One word that gets a lot of play in our critical writing – since the dawn of Derrida, anyway – is ‘play’ itself. We’re often wanting more of it, not less, and the freer the play the better. But I wonder if the logic of Eliot’s old saw about free verse – “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” – can be extended to the more general concept of play: no play is free for the person who wants to play well. Which is only to say: it’s nice, maybe even necessary, to have some rules in which to wriggle, even if the rules are arbitrary and amount to little more than a Houdini’s self-imposed straitjacket. The children at play in Suzanne Buffam’s poem “Play”, from her debut book, Past Imperfect, have the fun they have because of the rules they set for themselves. They don’t escape from this play unscathed – and neither does the reader – but then play doesn’t always end in pleasure. The poem, in other words, only looks like child’s play:

He has put his shirt on backwards and allowed her,
just this once, to touch his face. Her arms
reach through the empty sleeves and in
this game, they’ve become his. His hands
hang empty at his sides. They share the body
of one child. The mirror gives back one body
of two minds. One sees the other’s fingers
find his eyes and knows to hold them closed
until she’s finished with the lids. Because
she’s seen it done before, she knows to still
the chin while filling in the other’s lips, although,
this time, she’s working blind. She stills him
with a finger and he feels his own chin quiver
when she laughs. And since she can’t see
where she’s been, the colour thickens in some places
and in others doesn’t take. They name this face.
They dream up something ugly and it sticks.
The girl in this poem can’t just do whatever she pleases. She can’t look to see if she’s colouring within the lines of her co-player’s eyelids and lips – and the co-player, the boy, can only look at what she’s doing, can only offer up the lines in which to colour: the template, the field of play. How boring this game would be if she could see him or she would let him guide her; in other words, how boring if they were free and this was no game but, rather, one kid scribbling away on another, oblivious to the borders proposed by eyelids and lips. Anarchic scribbling is giddy fun for a time – remember the feeling when, as a child, you violated a colouring book’s suggested boundaries? – but it can quickly exhaust itself and result in chaos. The kids in Buffam’s poem, however, create and manage a controlled chaos.
Further, the face they fashion startles not because it’s smeared all over with lipstick, indiscriminately, but because the lipstick (or whatever they’re using) “thickens in some places // and in others doesn’t take” – because the face they paint comes close to some standard of beauty (albeit an artificial standard, set by the kids or the society working through them). Maybe this is merely how such Frankensteins work: they startle us not because they are formless, like the horror movie mist that occasionally throws out a tentacle; they startle us because they cleave close to, even as they fail to realize, a norm. Social norms, of course, are slightly different than a game’s rules which can be altered easily enough; social norms are the rules that have atrophied and calcified and assumed a sinister crust of normalcy. They have the gall to judge the things that fall short of them “ugly.”
The poem itself cleaves close to, even as it fails to realize, a metrical norm, a rough pattern of iambs – “the ghost,” to borrow again from Eliot, “of some simple metre [that] lurk[s] behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse.” In general, Buffam plays with our expectations but can only do so by first establishing them. Or, put another way, she can only pull the rug out from under the reader by first weaving one. Or, put yet another way, she can only break the rules by first observing some. For example, when Buffam ends the first tercet by describing how the girl's “arms / reach through the empty sleeves and in” the sense is so seemingly self-sufficient many readers may momentarily hear an end-stopped line that describes a completed motion of ‘wriggling through and in.' But the word “in” also comes to serve a phrase in the next tercet, “this game.” As a result, that line we may have heard as end-stopped – even if only for a microsecond – turns out to be enjambed. The reader of Buffam’s poem, then, like its “blind” girl, enjoys the feeling of being slightly off-balance, of lacking some crucial byte of information, such as the word “two” in line seven, a surprise after the previous repetitions of “one.” Buffam’s thoughtful line breaks are sturdy examples of how a poet can get inside of, and play with, a reader’s head.
Appropriately, Buffam keeps the basic building blocks of her poem (the words) simple; they’re a lot like the sort of blocks with which a lot can be done when someone at play is left to her own devices. The deceptively dull diction of words like “still” and “chin” and “filling” and “lips”, when placed in careful sequence, strengthen one another. They are the pieces that go together. They interlock.
The poem ends and the child’s play turns ugly – the poem’s last trick on us. Perhaps these kids have disturbed a previously dormant ugliness within themselves, the monster that’s released whenever well-mannered children are stranded on islands and left to their own government for too long. Buffam's poem's kids were smart to follow the rules of their game for a time – the game does look fun – but in giving their creation an ugly name they seem to only reinforce some more insidious norm.
Or perhaps in birthing a body of two minds, they’ve undergone a growth spurt, and attained, albeit unintentionally, a newer, darker notch of maturity. Is this what being in love will be like? The question doesn’t occur to the kids, but perhaps it occurs to us and suggests a much different thread of readings of "Play." More likely and literally, Buffam’s poem traces - though masterfully so - the general arc of the play of children, which can end abruptly (and often in tears, even bruises, though not just the physical kind). Whatever else this startling poem does, it assures us that the pleasures of play are not free.
“Play” first appeared in Past Imperfect (Anansi, 2005). Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Originally Published: February 17th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. February 17, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Jason, I'm reminded here of Frost's "serious play." Not so much of Cage's "purposeless play." Nice reading. I'm a great admirer of Suzanne's poetry, as you know. We'll probably be years more waiting for her next book, but I daresay it'll be worth it.

  2. February 18, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Zach, thanks for the mentions of Frost and Cage. And you're right; it will probably be some time before we see Buffam's next book. But I suspect the wait will be worth it. Anyone out there not familiar with Buffam's poetry really ought check out Past Imperfect, a pretty impeccable book.

  3. February 20, 2009

    I wanted to thank you for a superb reading of a real knock-out of a poem. Buffam's piece is such a surprise. I found three other poems at La Petite Zine (there's such quiet, almost calm, intensity to her work...I can't wait to read more). I'll get back to you on this. Your treatment brings up several questions about so-called "close reading", which very few critics take on these days. In fact it reminds me of the philologists I work with. This morning I'm working on a translation of a paper on Plutarch (on one of his "Lives")...Their approach to the Greek passages in this case is very similar to the way you work, a kind of untangling and a gathering of evidence. Let me get back to you on this.

  4. February 24, 2009
     peter sims

    The pleasures of play are not free and they are the only ones available. Lovely poem and a lovely reading of it. As a contribution to the different thread of readings: the one body is the relationship itself. We do not know how to guide eachother to beauty. Our "game" of making the other beautiful can only lead to ugliness. The stickiness of naming is its ability to make the outcome definitive rather than provisional - like the poem.

  5. February 24, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Martin, thank you. And it would be fascinating to hear more about those philologists you mention - if and when you get a chance.
    Peter, thanks a lot for the kind words, and for extending the reading. I quite like your lovely suggestion that "[w]e do not know how to guide each other to beauty."