Discussion Guide

Imagine That

Four Poems in the December 2018 Issue

“i u sed to ha te r i ce,” writes Danez Smith. “h ated h ow / br oke it sou nde d,” like “hu n ger s tamb our ine.” Rice promises “to pil lo w an d st retc h”—and, in “broke n rice,” Smith’s words do the same, swelling with extra spaces, claiming additional room in each line.

The speaker’s perspective on the grain has expanded, too. Now, “i wou ld w ed t he y o lk / go ld r ice stu ck / in th e yo lk yell ow tee th / of m y hom e girls…. mini ng th eir lau ghs / bl in ge d ou t li ke a do w ry / shi nin / nex t to th e bi lls of m int.” “Gold rice”—a tasty form of “bling,” along with “bills of mint”—now signifies a different kind of resource: joyful companionship.

 

 

In Martha Zweig’s “The Breakfast Nook,” a mother offers the following appeal to children who don’t want to take their vitamins: “Darlings! — your vitamins & minerals / dissolve inside with the milk & this-&-that / into instructions rejiggering more / vitamins, minerals, milk & this-&-that / to fizz up & turn into actual you, / or me, or anybody & etc.” Zweig’s generous use of ampersands—seven in a sentence—reflects the ceaseless cyclicality of this process.

Ceaseless, that is, until it ceases. The mother suggests the kids mix spit, vitamins, and milk in cups, to see what would result. “I’ll be right back,” she promises. There the scene ends, and Zweig concludes the poem: “One day it quits. / The whole business quits. Imagine that.” This poem starts early in the day, and early in the speaker’s life, only to close by reminding us that—once it gets late enough—none of us come back.

 

 

“In the old place, there was no place / that did not see me,” writes Jameson Fitzpatrick in “Scintilla, Star,” which describes an adolescence full of gawking, gossiping observers. The line break after “no place” communicates an additional meaning: that the speaker felt like a misfit, someone who belonged nowhere. No wonder: “Wherever I went mothers whispered / about me like a Greek chorus,” making him an unwilling “star” of his own life.

The mothers muttered that he liked boys, and that he had “stolen” the boyfriend of a classmate, Sarah. Once that gentleman leaves for college, “I had no one”—an echo of “no place.” Yet he still gets plenty of attention. “Sarah’s friends / stared me down at school. / I found it was better, / if I could not be no one, / to be someone. Small, but / particular. Specified, which was / an apprenticeship for special. / Cold, another word for cool.” Reluctantly visible, he harnesses language’s allusiveness—“specified” is like “special,” and “cold” like “cool”—to stake out an identity he prefers.

 

 

Jake Crist’s “On Some Lines by Tranströmer” describes a patient receiving treatment for depression so severe that he doubts even “electric shock” can help. Then he encounters the following words by the late Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer: “I find myself in the deep corridor / that would have been dark / if my right hand wasn’t shining like a torch”—an Anglicism, as the speaker notes, for a flashlight. Where literal shock fails, Tranströmer’s burst of electricity succeeds. The word “torch” illuminates the “depths of my head like a guide in Chauvet”—a cave in southern France that features prehistoric drawings. The comparison suggests that his mind, too, brims with creativity—a possibility he had, in the depths of despair, called into question.

In the next stanza, the “right hand” in Tranströmer yields a reflection on the speaker’s hunger “for dexterity, and the shame / Of gauche living and sinister desire / (I can’t play right so I’ll give up the game).” “Dexterity” comes from a word for “right,” and “gauche” and “sinister” from words for “left.” Such wordplay shows the speaker to be dexterous indeed.

Originally Published: December 3rd, 2018
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In