Outside the Box
Forms and Contents in the June 2012 Poetry
In the June 2012 issue of Poetry, a retired ironworker named Josh Warn describes steeling himself for long truck drives by memorizing poems. His contribution to our “View from Here” series, which features essays on poetry by non-poets, provides us with a key to some of the issue’s stickier stanzas:
Memorizing and reciting was a way I passed some hours of the bi-weekly commute in the company F-350, slouching toward Buffalo loaded with the steel construction paraphernalia that my ironworker colleagues call “ten pounds of shit in a five pound box.” The truck and its boxes might look like a mess to strangers, but I’ve worked to keep some sense to it. The order of a tightly crafted poem has the same kind of appeal to me. The job site might be dirty, noisy, and cold, losing money and behind schedule, but I feel better knowing which box holds the three-quarter-inch drive sockets.
This month, the magazine has something in common with Warn’s truck. It’s packed with “tightly crafted poems” that are bursting at their seams, as though their writers have stuffed ten pounds of material into five-pound parcels. Let’s start by unpacking “The Shoe Box,” by Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner W.S. Di Piero:
A high school mash note’s stammering lust.
Father and me, shirts and ties, snapshot glare,
and somehow graphed into that air
a young man’s foolscap poem when a just,
loose joinery of words was all that mattered.
But then in last night’s dream, she (mother, wife,
mash note’s love?) tells me a box holding secret life
has been shipped, enclosing sounds I haven’t heard:
a wind-harp’s warp, words yarding across staves,
fluty sounds ribboned to sad, screechy tunes.
And things: a wishbone, ring, whatever I crave,
the heart-hollows, the cannot-do-withouts, the whens
and whos, the frayed veils between death and here...
I packed this box myself. I packed it full of fear.
Like a shoebox stuffed with mementoes, this poem marks a contained yet chaotic space; limited by some strictures of the sonnet form (fourteen lines and a fairly regular rhyme scheme), it nonetheless brims with mismatched contents. Few of its lines last the typical ten syllables. Instead, most either stop short or stretch out, and the poem flirts with iambic meter but never commits. The imperfection of the box’s items mirror the “imperfection” of the sonnet itself: the mash note stammers; the snapshot’s camera glared; the poem’s “joinery of words” is “loose,” and its “foolscap” paper might hint at the foolishness of the young poet’s effort.
In its sixth line, the poem breaks out of the shoebox and into a new box filled with, among other things, sounds. Here, as before, the poem mimics the box it describes, ringing with particularly intense sonic echoes (as in “harp,” “warp,” “word,” and “yard,” all of which “yard” on the same “stave” of the poem). And, as above, Di Piero hints at the flaws of the second box’s contents: “warp,” for instance, could refer to the harp strings (which would physically resemble the “warp” in a loom), or to a problem afflicting those strings; the “fluty sounds” accompany “sad, screechy tunes.” This mixture of beauty and imperfection might illuminate the sonnet’s final line, which reveals that the speaker both craves and fears the box’s contents: no wonder, if those contents are lovely and faulty at once.
Mary Ruefle treads adjacent ground in her essay “On Fear,” which concludes this issue:
Fear is desire’s dark dress, its doppelgänger. “Love and dread are brothers,” says Julian of Norwich. As desire is wanting and fear is not-wanting, they become inexorably linked; just as desire can be destructive (the desire for power), fear can be constructive (fear of hurting another); fear of poverty becomes desire for wealth.
Do you agree? How do fear and desire operate in Di Piero’s sonnet? Can we safely say that the speaker craves perfection and fears defectiveness, or might his logic work the other way around? Or might he crave and fear them both?
In “Christmas Trees,” William Logan ushers us from shoeboxes to saltboxes. Like Di Piero, he uses traditional form—not a sonnet, but four-line stanzas rhyming abba—to both reinforce and challenge our senses of order:
How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of alcohol
poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.
These seemingly tidy stanzas can hardly contain their complications. Logan begins by citing his inability to recall what he proceeds to recite from memory: the look of a windowpane, the style of the houses, the fall of snow. He describes the scene with overexerted metaphors: a windowpane whose ice is like lace, which is itself like a sheet of cellophane; snow recalling a halo that glares in the manner of a waxy crown. What is a waxy crown, we might wonder, and how would it “glare” like a halo? Logan could have written “glowed”—the verb typically associated with halos—but instead chooses a word that recalls a familiar comparison only to eschew it. (As for “skies of alcohol // poured over the saltbox town,” one can only hope the result was a good time.)
Why mix such metaphors into one’s poem? They could suggest both the vigor and vulnerability of memory, reflecting the speaker’s half-true declaration of his memory’s failure: he recalls some impressions, but not enough to paint a coherent picture. Logan might have a second purpose in mind as well. The more fanciful his comparisons grow, the less we understand of the scene; these metaphors serve to remove the speaker, and us, from his situation, as though that situation is too much to bear.
Which, indeed, it is. The final stanza concludes:
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.
With this declaration, Logan’s style shifts away from layered metaphor and into simple speech. No longer does the poem’s rhetoric seem to overpower its brief lines; instead, its feeling does. Do you crave such shifts in poems, or fear them? Or both?