Discussion Guide

Coming Back

Four Poems in the March 2019 Issue

In “Awl,” Naomi Cohn describes a “small tool, a small slip of the hand, a small injury.” Yet that seemingly minor episode yields enormous consequences. As a three-year-old, Louis Braille stabbed himself in the eye with an awl, a “tool for piercing holes.” The wound destroyed the boy’s sight. Braille’s blindness, in turn, inspired him to design a writing system for the visually impaired.

“Is it accident,” Cohn wonders, “that my tool for pressing hand-punched Braille is so much like a blunt, very small awl?” Her tool, too, can “pierce holes”—a nod to the incisive power of writing.

 

 

“Tattered surveillance blimps / yank against steel tethers over the saltlick plain,” writes Eliza Griswold in “Pulling Out,” which describes withdrawal from a war-torn territory. People find themselves “tethered” in another sense: “The flimsy means / by which we try to distance war // don’t matter anymore.” The rhyme of “war” and “anymore” supports that point; it chimes across a stanza break, linking the disparate blocks of text.

The lucky can board airplanes—but even their refuge is limited. “Take to the air, stare down // on the terrible mirror of the ground / where those who didn’t qualify // for tickets to the sky / wave goodbye, goodbye.” If the ground is a “mirror,” then the escapees see themselves among the trapped; despite their departures, they remain, in a sense, in the war zone. Hence the verb tense of the poem’s title: its speaker is still working through her experiences, still in the process of “pulling out.”

 

 

“This disease has come back,” writes the late Meena Alexander in “Revenant.” She fantasizes about doing the same: “to be well again, what might that mean?”

The word “revenant” originates in the French “revenir,” which means “to come back.” In English, it refers to a person who has returned, particularly as a ghost—and it thus encapsulates both the hope for health and the possibility of death. Alexander mentions “shades of another water” and “late snow.” Like “revenant,” “shades” and “late” perform double-duty by hinting at mortality.

Alexander ponders not just her own fate, but also the longevity of her work: “Only a few survive if that— // Poems I mean.” “Revenant” has indeed survived Alexander, and it provides her with a means of coming back to us.

 

 

In Jana Prikryl’s “Asylum,” the speaker takes refuge in language: “like when I can’t sleep I say to myself / the the the the / the // the / the—….” Definite articles usually communicate a sense of certainty, but here, each “the” refers to nothing in particular, and the reiteration creates an effect of nervous stammering. Accordingly, the poem describes a nerve-wracking situation: “the the the the the the the the / papers say asylum is temporary / now.”

Throughout, the poem embodies the tension between the temporary and the permanent. Belief, Prikryl writes, is “always being / cut in on—the // the / the / the the the the the the.” Even as “Asylum” repeats the same word, it “cuts in on” itself, with em-dash, stanza break, and line breaks. In so doing, it captures the effort to hang on to continuity in the face of disruption.

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