Discussion Guide

What Pleasure a Question

Four poems in the December 2017 issue of Poetry

Angie Macri’s “What pleasure a question” puts an original spin on original sin. Her account of the Fall is rife with ambiguity: Eve “leaned / into the apple tree ... / … to the snake’s / hands, sweet flesh.” Does “sweet flesh” refer to Eve’s body? To the snake’s? To the apple, clutched in the serpent’s prelapsarian hands? Grammatically, any could apply; the reader is as rapt and uncertain as Eve, facing her snaky suitor’s question.

Next, Eve “took the snake’s / hands, diamondbacked, / and opened its question.” A diamondback is a kind of rattlesnake—a poisonous one, appropriately—but this reference mingles risk with romance. As Eve grabs his hands, accepts his diamonds, and takes on the question he has popped, we can’t help but think of a marriage proposal. Accordingly, the snake’s gesture has a profound effect on Adam: “It was the first time she had / something to give, what / the man couldn’t take, the first time / the man said please: / please let me have a bite.”

 

 

Ian Williams’s “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee” is a concrete poem—one whose shape speaks just as loudly as its words. It consists of two interlocking rings of text; one reads “whether I feel alone or not I am alone,” and the other, “whether I am alone or not I feel alone.” Each wheel of words calls to mind an endlessly cycling loneliness.

In the center of the poem, verbally identical sections of the circles—”I feel alone” and “I feel alone”—carve out a blank space, a visual echo of solitude’s emptiness. Yet they also create the shape of an ichthys, the fish symbol associated with Jesus, as though Jesus might abide where no other company does. Fittingly, the poem’s title quotes a Biblical testament to divine presence, Hebrews 13:5: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”

What to make of the fact that these statements of isolation both resemble one another and interlink? Could the joined circles represent wedding rings, and the union that results from the marriage of two solitudes? Loneliness, the poem suggests, still permits—even constitutes—different kinds of partnerships.

 

 

In a banal setting—a Midwestern gas station, near the Naked Juices—John Lee Clark’s speaker discovers a nineteenth-century forebear. William Amos Miller was, like Clark, both deaf and blind, and he penned a novel called The Sovereign Guide: a Tale of Eden (1898), a work of science fiction whose protagonist journeys to the center of the earth.

In the enjambed, unpunctuated lines of “At the Holiday Gas Station,” the speaker’s statements run headlong into Miller’s—an echo of their physical collision: “I passed / A man my fingers walking / Across his back he turned.” Clark’s style invites the reader to lose track of who’s saying what, a reflection of the identification between these Deafblind writers. While the first speaker here is Miller, not the speaker’s “I,” you wouldn’t know it from this snatch of text: “what / Might this be I said oh / You’re tactile too what’s your name / He said William Amos Miller I said / I thought you were born in 1872 he said….” 

By the poem’s conclusion, its characters’ identification feels complete: they talk in unison (“He said I said we said we see / With our hands”), using the same language to describe speaking the same language. 

 

 

Michael Prior’s “My Father’s Birthday Is the Day Before Mine” makes a study of light and darkness: “fireflies spark beside the tracks,” “acne’s red wing flames beside my face,” and the speaker remembers a “blood-orange eclipse.” This calendar of a poem clocks time’s passage, as measured in the ticking of a watch, the faucet’s drip, and the transformation of weeds to flowers. And it connects the transition from light to dark, and back again, to the progress of the hours: “The train rattles as its links shift / and scrape like the dark between days.” Darkness is as necessary to progress as stretches of train track are to a journey—and light, for Prior, comes only in flickers.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2017
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In