December 2009 Discussion Guide

In Search of Estrangement

Strange encounters of the poetic kind in the December issue of Poetry.

In Search of Estrangement

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Peter Campion begins his review in this issue of Poetry magazine by addressing what he considers one of poetry's most neglected qualities. He explains:

If there are virtues specific to poetry, maybe the least discussed remains its ability to estrange. Shaped from language, the very medium in which we all consider ourselves experts, poems possess a distinct power to turn the familiar suddenly weird.

Before I started scavenging through the poems in this issue for the rich and strange, I found myself slipping on the very idea of literary strangeness. One of my favorite poets, Stephen Dobyns, frequently pairs matter-of-fact tone with absurd content (talking dogs, immortal chickens) to make strangeness feel bizarrely normal. Ezra Pound's Cantos confront the reader with foreign languages and obscure references that serve, at least initially, to estrange us from the poem. When he offers a crystalline image in the midst of confusion, its clarity seems odd. (In other words, for both poets, the familiar turns “suddenly weird” because the weird has turned slowly familiar.)

I found a wealth of strangeness, and dearth of familiarity, in Valzhyna Mort's “crossword”—particularly in its most outrageous word, “pussy.” Notice the tricks the first lines turn. The poem starts: “a woman moves through dog rose and juniper bushes.” As one who (I'll admit it) had never heard of dog roses, I stumbled over that phrase, first taking “dog” to mean the animal, and then realizing I was barking up the wrong tree. Mort prepares us, in this way, for the next line, “a pussy clean and folded between her legs.” “Pussy” doesn't quite mean “cat” here, but it doesn't entirely mean “vagina” either: the adjectives “clean and folded” usually apply to clothes, an association that unfolds through the rest of the stanza, which compares the woman's breasts to shoes and her body to an armoire.

The cat comes back in the dead center of the poem, with the spectacular phrase “her pussy reaches up and turns on the light in her womb.” The pussy seems feline now—cats being prodigious reachers—as well as capable of impregnating the woman. Do you see additional meanings here? How do you imagine them functioning together? (Do they function together?)

And what do we make of the fact that “womb” is just a phoneme away from “room”? “The pussy turns on a light in the room” would make a more conventional kind of sense. “Compile,” in the next stanza, functions similarly: usually one piles, rather than compiles, furniture (much less into “crosswords” that one then sits in with one's lover—a striking metaphor for a relationship). Throughout this poem, Mort permits words and meanings (as well as people) to collide and interlock and shoot off in different directions—which is exactly what happens in romance, and in crosswords.

What sense do you, or don't you, make of this poem? How do you read it, and what do you read into it?

***

Compare Mort's poem in mode and message to James Lasdun's poem “It Isn't Me.” We can walk his lines a bit more surefootedly: while Mort's “pussy” wobbles between cat, laundry, and organ, Lasdun's “he” always refers to the same man, albeit one who asserts “It isn't me” until that colloquialism becomes a terrifying act of self-cancellation. I love the turn in the fifth stanza, where the man ceases to exist by dint of others' inability to believe in him

except as some half-legendary figure
destined, or doomed, to carry on his back
the weight of their own all-but-weightless, stray
doubts and discomforts.

Here he becomes a vehicle for others' thoughts, and the poem accordingly transforms into an account of them, not of him.

The chilling final couplet has those others “wonder, briefly, what they were, and where, / and feel the strangeness of being there.” Combining choppy meter with perfect rhyme, these lines produce an effect that's strange indeed. They might even serve as a lens through which to view Mort's poem. Wondering what Mort means, we might then wonder why we try to orient ourselves within a disorienting work of literature in the first place: we might wonder what we are, and where, and feel the strangeness of being there.

What do you feel the relationship between these poems to be—if any? What kinds of strangeness do both harness, and how?

***

A paradoxical brand of strangeness marks several other poems in the issue, which is the strangeness of previously unrecognized connections—the strangeness of realizing that dissimilar elements are in fact similar, that they are not as estranged from each other as previously thought. Poems dense with sonic resonances, such as Daryl Hine's “&: A Serial Poem” and Jill Alexander Essbaum's “What Isn't Mine,” continuously call our attention to the acoustic similarities between words that are semantically distinct. Caught off-guard by Hine's phrase “weird world,” for example, I glanced back and forth between the words until they nearly blurred together, communicating in tandem the weirdness of the world and the worldliness of the weird. Essbaum, for her part, sends sound echoes resonating down her lines. “Tunnel,” “rubble,” and “couple” make an odd trio that comes to seem perfect once we notice how her geology-inflected poem, through two-line stanzas as narrow as tunnels, collapses a couple into rubble.

Do you find other poems here similarly invested in uniting distinct elements? How does that union affect your reading?

How do you respond to Campion's premise regarding poetry and estrangement, and to mine? Do you believe a value of poetry is not to estrange, but to familiarize? Rather than alienating, do these poems strike you as, in some way, typical—and if so, how?

 

By Abigail Deutsch

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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