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Why Does the Poem Work?: Rachel Loden’s “What the Gravedigger Needs”
Joel Brouwer blogged about Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead last year here; it’s been a pleasure to see this political, strange and strangely charming book get some attention, including here and here. The Dick of the title is of course Richard Nixon; Ron Silliman says “Loden works with Nixon the way Shakespeare worked with Lear, mining him for all of his many inner conflicts, using him to show us ourselves.” There are many delights in this book. Here’s one, a poem that doesn’t actually mention or otherwise riff on the former president; it casts, to me, an eerie light:
What the Gravedigger Needs
iron spear to loosen up the frozen ground
length of rope
board to prevent mourners falling in
bicycle to go from grave to grave
I first saw that poem a few years back in New American Writing, one of those poems that goes down quickly, sticks in the brain like burrs. What makes the poem work?
The first three entries on this itemized list scan down the body and halfway back up. Overalls as stand-in for actual flesh, drop down to the boots, move back up to the hands in protective gloves. After briefly noted objects, a longer line of greater contingency, “iron spear to loosen up the frozen ground,” and a very vivid insta-picture of probing into something that doesn’t want to be probed. The iron spear feels anachronistic, as does “gravedigger.” The dead of the past feel with us.
The corpse and coffin are never mentioned, but the mourners are—people who must be prevented from falling—though they too someday will fall. Finally, that bicycle. It’s the bicycle that transforms this from an odd list into a poem, by revising what we already know. Suddenly all that equipment—board, spear, lantern, rope—must be carried—balanced—on two wheels, by a man already clumsily dressed in fat rubber boots. There’s an immense rush of instability into the poem, countering the dispassionate list, the workaday requirements of the man who deals daily and matter-of-factly with other people’s great sorrow. The whole poem ends in a death-related teeter.
I don’t know what graveyards in Teuva, Finland are like. That’s an estrangement that also makes the poem effective. If it were American graveyards, it would all be too familiar, and would inject (interestingly, perhaps, but more likely, intrusively) too much sociopolitical content to allow that single teetering gesture to operate effectively. If it were, say, Pere LaChaise, it would be a tourist poem, and we’d be there with our cameras with Stein and Wilde, Piaf, Jim Morrison, the wall of the Communards, the stray cats and the terrifying and beautiful row of monuments to the Holocaust dead.
But that bicycle also makes the graveyard huge. I don’t know why he doesn’t have an electric cart or even a car—though what a different effect it would be. An electric cart would seem comic; a car would shut him off from, and seem to aggress on, the city of the dead. But the bicycle, exposed and unstable unless you keep pedaling (living?), makes that graveyard in Teuva huge. He can’t walk. There are too many graves. The bicycle makes this ultra spare poem contain dead multitudes, past, present—president.