Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Two good poems

It's been a little while since I blogged about poetry. Lest my poetry people feel forlorn, forsaken, here I go. These are two poems I like, and some things I like about them. Both poems are narrative, but unspool their stories in unusual ways.

This first one is by Karyna McGlynn:
A Red Tricycle in the Belly of the Pool

the live oak over the nursery got a disease
they could only save one limb
it wasn't surprising; it wasn't that kind of nursery

a girl rode her red tricycle around the bottom of the pool
the pool had no water; it hadn't rained

the girl kept smelling her hand
it smelled like honeywheat, or the inside of a girl's panties

someone said, race you
she nodded okay and pedaled like hell
after three laps no one had passed her

she looked over her shoulder, lost her balance
ripped her hands & knees on the blue concrete

the one limb on the live oak curved like a question
would she need stitches again

there was already ink under her skin & iodine on her tongue
or was it the other way around

she could see black thread bunching
sewing centipedes under her skin

her throat burned and she couldn't move her legs
it wasn't a tricycle
it was something she couldn't get her foot out from under

she hated to stop or lose her shoe and, I'm sorry
the pool was full of water
I included this poem in the course packet for a seminar called "The Poem and the Idea." I love the way it tells its story. It's delivered with a certain uncertainty, as though depending on a faulty memory – or is the speaker simply a liar? (That "I'm sorry" is so sneaky, it could be sinister.) I've said before I hate description. The trick of this poem is that it uses description deceptively – you're forced to visualize the scene, and then, at the end, you have to revise your mental image. The water floods into your image as water floods into a pool. This poem also seems to describe a way of experiencing things, as though understanding were only available after the fact. (Isn't it?) We receive reality in dispatches.

This one's by Joyelle McSweeney.

Others were more economical than I. But I
had my red marble. I had action
figures weighting down the drapes
on tiny threads. That twisted and got smaller.
One door led
to a more economical room.
Perhaps a more economical view. The girl
across the hall was the same girl.

I climbed out across the telephone wires. I thought
they'd hold me, like the webbing of a lawn chair,
and like a wedding or a lawnchair they didn't. I kept
pulling chunks out of the hummock. I fell with my
fists full of humus. Into, of course.

At home the state-painter was painting the ghost oak. And
the window around the oak. The room around

She came from the same
town in Iceland.
Whither and whence I
came. O-ho!
With her eye
she came and came.
With her weather
eye she came.

I saw the damage this was doing to the van
would not cost six hundred dollars.
I pedaled off in my car.
My car got smaller.
It wouldn't fit my littlest brother!
It fell over.
Fell, of course, into.

Back at the ranch, it was a tenement.
I was a tenant of the studio-apartment.
I was building a house in French.
Expectorant--I was self-enlightened,
my efforts self-directed and sustained.
To the tune of eighty-seven dollars
I debated a suitable depth. A squirrel
at each level of the fence

with an apple for a face looked on blandly.
I mean red. Red-faced. Blindly.

Heavenly stage set comes
in on wheels and wheels around.
The fish wind up the concrete ladder
because they believe it's better
to reach a higher part of the rive.
to pour themselves out
while I pour myself into
the form that has survived.
my father leaves tomorrow
and he leaves this
afternoon. This is before
I set fire to my room,
pouring water in the electric baseboards
trying to wash a tiny brine shrimp
off the wall. It might have lived.
This is after my mother,
her father dead. Lay in bed.
Heard the Skylark song.
Like the McGlynn poem, this poem seems not quite sure of its story. At times it has a making-it-up-as-she-goes-along quality, at others it's like the reporting of a dream, full of illogical leaps and holes and misrememberings. But there's a seriousness, even an urgency, in the voice so we feel something is at stake, this isn't just a lot of hooey. Still, it's incredibly playful, really saturated with wordplay; it's as though the language used to tell the story could time-travel back and change the story. (In the real world there would be a story; in poetry there is only the language.)

I think the McGlynn poem works mostly on the macro scale; with a different ending it wouldn't be so remarkable. The language is lovely, filmic, but it would stop there, at description. The McSweeney poem is most remarkable at the micro scale; it's full of little moves (puns and polysemy, definition by negation, exposed revision), little songs and little worlds.


