Discussion Guide

Strange Turns

Verse and Vertigo in the October 2015 Poetry.

In the October 2015 Poetry, contributors put their own spin on the act of spinning. Susan Elizabeth Howe describes grackles “wheel[ing] down” from heaven; in Catherine Staples’s “Vert,” a tipped snow globe goes “nowhere in circles”; Claudia Emerson’s poem describes the “lazy familiar vortex” of a flock of birds. “Vortex” begins vertiginously:

The town’s trees, roomy with winter, have begun
of late to fill with them, a settling
that commences with dusk.

Who are these unsettling settlers? Birds, we must assume, though Emerson never says so outright, and certainly never tells us what kind. The trees are “roomy” from leaflessness, and that word, along with “settling,” draws a parallel between the unidentified birds and the inhabitants of the neighborhood’s rooms, its settlers.

Emerson develops that analogy throughout the poem: the bird’s wing hitting a branch creates “a sound / sharp, they say, as ice cracking.” In response, the protagonist forms “a committee, convening / with shotguns to fire every night into the darkling // congregation.”  Now the humans “fill” the trees with bullets; now they make a sound to match the birds’, their committee a rebuttal to, and reflection of, the birds’ congregation.

Not that their efforts serve much purpose: “Every night, the air resounds / with that resolve, and every dusk they return / with theirs.”  “Re-,” “re-,” “re”: the repeated sound brings to mind the birds’ ceaseless noise, and it reflects both their recurrent gatherings and the humans’ ongoing efforts to silence them.

Much turns on “return,” which serves as a pun for the birds’ physical movement. They “circle,”

                 a lazy familiar vortex

around a drain, an old appointment they keep
with an inescapable place; this argument
no way, Claude says, to be any less afraid.

The beginning of the poem introduced birds without quite introducing them. Now, in the poem’s last line, Claude pops up with just as little ceremony. Who is Claude? Is he a family member of the “you” who drives the poem, or a member of the “you,” or the entire “you”? (For just as we don’t know who Claude is, we don’t know who the “you” is; that mysterious pronoun matches the nonspecific “they” that represents the birds.) Why is his name so similar to that of the poet, Claudia? Is he a double of her, just as the birds double the humans? What, exactly, is his fear (could it be getting clawed)? Not just the birds, but also their human counterparts, remain unknown if not unnamed.

Accordingly, perhaps that “lazy familiar vortex” refers not merely to the circling of the birds but also to the whirlwind of identity, to the unanswerable questions of who we are and what we fear. The poem’s form, too, seems on the verge of losing its identity: it’s a reshuffled sonnet, with the couplet—which traditionally serves as the conclusion—in the middle, as though the poem got caught in a gyre and blasted apart. 

“Vert,” too, deals with a world blasted apart, and its form reflects that disorder. It begins with a simple definition of “vert” that builds to an image: “As in green, vert, a royal demesne / stocked with deer.” Then Staples turns the process on its head—the image associated with “invert” is not an illustrative example but a non-illustrative example, an explication inverted:

                 Invert as in tipped
 as a snow globe, going nowhere in circles
but not lost, not bereft as the wood
without deer, waiting for the white antlered
buck, or his does, or any slim yearling
to step along the berm, return.

The snow globe—and the world it represents—is not lost, not bereft. Yet it’s the emptied, waiting wood, so unlike the globe, that occupies most of this description, along with the missing buck, the does, and the yearling whom the writer conjures as if to cancel their absence.

Absence turns out to be at the very core of this poem. After elucidating “vertigo” with another lengthy image, Staples writes:  “Disordered / as in death lasts, my brother’s not coming back.” This emotional wallop arrives in the form of a seemingly casual verbal association: perhaps treating crucial facts as trivial is fitting in a poem “tipped as a snow globe.” How does this phrasing affect your response to the information

Inversion marks the end of the poem, too:
The world is the same, but it isn’t. The tipped
views of trees when hanging from your knees.
The deer in twos and threes watching.

The world is and is not the same; the viewer hangs upside-down; rather than watch the deer, as generally happens in poems, the person concerned gets watched by them. In fact, that person seems nearly absent from the last lines of the poem: note how, grammatically, no clear pronoun denotes who is hanging from her knees. It’s almost as though, in an echo of her brother, the mourner has disappeared.

The words “vortex,” “vertigo,” and “invert” all trace their roots to the Latin “vertere,” “to turn.” And so does “verse”—an etymological link to the well-turned lines in which these poets record strange turns indeed.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2015
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In