muleteeth
  • “Riot Act” – Muleteeth
  • “Reconciliation, 2, 3, 4” – On the Bus
  • “Zero Velocity, I” – On the Bus
  • “Self Defense” – On the Bus
  • “Archangel” – On the Bus
  • “Family Portrait, 1960” – Ploughshares
  • “Oswald Incognito & Astral Travels” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Party Line” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Miracle in Manila” – Tribes
  • “Reconciliation, 1” – University of Louisville Review
  • “The Ice Cream Man” – Zone

Critical Response: Margaret Atwood writes the following on the importance and necessity of Ai to the American poetry landscape, “Ai is a strong, powerful poet who writes about real things. These are daring, disturbing, ambitious poems that go for the heart of America.”

Publisher Website: http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/fall94/031201.htm

Vice: new and selected poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Edition(s): 1999 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32018-9
Page count: 272
Book Design by: Abbate Design

Award(s): 1999 National Book Award for Poetry

About this Book: Vice includes a collection of 58 monologues from Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate and Greed along with 17 new poems capturing characters from recent headlines, such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey and Monica Lewinsky.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Passing Through” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Chance” – Bed of Rice: Momento Mori
  • “Chance” – Caprice
  • “Afterschool Lessons form a Hitman” – Focus on Art
  • “The Paparazzi” – Focus on Art
  • “Star Vehicle” – Focus on Art
  • “Knock, Knock” – New Letters
  • “Sleeping Beauty” – New Letters
  • “Rapture” – On the Bus
  • “Visitation” – On the Bus
  • “The Antihero” – Poetry International
  • “Stalking Memory” – Pequod
  • “Back in the World” – Quarterly West
  • “Charisma” – Rattle
  • “False Witness” – Sniper Logic

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal that Ai’s ability to pause the spotlight on the sufferings of the ordinary people results in poetry that is “richly rewarding, but not for the squeamish.”

Publisher Website:  http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring00/32018.htm

Dread. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Edition(s): 2003 / hardcover / ISBN 0-393-04143-3
2004 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32619-5
Page count: 136
Book Design by: Blue Shoe Studio

About this Book: For the first time, some of the fictionalized characters in her poems are from Ai’s family. Included in this collection are poems about her mother and father. Ai dedicated this book to survivors of childhood trauma.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Greenwood Cycle” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 947-952
  • “The White Homegirl” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 953-954
  • “Dread” – Canary River
  • “Rude Awakening” – Columbia Magazine
  • “Intercourse” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Psychic Detective: Identity” – Crazy Horse
  • “Greetings Friend” – Divide
  • “Family” – Estrella Mountain Community College
  • “Fairy Tale” – Estruscan Press
  • “The Broker” – The Manthology
  • “The Calling” – The Mantholog
  • “The Secret” – New Delta Review
  • “Lullaby” – Pacific Review
  • “Grandfather Says” – Pacific Review
  • “Delusions” – Southwest Review
  • “The Psychic Detective: Fantasy” – Witness
  • “Passage” – The Writer’s Garret

Critical Response: The substance of this book is in its personal nature. The New York Times Book Review writes, “We feel in this book, as perhaps never before in Ai’s work, the presence of the writer and her anguished condition.”

Publisher Website: http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/fall04/032619.htm

Dread ~ Book Review

ai-dreadcoverDread
(by Ai, W.W. Norton, 2003: paperback $13.95)

If it were a cuisine, Dread would not be a dish to serve with “green tea and poppy-seed cake” [“Intercourse”] out on the yard at grandmother’s house. It is not polite. It screams “like a breath held too long” [“True Love”]. It devours the senses then violates. To experience Dread is to “put your hand in the fire” [“True Love”] and watch it burn. Ai constructs the experience of dread and pours it into the reader’s mouth. We swallow, “thinking it tastes like blood.” [“Intercourse”]

As one of the leading poets writing dramatic monologues, Ai gives voice to taboo subjects, allowing her characters to whisper their secrets into your ear.

“My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I’ve been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.”

-Ai (Modern American Poetry)

The winner of the Lamont Poetry Award for Killing Floor: poems, the American Book Award for Sin, and the National Book Award for Vice: new and selected poems, Ai is a poet willing to explore and expose the relevant subjects of dark human tendencies in contemporary culture.