  1. Thanks, both enjoyable poems. I like the McSweeney bit more, I think, because the manic wordplay gives the voice a _plausible_ unreliability whereas in the McGlynn poem I feel the narrator comes off as sly rather than confused. I'm also not entirely sold on either the reappearing oak or the stitches-as-centipedes.

    The danger with compulsive wordplay is rather like that with straitjacket-y forms: "fists full of humus" in particular made me cringe.

  2. That first poem is the kind of poem I don't like because I don't get what's going on, and it seems like there is supposed to be something to get. I like poems where either there's something to get and it's easily got, or there's nothing to get, so you don't worry about getting it. I feel like if you're going to do narrative, it shouldn't be unnecessarily confusing.

  3. Matt, I would say the poem is *necessarily* confusing, because the confusion about the actual events is crucial to the poem. In other words, it's not just about "what happened," it's about the difficulty of knowing "what happened," especially when filtered through the eyes/memory of a little girl and/or the past.

    Sarang, point taken, though I enjoy the slyness of the voice in the first, the ambiguity of the trick, is it an honest misunderstanding, or willful meanness?

  4. It's just that all I can think is, "Huh? So, the branch falls on her leg as she's playing in the pool, and she mistakes it for a tricycle? Or no, she wasn't really riding a tricycle, because the pool was full of water after all? What?" I really have no clue what's going on, and I just don't see the benefit of this confusion to the poem.

  5. Well aren't you just every poet's dream reader! Ha. I think the benefits are clear; the benefit IS the (Jedi) mind trick (there's a pleasure in realizing you were wrong, which is why surprise endings in movies are fun too), but even if it weren't for that, I don't think the story is all that hard to follow.

    For the record, I totally disagree that if you're going to write a narrative poem you have to do it in a certain way.

  6. Also: You don't know exactly what's going on in Black Swan either, but you enjoyed that, right? I feel like people always give movies the benefit of the doubt. Why don't we do that for poems?

  7. Hm yeah, maybe there's a charitable reading on which it's one of those vague dreamlike childhood memories that keep changing on you when you try and recollect them, and all you can really establish are the random details. This is a rather submerged reading for me, though, my first impression was like haha a stunt ending.

  8. Yeah exactly -- I'm all the more for that type of reading because this is from a book of inter-related poems called *I Have to Go Back to 1984 and Kill a Girl* (awesome title, no?) so this idea of re-entering and maybe changing the past is present throughout.

  9. McGlynn's book was my revelation of last year - I loved the way she played with narrative expectation, exactly that confusion that adds up to something bigger than the parts.

  10. Well, maybe you found it easier to follow, but I didn't. I honestly think I'm less smart than a lot of readers, and I don't catch on to things very well.

    I liked Black Swan, but I didn't love it. I would give it a 7 out of 10. My rating would be higher if I understood more what was going on.

  11. (I don't think you have to write a narrative poem in a certain way, just that the way you choose to write it in should be clear.)

  12. Sorry, I'm not expressing myself very clearly tonight. If I was smarter I would be able to! This kind of thing is frustrating for me. This is why I can't write reviews.

  13. Fake it till you make it, yo. Half of being smart/getting smarter is just keeping an open mind.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I totally disagree about that too! :D

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. You really think SAT score is a good measure of intelligence?

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. People get better at games faster by playing with people who are better than them. Similarly, I think people get smarter when they're exposed to more challenges.

  20. No, but SATs aren't even close. That's not even what they're SUPPOSED to show. It's all in the name: Scholastic Aptitude. They basically test how good you are at taking tests. You can literally buy higher scores just by taking a course to learn the tricks.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. That may be, but the fact that YOU haven't gotten smarter doesn't mean nobody can.

  23. The thing about poems is, if I'm going to enjoy it, it had better be really good. Reading is more of a chore than watching, so a movie doesn't have to be as good for me to enjoy it. So it's not that I give movies the benefit of the doubt, it's just that they're less of a chore to get through than books, for me.