May 2017 Discussion Guide

On Air

Freedom and Constriction in the May 2017 Poetry

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In the May 2017 Poetry, contributors explore weighty problems while discussing the lightest of substances—air. In “Interruptive,” Phillip B. Williams writes:

Sky knows the neon of kite sail and tail.
Fifteen thousand names written in the air
by ribbon, rhombi billowed into shields . . .

Countering this scene of liberty—a depiction of the kite-flying prowess of children living in the Gaza Strip—are stark depictions of the walls that box the kids in. Three times, Williams includes blocks of text consisting only of the word “wall”: walls of words.

How do air and walls coexist, and what’s the relationship between liberty and constriction? Sandra Simonds’s brief meditation “When you think about it, mostly, a cage is air—” investigates these questions by inverting the usual language of imprisonment:

When you think about it, mostly, a cage is air — 
so what is there
to be afraid of?
A cage of air. Baudelaire said
Poe thought America was one giant cage.
To the poet, a nation is one big cage?
And isn’t the nation mostly filled with air?
Try to put a cage around your dream.
The cage escapes the dream.
I see it streak and stream.

Generally, cages trap their contents; here, the contents seem to trap the cage, which nonetheless manages to escape. It’s as though the contents are creating their own captivity, “dreaming up” constraints that they can’t maintain.

Simonds’s poem operates within constraints of its own. From the start, it’s repetitive: the title and first line are the same, and line four parrots much of line one. “Cage” occurs seven times, “air” four, and “dream” twice. Throughout, Simonds weaves aural echoes, too: “dream” and “stream,” “air” and “there” and “Baudelaire.”  Indeed, “Baudelaire” contains “air,” and “Poe thought” contracts, in the next line, to “poet.” Given this wealth of iteration, it’s fitting that Simonds is repeating Baudelaire’s repetition of Poe’s observation.

All its sonic refrains push this song-like poem closer to the category of “air,” in the sense of short melody. But they do something more complicated, too. Notice how the first four lines offer an essentially identical premise (“a cage is air”) and conclusion (“a cage of air”). For all its emphasis on liberation, might this poem reveal a speaker caged within her own argument, her many repetitions as identical as the bars of a cage? When Simonds describes America as “filled with air,” is she playing on the expression “full of hot air,” of insubstantial opinion? Is her own poem, then, knowingly full of the same—does it offer an argument that it aims, also, to contradict?

Questions of air and movement also haunt Peter Cole’s “August,” a tour of houseplant varieties—from alyssum to purslane—that takes place firmly within his own walls. “What doesn’t dangle?” he asks. Most of his plants do; the section about “hearts-on-strings” wanders down the page’s white space, mimicking the shape of vine and leaves:

These hearts-on-strings
     of the tenderest green
things that rise
from dirt,
then fall
                  toward the floor,
                                  hang
                            in
               the air
         like — 

              hearts-
on-strings of the tenderest
green things — 
     they rise from dirt
then fall toward
           the floor,
    hanging in
                the air like — 

                                 these
hearts-on-strings of the
tenderest green things,
                                       rising
from dirt then falling
toward the floor,
             hanging
      in the air like

This segment of “August” is a study of hanging, both literally and metaphorically. Each stanza ends with the word “like,” followed by a break of white space that leaves us wondering just what the plant is like—that leaves us, in other words, hanging. (Cole’s suggestion, with each new stanza, that the plant hangs like itself doesn’t necessarily resolve this uncertainty.) Most strikingly, the final stanza offers neither em dash nor subsequent stanza to suggest any hope of an answer. Instead, it provides merely white space—the air of the page, in which the question hangs forever.

Within each stanza, the grammar performs a similar trick: an intervening clause creates a pause in the phrase’s flow (“then fall / toward the floor,” “they rise from dirt / then fall toward / the floor,” “rising / from dirt then falling / toward the floor”), leaving the first part of the sentence temporarily up in the air. Like Simonds’ poem, this section of Cole’s traffics in repetition, with each stanza a near-copy of the others—in imitation of the nearly identical leaves that hang from the plant.

“Hearts-on-strings” are so-called because, of course, they are like something: their leaves resemble the popular image of the human heart, and their vines resemble strings. The pulsing human heart has its own repetitive rhythm of “rising . . . then falling,” and it raises us from the ground before delivering us back to it. And in the meantime, we hang somewhere in the middle, like—well, like no one but ourselves.

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