In Dread, Ai embodies the tormented voices of adults recalling moments of dread from their childhoods—memories of war, the aftermath of 9/11, sexual abuse and domestic violence. “My mother begged him to spare my life,/but he said, ‘Woman, I am Africa/and Africa takes what it wants.’” [“The Calling”]

Reading Dread is like racing breathlessly through an urban jungle where the landscape is littered with ghosts, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter, and violent lovers who leave marks on each other’s bodies like wolf bites. It takes us “back through time/to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life/I thought was gone,/but it had only sunk from view/into the quicksand of my mind.” [“Grandfather Says”]

At first glance, the poems in this collection leave the reader feeling a sense of vertigo. We are shoved head first into gross human tendencies and desires, which gives us serious pause. We question if poetry is supposed to be about such ugly emotions; but this is the strange beauty of Ai. She is not easy on the stomach. She exposes us to emotions that we don’t normally want to have. She makes us face our depravity. Her brand of honesty is what gives her poetry its gritty energy—well-crafted lines that pulse with greed, sin, cruelty and dread.

Ai allows the reader to invade the inner lives her characters. She places us inside the minds of people we have never met while they are most vulnerable and force us to uncomfortably violate their privacy, to taste their sweat, and to bear witness to their disturbances. She gives us a “passport into the suffering of others” [“Delusion”]. And because we are there, in the darkness with your hands on the character’s face, rubbing the bump on his nose as he moans, we understand his nature even if seconds ago—before the poem has inflicted itself upon us—we would never have allowed ourselves to think about this:

Grandfather Says
“Sit on my hand.”
I am ten.
I can’t see him,
But I hear him breathing
in the dark.
It’s after dinner playtime.
We’re outside,
hidden by trees and shrubbery.
He calls it hide-and-seek,
but only my little sister seek us
as we hide
and she can’t find us,
as grandfather picks me up
and rubs his hands between my legs.
I only feel a vague stirring
at the edge of my consciousness.
I don’t know what it is,
but I like it.
It gives me pleasure
that I can’t identify.
It’s not like eating candy,
but it’s just as bad,
because I had to lie to grandmother
when she asked,
“What do you do out there?”
[…]

Nothing is what it seems. The abusers are sometimes the victims; the victims sometimes enjoy being victimized; and ordinary people are sometimes extraordinary under the right light. Suddenly, we realize that reading these poems is not a passive experience.

The poems in Dread are not only disturbing and raw, they are also lengthy. While most poems in this collection average between three and four pages, there are poems like “Delusion” and “The Greenwood Cycle” that are over six pages long, making them difficult emotionally for the reader to finish and sometimes even to follow.

Ai sometimes manipulates chronology without using stanza breaks, forcing the reader to take leaps of faith between the past, present and future. In “Grandfather Says” we are introduced to a young girl playing hide-and-seek, but when the game ends, we are faced with a thirty-five year old woman, who is suddenly a little girl again at the end of the poem. This creates narrative density and a mysterious sense of time within the poem, shrouding the characters in layers of psychological complexity. This confusing and panic-driven pace adds to the overall tone of the poem, allowing the reader to experience it in a rich, circular time structure instead of an easier to digest, linear progression.

Aside from dark human tendencies, another important theme in Dread is love, but in Ai’s world of Dread, even true love is examined in a hot, harsh light.

True Love
[…]
I lie in bed contentedly, despite my unease,
thinking maybe you freed yourself from me this time,
until I hear your key in the lock,
then I turn, facing the mirrored bathroom door
and pretend to be asleep,
imagining how tomorrow you’ll be so glad
I didn’t see you raise the heavy, glass ashtray
above my head for a few minutes,
before you put it back on the table
and admitted to yourself at last
that you belong to me.

A reader becomes uneasy, working through poems like this, each one a bitter pill without a warning labels. We don’t know what we will have to swallow next. Will this poem make us depressed; will this other poem make us sympathize with a pervert? We are right to wonder that perhaps this is too much Dread. But we read on anyway, because the honest depiction of brutality engrosses us. It is something to which we can relate. The mixture of poignant beauty and human vulnerability in a collision course with hard-edged characters gives these poems a truth that both troubles and surprises.

