Discussion Guide

Words Gone Sideways

The May issue showcases savvy puns and slips of the tongue.

The May 2011 issue of Poetry traffics in slips and trips. “One wrong step was taken,” Sophie Cabot Black observes ominously in “The One Turn that Makes the New World.” Josh Wild writes, in “Self-Portrait after Paul Morphy’s Stroke”: “Paul lost his footing, turned out a spectacular corkscrew.” Even the grand dame of American modernism takes a tumble. Sarah Lindsay’s “Without Warning” begins: “Elizabeth Bishop leaned on a table, it cracked, / both fell to the floor.” Lindsay continues:

One moment a laughing smile,
a graceful hand
alighting on solid furniture,
a casual shift of weight,
the next, undignified splayed legs.
The shell of the table
proved to be stuffed with termite eggs.

Just as Bishop might have wondered why she was on the floor, we should ask what she’s doing in this poem. Do these lines recall Bishop to you, in style or content? Perhaps the phrase “a casual shift of weight” alludes to Bishop’s poetics: in much of her work, focus and form evolve constantly, and with a deceptive nonchalance. Like a photographer, she reaches clarity by means of tiny adjustments. (Poems such as “The Fish” and “Crusoe in England” exemplify this technique.) Lindsay harnesses Bishop’s protean sense of form by unexpectedly rhyming “legs”—which refers at once to Bishop’s legs and the table’s—with “eggs.”

Notice how she bedevils those eggs. In the best of circumstances, “stuffed,” “eggs,” and “table,” taken together, suggest a nice snack. Here, only the termites will be munching, and the table, with its “stuffed” “shell,” proves a bad egg in its own right. So this comic scene—the literary equivalent of a slip on a banana peel—terrifies, too. If instability and danger lurk within our very furniture, which we lean on daily, where might it end? (For a real-life corollary, see: New York bedbug epidemic.) Lindsay muses:

At least the floor held,
though probably infested by termites as well,
and possibly built on a latent sinkhole,
how can you tell?

These lines inch away from certainty. First, Lindsay observes a truth; then she challenges it with a doubt. “Probably” gives way to “possibly,” which yields to an admission of total skepticism: “how can you tell?” This poem is itself a sinkhole; like Bishop, we slip into a consuming confusion. But all is not lost:

She regained her feet, already composed,
brushing dust from an elbow. There would be a bruise,
but it would remind her that words are full of holes;
flung hard, like paper they fly sideways.

Do you think Bishop’s conclusion—that words are full of holes, that they fly willy-nilly—is accurate? Is it alarming, or in any way comforting? Can you imagine how it might relate to the phenomenon of punning? Notice the poetry-related puns “feet” and “composed”: what’s their purpose here?

Speaking of feet, Malachi Black’s poem “Prime” describes failures of that body part and more: “this tremolo of hands, / this fever, this flat-footed dance / of tendons.” But the first sentence of his “Lauds”—unusually for this issue—paints a picture of health. Sort of.

Somehow I am sturdier, more shore
than sea-spray as I thicken through
the bedroom door. I gleam of sickness.
You give me morning, Lord, as you
give earthquake to all architecture. 

His words behave just as Bishop said words do: rather than proceeding straightforwardly, they fly sideways. Take “shore.” Given the preceding adjective, “sturdier,” it’s tempting to read “shore” as its more literal homophone “sure.” But Black has written “shore,” complementing this stanza’s focus on a lack of sureness, and its reliance on ambiguous diction and metaphor.

In the following phrase, “I thicken through / the bedroom door,” we might wonder what “thicken” means. Is the speaker gaining weight, and thus healing? Or is he confused—mentally “thick”—as a result of illness? As with “sure,” we find ourselves pondering similar words that would communicate more predictably—“I quicken” or, contrariwise, “I sicken.” But Black has chosen neither of these.

Reading the comparison that follows, we might substitute “mourning” for “morning,” just to see what happens (is the speaker, sick as he is, grieving for himself?). That pun raises the question—enforced by Black’s linkage of morning and earthquake—of whether the birth of each day marks a kind of death. If morning arrives as an earthquake, is it a curse rather than a blessing? Or, perhaps more compellingly, does the speaker process earthquakes, deaths, and general instability as gifts from God? As this issue shows, they’re surely the stuff of poetry.

Do you find any of these readings more convincing than any other? Does the poem’s ambiguity stimulate or frustrate you, or both? And do you agree with Sophie Cabot Black’s suggestion that a slip of the foot—literal or metaphorical—can be a boon for the mind? “All the unknowables,” she writes, are “[m]ade whole and apparent by one who stumbled.”

Originally Published: May 3rd, 2011