Discussion Guide

Immersive Work

Four poems in the October 2017 issue of Poetry

The title character in Hannah Lowe’s “The Stork” is, like many storks before it, a harbinger of newborns. Yet no expectant parent would relish a visit from this beastly bird. The poem takes place partly on Halloween, and the stork is unsettlingly ghoulish—a family planning-oriented echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s raven. “All the love you’ve had turned bad!” it insists, its beak “sharpened like a bayonet,” its eyes “boring through the dingy nets.” 

On Halloween, the speaker is laden with a “pumpkin up the jumper,” and “kids rang the rented bell in sheets / and slime.” She tries “‘maternal’ out / with chocolate limes and fizzy sweets.” “Sheets” pairs with “sweets,” and “slime” with “limes,” associating this expectant mother with her trick-or-treaters. Like them, she is in costume, experimenting with motherhood for a night. And surely this bird is in costume, too: it’s no more than a freaky, feathery embodiment of her own anxieties. (“The bird shrieked half the witchy night: / For god’s sake, are you stupid? Teeth!”)

The bird floats away only when the baby arrives, and the nurse cuts “the navel string—”; and with an em-dash that resembles the string, Lowe cuts the poem’s string too.

“Because my voice was not the right voice / and could not be understood,” writes Vidyan Ravinthiran, “I stood / before the mirror.” “As a Child” is a hall of mirrors: its twinned stanzas run for eight lines apiece, and each offers a different angle on the speaker. They also offer verbal and sonic reflections—“voice” and “voice,” “understood” and “stood,” “posh” and “abashed,” on and on.

The poem’s title is a reflection, too—of an age-old source. 1 Corinthians 13:11 reads: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ravinthiran’s poem describes just such a transformation. In the first stanza, the speaker is young, staring into a mirror (looking at a glass darkly, to adapt an adjacent line from Corinthians), and hobbled by the imprecisions of childish speech and perceptions. In the second, he’s an adult, speaker of a “clarified and potent tongue,” capable of silencing a prejudiced critic with the poshness of his accent. More than that: he’s capable of poetry.

In “How scrubbed-up clean,” Mark Waldron gets down and dirty. He describes a “foul” world “besmirched with armpits and fruity genitalia // and belching gobs,” with “impulsive blurting sphincters” that yield—alas—“hot updrafts.” Dense with stomach-turning words, Waldron’s phrases are as claustrophobic and unsavory as the world they describe.

Contrast “our spirits”: “so lustrous, so hairless, so advanced / in their glass-bottomed flying machines.” (And who, given the chance, wouldn’t prefer a glass bottom to a blurting sphincter?) The spirits glide, Waldron writes, “at  / some safe distance above their rank and proletarian bodies,” and the poem unfurls in couplets that enforce this duality.

Yet it’s not clear how safe that distance is—or how safe the spirits want it to be. Ethereal peeping Toms, they lick their lips and peer down, “each a jiggling voyeur of its own ardent body // when that body has chanced upon another, and the pair / of them have knuckled down to their immersive work.” “Immersive work” is a remarkably spiritual—and entirely accurate—way to describe the act that the spirits observe. And that act is, in turn, a corporeal echo of the spirits’ “quick and icy notions,” which “slot into one another like the tightest clocks.” So, it seems, do body and mind.

 

 

Mother’s Dirge,” by Duy Doan, is a record of family history. It’s also a pantoum—a verse form that originated in Malaysia (not far from Vietnam, where the poem is set). Pantoums consist of four-line stanzas that follow a specific pattern: the second and fourth lines in each stanza become the first and third of the next. In this way, the poem, even as it moves forward, exerts a backward pull—a fitting gesture for this remembrance of things past.

Precisely what things does this poem remember? It’s not always possible to say. This ambiguity results partly from the pantoum form; as lines cycle in and out of various contexts, they shift meaning. The ambiguity also complements the tragedy at the poem’s center, hinting that the dreadfulness of the event precludes straightforward narration. “Mother’s Dirge” is, in a way, an argument for circuitousness over directness: “Where the bend in the trunk begins matters most,” Doan writes. “Even if they are full, trees that stand straight: avoid climbing.”

Originally Published: October 2nd, 2017
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In