Discussion Guide

The End of the Line

Startling Conclusions in the December 2016 Poetry.

“If there is an end then it’s too dark to see, if there is an end then it’s too bright to see,” writes Lucy Wainger in “Scheherazade.” In the December 2016 Poetry, several contributors explore ends—of lives, of relationships, of beliefs. And on a formal level, they play with the conclusions of lines: both Kathryn Maris and Adrienne Su harness rhyme and repetition to unexpected effect.

Maris’s “How to Be a Dream Girl Not a Doormat about the ‘Ex’” is both prescriptive and proscriptive, telling any would-be “Dream Girl” what—and what not—to do:

While the Doormat asks neurotic questions about his ex,
the Dream Girl looks at her watch if her man brings up the ex,
and if the man ever says, “Everyone was in love with my ex,”
a Dream Girl won’t ask for a photo, but if a photo of the ex
is provided, the Dream Girl won’t demean the appearance of the ex
because her man will likely rush to his ex’s
defense. The lesson is that when a man considers his ex
a prize looks have little to do with it, for when a woman acts
like a prize a man can forget he’s with a battle axe.

The poem reads like a set of old-fashioned etiquette rules, informing women exactly how to land men. That echo is no accident. The poem comprises quotations and paraphrases from a remarkable book, Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl. (The book offers insights such as: “It is human nature for a man to test the waters to see how much he can get away with. You see it in the behavior of children and even in the behavior of pets.” Its author, Sherry Argov, has also penned a related volume—a sequel, presumably—called Why Men Marry Bitches.)

Maris has thus spun pop-culture self-help (or, depending on your perspective, self-harm) into poetry, and her poem hews to a very particular form. Each line ends with “ex,” or with some variation on “ex”—“acts,” “axe”—up until the final two lines. This repetition reflects exes’ uncanny habit of remaining present even in their absence. It also recalls the letter “X,” that common marker of mistakes. In Argov’s world, women are in constant need of correction; the nearly unremitting iteration of a single end-word highlights how limited that perspective is.

And what of the final two lines? They close with telling terms:

                                                    Women believe these narratives and ex-
coriate themselves if they’re Doormats, but love is beset by variables,
and Dream Girls must take control in this world of unknowns.

“Variables,” “unknowns,” “control,” even “beset” (with its pun on “set”): this poem has laid out a reality that operates with faux-mathematical precision, where Doormats and Dream Girls are precise and definable concepts, and each woman is either one or the other. But as Maris notes, “love is beset by variables”—and here, “ex” also stands in for “x,” the algebraic unknown. We can never quite know our exes, our partners, or ourselves—and no matter what Argov might argue, we can’t predict the result when we add a new variable into the equation, nor when we subtract another.

In “After the Dinner Party,” Adrienne Su describes the end of a get-together, all the while toying with the ends of her lines:

Dropping napkins, corks, and non-compostables
into the trash, I see that friends have mistaken
my everyday chopsticks for disposables,

helpfully discarding them alongside inedibles:
pork bones, shrimp shells, bitter melon.
Among napkins and corks, they do look compostable:

“Mistaken” and “melon”; “compostables,” “disposable,” “inedible,” “compostable”: this villanelle brims with repeated sounds and words. As in Maris’s poem, the echoes serve a rhetorical purpose: they recall her everyday use of the same chopsticks, which look disposable—or compostable—but are not.

But Su’s use of the villanelle is flexible: she doesn’t precisely repeat end words, and nor does she precisely recycle lines. “Dropping napkins, corks, and non-compostables” returns with some variations: “Among napkins and corks, they do look compostable.” These slight shifts mirror the transformation of her faithful chopsticks, which grow “warped from continual / washing.” And they echo her own flexibility:

                                                    With family or alone,
I’ll maintain that chopsticks aren’t disposable,

but if I can make peace with the loss of utensils
when breaking bao with guests, I’ll be one of them,
not digging in the napkins and corks. Compostable
chopsticks are the answer: everyday and disposable.

She’ll feel one way in one context, and a different way in another; what’s more, she’ll seek out a different kind of chopstick—at once everyday and disposable—rather than stick to her familiar system. In a comically commercial tone, the poem’s conclusion offers a serious suggestion: that this adaptability may be necessary to maintain both relationships and traditions. And perhaps it’s just as necessary to make a poem—to tweak old forms in new ways, from beginning to end.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2016