Plums, Volcanoes, and Heartbreak in the April 2017 Poetry
In “The Music of Poetry,” James Longenbach tunes into William Carlos Williams’s “To a Poor Old Woman,” which describes a stranger eating a plum on the street. He focuses on the poet’s inventive use of line:
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
Every shift of the phrase, Longenbach writes, introduces something new—whether a moment of stability or an emphasis on an unexpected word—but more significant than each adjustment, he writes, “is the sequence of adjustments,” which suggests that “no one way of hearing the sentence will do complete justice to the rich experience of savoring the plum.”
Williams is far from the only poet in the issue to toy with line. Several poems conduct daring experiments with configuration, from Sawnie Morris’s “Clothespins on the Line” to Jeffrey Yang’s “The Grass” to David Tomas Martinez’s “Love Song.” The last of these, coincidentally, begins with another nod to Williams and plums:
That administrator I bit
in the third grade,
who was delicious
Martinez’s lines are a playful take on Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” wherein the poet confesses to have eaten plums that he shouldn’t have:
they were delicious
and so cold
What variation does Martinez offer on Williams’s original recipe? His lines don’t drop straight down the page, as Williams’s did; instead, they tend to tack left, where our eyes least expect to go. That counterintuitive motion matches Martinez’s surprising spin on “This Is Just To Say”: he is munching not on fruit but on faculty. And while Williams pleads for forgiveness, Martinez says, a few lines earlier, “I do not apologize.”
He’s also mixed up the sequence of the Williams poem—which may mix us up in turn, and invite us to wonder in what order we should read these lines. This confusion is no accident; Martinez’s poem is a portrait of a jumbled speaker:
My mind is made up
of so many different cuts
My marbles stay
as my metaphors. As my myths.
As the poem moves unexpectedly down the page, the meanings of its lines shift unexpectedly, too. “My mind is made up” seems at first to indicate that the speaker has drawn a conclusion—but the next line clarifies that in this context “made up” means not “decided” but “composed of.” And just what is his mind composed of? “Different cuts / of meat,” of course. (Perhaps “cut” also refers to quick transitions, as when filmmakers cut to new scenes—or when Martinez moves from one jagged line to the next.) Rather than a statement of mental strength, then, Martinez has offered something else: the news that he’s a very particular sort of meathead.
And what of Martinez’s myths? They’re mixed indeed, ranging from the Biblical to the classical to the contemporary. The most recent is the strange-but-true tale of a woman who traveled to Iceland in 2012. After a hike to “the cold volcano at Eldgjá,” she participated in a hunt for a missing person, only to realize that it was she who had been, erroneously, reported missing. In an unusually literal sense, then, she had been searching for herself—a fact that fascinated readers of international news and that animates the relevant sections of the poem. “We are the woman // in the search party looking // for ourselves,” Martinez writes. Which raises a question that preoccupies “Love Song”: what is the self, exactly? What—beyond all the meat—is going on in our heads?
Martinez loads his poem with odd-looking heads beyond his own—and he describes them in complex terms, as if to suggest that they, too, contain “different cuts / of meat.” There’s the head of Moses, “horned, beamed with light.” The myth that Moses had horns—which yielded the stereotype that all Jews have horns—is rooted in a long-ago mistranslation of a Hebrew word that refers both to horns and to radiance. Martinez’s line includes both meanings, an acknowledgement of that particularly damaging mix-up. Then there’s “Medusa’s disunited head,” as Martinez politely refers to it. In “Love Song,” Perseus—who beheaded Medusa, the monster with snakes for hair, and took her head as spoils—fingers “the flint // of primped snakes.” This allusive phrase links the image to Medusa’s beauty routine, to Moses (whose rod turned into a snake), and to a violent future: Medusa’s head will form part of Athena’s shield.
Meanwhile, Martinez continues to play with the appearance of his work on the page: at the head of the Medusa section we find, well, Medusa’s head—the reproduction, that is, of a small, black-and-white image of the head of a statue. It’s as though the head is a line of poetry, as though the visual can mix so easily with the textual that one can simply be swapped in for the other. But in poetry, of course, the textual is visual—and in this particular poem, strikingly so.