Discussion Guide

Presto Chango

Four poems in the January 2018 issue.

At the beginning of Jamie McKendrick’s “Repairwork,” an urban wanderer takes a “crooked” road—and nothing that follows is straightforward. He passes a square “built by de Chirico” and enters a watch repairer’s shop that “might have been painted by Bhupen Khakhar.” So, he asks, is this poem “ekphrastic or oneiric,” based on art or on dreams?

Inspired by his uncertainty, we might wonder who, exactly, the watch repairer is. “Like a miracle,” he reassembles “jeweled bits of time” into “a perfect circle, or a sphere”—an allusion, perhaps, to God’s miraculous creation of the perfect sphere of Earth, and to the centuries-old analogy of God to a watchmaker.

Like the speaker’s damaged Omega, McKendrick’s poem tracks the ticking-away of time. In the final lines, the repairer notes that the watch “needed una revisione completa / before it got too late. A watch like this deserves / he changed the tense—deserved a lot more care.” As the poem runs out of time, so—thanks to that ominous tense change—does the watch: it’s already past saving. From such a repairman, this judgment feels final.

Joshua Bennett’s “The Book of Mycah” describes a modern-day prophet, a “Son of Man” from Brooklyn, a “seer” who offers wisdom and praise when he isn’t eating burgers. Most miraculously of all, young Mycah Dudley runs with unbeatable speed through his neighborhood, beautifying “every meter of the pockmarked, jet black asphalt which held him aloft.” Mycah always seems on the verge of flight: Bennett describes the beginning of a race as a “takeoff.”

The poem’s title links it to the biblical Book of Micah, whose narrator describes the sins committed by ancient cities. That theme proves all too relevant here: police kill Mycah mid-run. The boy flies even as he falls: bullets “lifted his six-foot frame from the ground, legs still pumping. For a second, you would almost swear he was running through the gunfire, preparing for liftoff.” Later Bennett writes: “He died that night.” Then—like another Son of Man—he “rose.”

In Alice Lyons’s “Resting on the Ground with My Love in the Rattlesnake Habitat,” the speaker’s companion wishes to “be endless” and “shifting” like the nearby river, to “stream”—pun intended. But it’s the speaker’s mind that keeps shifting, yielding a winding stream of consciousness. A “job search” brings to mind the biblical Job, which is also, she notes, the title of a book. The habitat’s oaks lean into the river “like girls / washing their hair in basins”—an image that conjures up Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” and then Robert Frost’s “Birches,” and then Sylvia Plath’s “Elm.”

As “Resting” proceeds, even the spelling modulates—“and” becomes “anD” and “which” becomes “wych” (in homage to the wych elm of Plath’s poem). No wonder: the speaker is moving countries and changing jobs, experiencing a grand adjustment to mirror all the smaller ones. Why shouldn’t her language evolve along with her? She even revises the very poem we’re reading: “Three times I wrote work work work when woke / was what I wanted to write.”

Christopher Spaide calls the first section of “Recycler” “Troppo Allegro,” too fast—a variation on the tempo mark “allegro ma non troppo,” fast but not too fast. The reversal of meaning, and of word order, is no accident: Spaide’s poem explores both switch-ups and unseemly speed. Seasons, he writes, once were “reasonably sequenced, regal of tempo,” until “someone shuffled, cut the deck into disorder.” So he cuts words into disorder: the Faulkner quote “the past is never dead” becomes “the dead are never passed,” and “only a matter of time” leads to “no more time to matter.”

This pattern also applies to each line, which starts with a word beginning “re-” and finishes with a word ending “-er.” (The poem’s title, “Recycler,” initiates the pattern—and embodies the practice it refers to.) These endless sonic echoes don’t just suggest repetition and reversal; they also invite us to read the poem as a four-movement piece of music, complete with playful section titles. In addition to “Troppo Allegro,” Spaide offers “Funeral: March,” “Scherzo: Presto Chango,” and “Finale: Re-Fugue.” Each section lasts for 13 lines—an unlucky number—and thus mirrors what Spaide calls “‘real time’ and its dead-ahead march to an unlucky number.” Presto chango, indeed.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2018