Delusion
I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on the television,
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor
and rolled there as if I were on fire.
[…]
We shared our sorrow,
ate it like bread.
It was our defense
against the senselessness of it all.
They “wanted” to believe that I was seeking
someone I’d lost
and I absorbed their need.
I understood the power of belief and used it.
[…]

We recognize this woman. She is a friend, a coworker, a cousin, mother, sister, aunt. If we were there on that day, head covered in ashes, we might have been her. For a moment, as a reader, we become lost in our own memories. We remember exactly where we were as we watched the Towers burn and collapse over and over again on television, the same way that she had watched them.

Although Ai’s poems contain snapshots of brutality, violence and depravity, they are just and truthful in their depictions; the reader is left with traces of hope.  As they depict the complexities of human relationships, tragic needs and wants, Ai’s poems, though they may be disturbing, enrich the reader’s sense of humanity.

In Dread we read of a young girl who gets molested, of a good cop who loses his brother.  In these poems sometimes the sky rains ashes and bad news for days, drowning even the fish, but all is not lost. There are times when it still “feel[s] as if the whole world/is one big candy apple,/red and juicy just for me….” [“Disgrace”]

Ai’s poems in Dread remind us about the dirty business of living, and the feelings we get from it stay with us. The experience they contain cannot help but be complicated, dark and wonderfully human.

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An Exploration of Female Desires through the Personae of the Poet Ai

One afternoon, I sat on my third-floor apartment balcony and watched a man repeatedly pounded the windshield of his wife’s Toyota Tercel with a wooden bat. The man’s anger disrupted the peaceful façade of the quiet, tree-lined street. Car alarms, set-off by the sudden rupture of passion, competed for attention. The neighborhood suddenly came alive as spectators peaked through drawn curtains to assess the situation. Reassured that their cars were not the ones being damaged, one-by-one they disarmed and sunk back into their comfortable chairs. A domestic dispute between a man and his wife was no one else’s business.

“I hate you, you cheating bastard.” The wife’s words shot out of her mouth like jagged spears of glass. Her teary eyes burned with passion as she spoke, betraying her words. As if trying to drown out her voice, the man’ s bat connected with the side mirror, the windshield, the roof, the window, and then the windshield again, creating craters with each blow. From where I sat, unable to look away, I witnessed a disturbing scene, which could have been ripped right from one of Ai’s poems, played out in front of me. Violence, love, lust, raw human emotions unchecked and uncensored are subjects that Ai captures with mastery in her poetry.

A dark force inside of the woman kept her sitting there, egging her husband. Was it fear, was anger, or was it a mixture of both that had churned and grinded together to turn into something much more powerful, lust?

Suddenly, the bat shattered the side window, causing the woman’s courage to shatter with it. She let out a terrified sob, and she gunned the Tercel down the street, weaving from side-to-side, dodging parked cars. The man ran after his wife with tears in his eyes. When she did not stop, he sat down on the curb and buried his face inside his giant hands. The bat, which seconds ago was swinging with rage and passion, was now limp between his hairy legs.

But minutes later, the dented Tercel coasted back up the street and stopped in front of the distraught husband. The wife cautiously peeled herself out of the car seat. She walked up to him and rubbed her hand over his sweaty head in gentle concentric circles. He clung to her legs and wiped his tears on her thigh. All was forgiven.

Her hands groped at his face, leaving behind hot imprints. Her body twisted itself into him. Her identity was so damaged. It had become the abject. Consumed by the sudden burst of fever between them, she acted against her own self-interest.

The man rose and wrapped his arm, thick like an anaconda, around her shoulders and maneuvered her inside. Was the display of violence just their version of foreplay?

I watched them walked out of sight, hands in each other’s back pockets like teenagers in an intimate embrace, before going back inside where I turned on the TV just in time to see a man slammed a small ball straight down centerfield with a wooden bat. The impact ripped through the air, bouncing echoes off the walls of my apartment, leaving me to wonder how a ball can keep absorbing so much pain.

Pain, love, desire, and the confusion that results when the three mixes, is this what it means to be a woman? In some women, desire seems to victimize and violate, creating a space of abjection. In contemporary critical theory, Julia Kristeva uses abjection to explain the state of being that exists between the subject and the object. Abjection is caused by loss of distinction between the self and the other. According to Kristeva, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.”

