Discussion Guide

How Far We’ve Come

Four Poems in the January 2019 Issue

“We used to say, / That’s my heart right there,” writes Willie Perdomo. “As if to say, / Don’t mess with her right there. // As if, don’t even play, / That’s a part of me right there.”

That’s My Heart Right There” adapts the ghazal—an Arabic verse form, traditionally focused on love, that includes a series of couplets ending with identical refrains. Every iteration of “right there” reemphasizes the speaker’s devotion—yet it also instills doubt. After all, the poem features “right there” in eight different places. Does each one indicate a distinct woman? The “we” offering these declarations is similarly vague, rendering the sentiments impersonal. Over and over, Perdomo writes “as if,” introducing further ambiguity: is this tenderness insincere, or does it come from the “heart”?

 

 

In “Near-Earth Object,” John Shoptaw depicts the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, complete with "the sulfurous dust / from the meteoric impact / off the Yucatán.” He also describes a far gentler near-earth object: the monarch butterfly.

Throughout, Shoptaw’s language implies similarity between insect and asteroid. (The astronomy term “near-earth object” refers to a comet or asteroid that comes relatively close to Earth.) The meteor was “enticed” by “planetary pollen”; as it passed through Earth’s atmosphere, it resembled a butterfly “ovipositing”—laying eggs. A monarch, “hurtling / downward, impacted / my stunned peninsular / left foot,” making a Yucatán of the speaker’s shoe. Yet Shoptaw wastes no time in asserting that the asteroid is “unlike the monarch”—indeed, those three words begin the poem. Rather, the “globe-clogging asteroid” is far more similar to another near-earth object, the human being: we, too, have impacted a stunned planet, to dire effect.

 

 

Yang Guafei, one of the “Four Beauties” of ancient China and the favorite concubine of an emperor, adored lychees—so her lover set up a special food-delivery system in her honor. Adrienne Su’s “Lychee Express” describes the “chain of horsemen,” a fruit-specific equivalent to the Pony Express, that Emperor Xuanzong employed to transport the delicacies vast distances from southern China. This costly passion, Su writes, “laid waste” to a faltering dynasty.

Meanwhile, our present-day food stores are “always awash in berries, melons, / tangerines.” “It proves how far we’ve come,” Su writes, “those tiny stickers with PLUs / and far-flung nations of origin / so common, we decry the waste.” The “waste” represented by stickers echoes the more consequential “waste” wrought centuries earlier. Might the lavishness of our mechanized, globalized Lychee Expresses pose similarly grave risks to our society? Unlike our well-traveled fruit, we may not have come very far at all.

 

 

In the late James Tate’s poem “The Truth,” a friend won’t stop posing a disturbing question. “Why did Jack keep asking me if I’d / been married before?” writes Tate. “And why did my answer not satisfy him?” More alarmingly, his wife offers a follow-up: “Jack was right about you, wasn’t he?”

The speaker guesses that his friend’s line of inquiry was “probably just a bad joke”—but the joke turns out to be on us. (Spoiler alert!) We later discover that he has been married before, and he’d sworn Jack to silence on the topic. He is disoriented not because Jack is asking a groundless question, but because Jack is breaking his word. As “The Truth” unfolds, surprising truths—and lies—emerge.

Originally Published: January 1st, 2019
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In