Discussion Guide

Scoring the Page

Four Poems in the February 2019 Issue

In “Ladder,” Atsuro Riley adopts the voice of one “Johnny Pep, P.O.W”: “When they flang me down that hole I clawed for home—/... / When stench would stain the mind the mind would branch.” Through subtle wordplay, Riley enforces the fact of the soldier’s survival. “Hole” turns into the nearly identical “home,” and “stench” into its off-rhyme “branch.”

Riley’s spaced-out lines score the page like a ladder’s rungs. That image alludes both to the speaker’s descent—physical and metaphorical—into the depths of war, and to his efforts to rise above his dire circumstances. “When cane-straps flogged us cross the field we’d call a tune,” he writes. “Ladder” is one such tune; Riley’s use of alliteration and dense rhythms, borrowings from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, lend it a resonant music. For Pep, poetry itself is a means of survival.

 

 

After leading an anti-slavery raid on an arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, John Brown lost his life—and inspired a ballad called “John Brown’s Body.” Set to the jaunty tune that would later animate the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the Civil War marching song begins: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”

In “john brown’s,” Geraldine Clarkson offers a new elegy for the militant abolitionist. She, too, describes the “mouldering” process—but in decidedly more detailed, and tender, terms. His “fine parchment   face / suddenly   chantilly / lace   his torso   a doily / perforated   twinkling / with sweet   patient   fungus.” The poem is a verbal doily; the space between Clarkson’s words grants her lines a delicate texture. When she alludes to the classic song, Clarkson introduces further blanks: “john bro-own’s   body / da-da da-da da da  da.” Even as her poem asserts the reality of Brown’s life—“he too was somebody’s / honeybunch and heartleap”—it asserts, too, the reality of his death, letting the memorials to Brown experience the same fate as their famous subject.

 

 

Sisyphus and the Ants” reimagines the myth of the Greek king doomed to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountain. Or, as Jennifer S. Flescher puts it, “over and over he has to push that boulder // up and up.” The repetition of language, like the sonic echo between “over” and “boulder,” reflects the tedium of Sisyphus’s fate.

Flescher draws a parallel between Sisyphus and her addressee, who faces the similarly endless task of containing an “avalanche of moods.” “And still you step,” she writes, hinting—with “still”—that her addressee is, like the unfortunate king, constantly moving, yet ever static. Then she offers an unexpected angle on both boulder-shovers: “The story forgot to tell us, though, Sisyphus thrived” within his circumstances. By extension, the addressee is doing just fine: “Your strength is kingly.” (That line alludes not just to Sisyphus, but also to John Milton’s Sonnet 19, which likewise notes the grace within human frailty.) With this fresh view, Flescher infuses new energy into a well-trodden tale.

 

 

“One of the first I learned was the trinity,” writes Kathy Fagan in “The Rule of Three.” Inspired, she started writing “JMJ”—for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—on all her homework and tests: “I’d draw a cross from // The descending caret of the M and think of Mary.”

For Fagan, “crosses” take on a meaning beyond the crucifix; her tercets, or three-lined stanzas, explore a variety of hybrid states. The trinity is “three persons in one / God”; the speaker’s father is “both my father and a son, and soon to be the son of / His father’s ghost.” Similarly, she has become the daughter of her mother’s ghost—a situation as complex as any other in this poem. “Being motherless, / Like being childless, is both good and bad, I think, / And it is a third thing, too, that is neither of these.”

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