This state of abjection describes people who have been marginalized in some way, such as people of color, prostitutes and poor, abused or disabled people. In this context, “the abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.” [Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”]

To be a woman, then, is to risk being in conflict with one’s own desires, as well as society’s desire to put woman neatly away in her place. What about the way in which female desire is interpreted and expected to be acted out that makes it the wooden bat upon which some women beat themselves? And why, in contrast, for other women, is female desire such a source of power? When the self is intact, desire can be used as a way to reinforce a sense of control and as a weapon that yields power and demands change. Through their actions and the way they deviate from society’s expectations, the women who embrace their desires as a force of power are able to reconfigure the roles that they are expected to play, creating twists and turns in the social order.

ai
the poet Ai

The woman speaker in Ai’s “Why Can’t I Leave You,” like the wife and her dented Tercel, gives up control of her desires, surrendering control of her life to the desires which renders her powerless.

[…]
I undress, then put on my white lace slip
for you to take off, because you like that
and when you come in, you pull down the straps
and I unbutton your shirt.
I know we can’t give each other anymore
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can’t make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.

This woman’s desires, though she does not derive power from them, are part of her identity. They weaken her, forcing her to accept less than what she needs. Her sense of self is shattered, becoming the abject, forcing her to beg and passively manipulate instead of making demands for the things that she needs and wants, convincing her to stay with a man, who, on his best day, does not have enough within him to provide her with the contentment she desires, even if “there is safety in that.” She cannot bring herself to want more than the things that he likes or be happy unless she is making him happy.

However, she is still aware of the power of her passion, “come close between my thighs/and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.” She still knows how to use it to seduce him and exercise her limited power over him. Though she may be unaware of their full power, her desires are still the silent forces in the background that affected her inability to leave.

In contemporary poetry and literature, female desire is often viewed simultaneously as a force of mysterious power and as a source of evil and corruption. In Ai’s “The Mother’s Tales,” a mother is devoured by her own mysterious desires.

[…]
I was young, free.
But Jaunito, how free is a woman? —
born with Eve’s sin between her legs,
and inside her,
Lucifer sits on a throne of abalone shells,
his staff with the head of John the Baptist
skewered on it.
And in judgment, son, in judgment he says
that woman will bear the fruit of the tree
we wished so much to eat
and that fruit will devour us
generation by generation,

This mother is judged for the desires and sins of all the generations that came before her. Being born a woman, she is shackled by her womanhood. This is her sense of self. But the self, in this case, is in conflict and her identity is poorly constructed, so the ego breaks down and becomes the other—the abject.

This mother is victimized twice, first by the man who had abused her and convinced her that a woman must be beat; and second by her own sense of morality against her female desires. And then as with most victims, she continues the cycle of victimization through the lessons that she passes on to her children.

so my son,
you must beat Rosita often.
She must know the weight of a man’s hand,
the bruises that are like the wounds of Chris.
[…]
And she must be pregnant always
if not with child
then with the knowledge
that she is alive because of you.
That you can take her life
more easily than she creates it,
[…]

With blind rage against the desires that made her weak and female, this mother instructs her son to rip his wife’s power from the womb, from the sacred place where life emerges. He is taught to take his wife’s desires and twist them into knots from which he can hang her like the body of Christ. This mother, a woman made so powerless by the circumstances of her own life, is only able to empower herself by becoming an indirect aggressor. By demanding from her son that his wife “must know the weight of a man’s hand,” she is creating a new generation of men whom she can control, even if that control comes at the abjection of other women.

This mother is so far removed from her own desires and sense of self that she is only defined by violent acts. They have become her truth—a truth, which to her is sacred and immortal like her religious beliefs.  She accepts the burden to pass on this violence against female desire as a way to stop its corruption. In telling her son to beat desires out of the woman who lies with him and spawns his children, this mother is gaining back a sense of who she is. Through her lessons, she reaffirms her place in a world, even if it is a place where women only exist in the space of abjection.

The self in the personaes Ai’s poems inhabit is often broken, but is always present, dictating actions and reactions. A woman’s desires stab at her from the inside, puncturing the ego, reshaping her identity. But if she can get a hold of these desires, she can wield them like weapons. In the “Tired Old Prostitute,” Ai’s persona experiences abjection brought on by her chosen profession, but she finds a way to re-envision herself and return her sense of self to its object state.

