Out of Our Ken
Questing for answers in the December 2012 Poetry
In the December 2012 issue of Poetry, poems seem to offer solutions to our problems: “Walk with sandals till you get good shoes,” Eliza Griswold instructs in “Libyan Proverbs.” “Learn to shave by shaving orphans.” But those suggestions, gleaned from a book of actual Libyan proverbs, pose problems of their own: What if we don’t own sandals? Will our tonsorial efforts help or harm the orphans? And if said orphans don’t want to get shaved, how will we convince them?
In the interviews enriching this Q-and-A issue, contributors explain their literary choices, clarifying other kinds of mysteries. Yet sometimes—like Griswold’s advice—their elucidations simply raise more questions.
In response to a poem populated by women, children, and secrets, the editors ask: “What might the women and the children know? What are their secrets like?” To which the poet, David Harsent, replies: “The children, I think, know only what children know. The women know what only women know.” The response is tantalizing: what do only women and children know? Do such categories exist, or is Harsent teasing us, spurring us toward other explanations? These questions prompt another: do we prefer poets’ explanations when they put an end to our wondering, or when they inspire us to wonder more?
In the house across the street, in a room
directly opposite his, was a long mirror. When he looked
out of his window, he would see himself in the room
like a thief caught in a trap. He threw a stone.
His neighbor ran in to the sound of breaking glass,
then came to the window and shouted across:
“Thank God for that: whenever I looked in my mirror
there you were, doing something shifty behind my back.”
The ﬁrst man turned away. The long mirror in his room
brought him face to face with his neighbor, knife in hand.
This poem raises several questions. First, and most importantly: what exactly is happening? Harsent sets up an optical illusion; carefully placed mirrors seem to transport one neighbor into another’s room, “trapping” him in a burglary he hasn’t committed. That phenomenon in turn hints at a deeper illusion: the solidity of our identities. When each man looks in the mirror, he sees the other across the way, as though self-reflection yields only the image of another—an “opposite,” no less. And just as the men’s identities begin to crack like splintered mirrors, the last line fractures into multiple meanings. Ambiguous syntax makes us wonder who is holding the knife: the first man or the neighbor? Does the neighbor intend to throw the knife to kill the first man, or to break the mirror? Or does the first man plan to use the knife, and if so, does he hope to break the mirror, kill himself, or kill the neighbor? Like these men, we find ourselves trapped among myriad agitating possibilities. To enable such queries, Ritsos and Harsent have perfectly positioned the poem’s semantic furniture, letting various interpretations rebound and resound. Given the choice, would you prefer to seek clarity from the poet by asking questions, or to reside amid such uncertainties?
Even as some poems revolve around riddles, others pretend to be full of solutions—but only pretend. “APPROACH LIFE AS IF IT WERE A BANQUET,” roars the title of one of Sharon Dolin’s poems. How? “Caress what can’t be blessed, cup shadows under breasts.” Also, “Let pass what’s out of ken: lover, job, riches, / a ripe peach / until it reaches you.”
Yet these apparent answers mask mysteries. How exactly do we cup shadows? And if the lover, job, riches, and peach are out of our ken, how will they nonetheless reach us? Like the reflections in “Trapped,” this advice doubles back on itself; seemingly commonsense, it devolves, gloriously, into nonsense.
Tom Sleigh and Eliza Griswold employ similar techniques, offering statements whose confidence belies their complications. In Sleigh’s “The Advance,” “a pinned-up PSYOPS leaﬂet declares, / If you sleep in a cemetery, you’re bound to have nightmares.” No one would argue, but does “sleep” refer to death or to Frost’s “human sleep”? Does the leaflet address American troops or natives of the war-torn country Sleigh describes? The assured “declare” stands in conflict with such ambiguity—one that Griswold echoes in the “Libyan Proverbs” quoted above.
Here’s another of Griswold’s aphorisms: “Where the turban moves, there moves / the territory.” The swagger of the statement coexists uneasily with its capacity for multiple interpretations. Turning to the Q-and-A, we learn that a turban is “the symbol of a leader’s strength.” Without that information, we could have understood it as just ordinary headwear, in which case the proverb might mean something else, such as: “Wherever an individual person goes, his world—family, friends, community—follows.” Would that misinterpretation constitute an inferior reading? Here, unlike in the case of the Harsent poem, the poet directs our analysis rather than teasing us into asking more and more questions. Which kind of interaction do you prefer with authors?
Another, larger question hangs over our reading of this poem: Libyans draw on a full cultural context when they cite these proverbs. Most of Griswold’s readers have little access to that context, and so we can’t even know how we are misinterpreting these statements, or how badly—or how well.