“Last Bar in Okinawa” and “Home from College” by Samantha Lê published in Two Thirds North, 2017 issue

I’m happy to announce that my poems “Last Bar in Okinawa” and “Home from College” have been selected for publication in the 2017 issue of Two Thirds North.   To read the online version, please click here.

“Last Bar in Okinawa” and “Home from College” is also be included in the 2017 print issue of Two Thirds North,  available for purchase.

About “Last Bar in Okinawa

A man, with pockets stuffed with stones to insure that he’ll sink when he steps into the water, stops at bar for his last drink while outside the ocean waits for him.  This poem was inspired by a photo a friend had taken of a bar in Okinawa.  I was reading about suicides in Japan at the time, and the idea for the poem came together quite spontaneously… and then months of edits followed.

LastBarOkinwana

“Bar in Okinawa” photo by William Karstens

I originally structured this as a long narrative poem.  I built an entire life for the man to explain how he’d come to be in this bar; but through the revision process, I decided to discard the narrative and keep only the emotions.  The months of trying to whittle this poem down to the essential truth led me to conclude that it no longer mattered to the man how he had arrived at this moment in his life, it only mattered that he was there and how he felt.  [read poem, page 40]

About “Home from College

This poem is about twin brothers, home from college, finding their old bedroom transformed into a gift-wrapping room.  Perhaps it’s the newness of a familiar place, perhaps it’s because they’ve been apart and have missed the closeness they once shared, but events unfold with the older brother taking his twin’s virginity.  The younger twin feels that he’s “made” into a man by this act and surrenders to the pleasure.  [read poem, page 65]

About Two Thirds North

Two Thirds North is a high-quality, annual print magazine produced by the Master Class in Creative Writing and Editing at the Department of English, Stockholm University.  Issues are $10 each.  [visit website]

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.

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