This is my property, I laid for it, paid for it, you know,
and I just want to build a cement walkway
right up to my front door.
I’ll be the only whore within fifty miles
who can claim she did something with her hands
that didn’t get a man hard.
What? — but I’m so tired. Can’t you wait a while?
I’m forty-five, my breath’s short, I like to sleep alone.
Yeah, yeah, I rolled in my jelly and it felt good,
but this belly isn’t wood or steel.
Man, turn your butt to my face.
But wait, I need a little help, help me, sweet thing.
Pull down your pants.
I like to see what I’m getting now,
before it gets into me.

Despite the fact that she was once victimized by her desires, this woman’s identity has found a way to reestablish itself, and it is now as steady as the house—she has “laid for it, paid for it.” Sitting on a firm foundation of self-reliance, but with desires still very much a part of her life, she is in control. She tells men what to do. “Pull down your pants./I like to see what I’m getting now,/before it gets into me.” She tells them what she likes and how she likes it.

In women who have a strong grip on their powers like this “tired old prostitute,” the ego employs desires to reverse the direction of powerlessness, allowing the woman to break out of her traditional role and rewrite cultural norms. From the prostitute to the woman in “Old Woman, Young Man” Ai’s poems expose cultural norm through her characters’ deviation from them.

[…]
Unashamed, I part my legs.
As always he says, look there’s a rose,
yes, but it’s lost its teeth.
He eats without tasting
and I reach to scratch my name
on the damp face rising
with a few crinkled gray hairs
shoving their white-tipped heads
against his scarred and frightened lips.

This “old woman” breaks cultural norms by acting out her desires with a younger man, taking what is traditionally a male role, and empowering herself through it. Unlike the wife in the Tercel who allowed her desires to oppress her, this old woman embraces her power and seeks pleasures from it. She satisfies her desires, but not at the cost of sacrificing her sense of self.

Another situation where the female desire is in control can be found in the poem, “Woman.” This woman knows what pleases her and is unabashed in going about getting it.

The adobe walls of the house
clutch the noon heat in tin fists
and while bathing, I fan my breasts,
watching the nipples harden.
I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to,
and shift my weight from left buttock to right,
while the water circling my waist tightens,
as if you had commanded it.
I stand up, spreading my legs apart,
Ready to release the next ribbon of blood.

 This woman knows her desires. She is unashamed of them. “I fan my breasts,/watching the nipples harden./I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to.” She wants to discover her pleasures. She celebrates the “ribbon of blood” that is released from her. She celebrates the life that is created as the product of her pleasures and desires.

All right. You want me now, this way.
I haven’t locked the door.
My swollen belly feels only its heaviness,
and would weigh less than the pain
chipping away at my navel with an ice pick of muscle.
I can carry you.
The blood, halved and thinned, rolls down my legs,
cupping each foot in a red stirrup
and I am riding that invisible horse,
the same one my mother rode.
It’s hungry, it has to be fed,
the last man couldn’t, can you?

She is strong and bold. Her female desire is a source of limitless power. “I can carry you,” she declares. She rejoices and embraces the life force that courses through her. She is the creator. “Riding that invisible horse,/the same one my mother rode,” she is part of a something bigger, something which connects all women.

This woman knows what she wants, and she wants a man who can play the role that she casts for him. “It’s hungry, it has to be fed,/the last man couldn’t, can you?”

To be a woman is to know desires. A woman’s desires and her identity are linked. This is her sense of self.  However, female desire as determined by the constructions of patriarchal power is a concept that is inherently in conflict with itself.  In women whose identities are poorly constructed, the ego breaks down and become the other—the abject. When this happens, the woman is rendered powerless by her desires, victimized by her needs. The wife in the Tercel was such a victim. She was violated by her desires and became weaken by them. The repeated beating of her husband’s bat terrified her, yet at the same time, it excited her desires for him. Though she tried to leave, she came back, never realizing that she had the power to create change for herself.

However, in women who have a strong grip on their powers, like the “tired old prostitute” and the “old woman with the young man,” the ego employs desires to reverse the structure of power. By demanding that their female desire be acknowledged, these women expose flaws in what society deems as acceptable behavior from and toward women. And by deviating from conventional thinking, they act as agents of change, forcing society to bend to their needs, finding power in female desire instead of allowing it to suppress their voices.

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