The Malfunction Malfunctions Malfunctioned
Lavinia Greenlaw’s delightful Booth of Truth post about her visit to an amusement pier and Rachel Zucker’s mention of her & Arielle Greenberg’s Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days (which I’m glad to know has been published) came strangely together to remind me of a poem I tried to write over a year ago that refused to work.
Jim and I frequently take our 3 year old, Maisie, to Wing Phat Plaza, a Vietnamese shopping center near our house in South Philly. We go to the supermarket and Maisie looks at the live fish and lobster and crabs swimming in the cloudy water tanks, and we lift her so she can peek down into the Styrofoam boxes of frogs waiting to be somebody’s dinner. “Mmmmm, froggies!” we say. We buy watercress, or tea, or dumpling wrappers, then over to the gift shop: tabletop fountains with steam-breathing dragons, miniature waterwheel waterfalls, frogs (not real this time) with light up eyes. Maisie gazes at them for a long time and we discuss them, then she picks out stickers, Pooh or Mickey or Hello Kitty.
Sometimes we get $5 bowls of Pho at a restaurant at Wing Phat. We always stop off at a mini-arcade so Maisie can ride a half-broke-down mechanical horse that for two quarters bucks gently for about a minute next to a large plastic cactus to a tune that might or might not be from the soundtrack of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Next to the horse there’s one of those claw games, where you manipulate the hanging claw with a joystick to position it over a prize, then push the button to make the claw drop and grab the prize. These games are fixed to malfunction—the claw is too loose to keep a grip on anything. I never win at them, and no one else does either, right? But:
One day while Maisie was riding the horse, I noticed two tiny girls putting in quarter after quarter and winning prizes every few tries. So when they left with their loot, I played and won Maisie a faded fraying purple cartoon Tasmanian Devil on my first try. Here’s a photo that Linh Dinh, who lives in the same neighborhood, took of us shortly afterward when we happened to cross paths:
(Usually-cheery, then-two-year-old Maisie was napless that day and looking uncharacteristically sullen; she’d been pushing The Taz, as he was immediately called, in her doll stroller until she sat down on the ground, scowled at poor Linh and demanded to be carried home. A larger version of the photo is here.)
Soon after I tried to write a poem about the way the claw-grab’s built-in malfunction malfunctioned, thus allowing the game to pay off in ways it wasn’t supposed to. (Whether The Taz is actually worth the 50 cents it took to win him is beside the point, yes?) I tried writing it all kinds of ways: With just the claw-grab narrative; adding in some giant shiny-bellied Buddha statues and lucky bamboo from another Wing Phat Plaza store; dropping in a separate-but-related anecdote about an ATM machine that once started spitting out cash across the street from a bar where I used to hang out, even as the OJ Simpson-White Bronco drama was unfolding on the bar TV.
The poem was to be called “The Malfunction Malfunctions” and it was to have been a poem about the way the customary American malfunction of electing hideous leaders had for once malfunctioned, and allowed us to get Obama into office. I was aware of Rachel and Arielle’s website of poems for Obama and thought I might submit it to them if I got it done.
I didn’t. The poem of course didn’t work, because the conceit was too worked out, too easy to explain.
Last night I was out with a couple of poets I greatly admire, and they were arguing about the nature of poetic conceit, in particular the heavily-determined kind which takes over the whole poem. We were drinking a lot of wine, so I may have an inaccurate memory of the conversation and am probably mischaracterizing what each said for my own purposes. So I won’t say who they were. One poet was saying that the poem-as-extended-conceit was woefully old-fashioned. The other one was saying it’s old-fashioned to attack the poem-as-extended-conceit for being old-fashioned. I suppose I agreed with both of them. Then I thought of Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent” (published in 1942):
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
This is not my favorite Frost mode—I usually prefer the early conversation-narratives, like “Home Burial” and others from North of Boston. But the poem-length conceit of the woman as silken tent, or silken tent as woman, seems so elegant, nuanced, astonishing. Why? Partly for the way the woman disappears into the conceit without stopping being a woman (something that also happens, by the way, in William Carlos Williams’ “Queen Anne’s Lace,” published in 1921.) The conceit is elaborate and specific and indefinite too—very much about human contingency, about the way we get fixed in our lives and our relations with others. And then there’s this feeling of intimate knowledge between poet and subject which makes the poem feel necessary. So the conceit is no mere intellectual game—it’s emotionally and psychologically experienced. It’s an ingenious conceit, sure, but it’s not ingenuity that makes this a great poem. Neither is it fashion or lack thereof. It’s something else—the presence of the poet and the poet’s knowledge and need, that both is and isn’t external to the conceit.
Which of course is why “The Malfunction Malfunctions” malfunctioned. The claw-game/Obama election conceit really seemed like a good idea in advance of the writing. But that’s all it was—a good idea. Good ideas very seldom lead to good poems.