Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

National Impalement Statistics

Back to the topic of detachment and dark humor, this next poem may be the epitome of it.

National Impalement Statistics

One out of eight deaths occurring in the home

or on picnics

is impalement-related. Four

thousand and eleven people die

in home accidents in the USA each year (on average

over the past decade), so

that means 501.375 people die

of home impalements each year.

Two hundred and eighty-seven people die on picnics

each year in the USA, therefore 35.875 (one does not

round off human beings!) people die

by impalement

on picnics, mostly by fork, but many more than one might expect

by toothpick, particularly

in the Northeast region of the country.

The denotative: sharp object

enters one part of body

and, sometimes, emerges from another part of body, often,

though not always, ending in expiration.

One loves

the exceptions: he who lives with the shaft of a golf club

skewering his neck

and learns to walk sideways through doors; she who lives

with a long sliver of ice, ever unmelting,

in her chest…The home

is a bruised and burning place

and it lives a worm,

and the picnic, the picnic

is eating on the ground

as leopards do

when they are not eating in the trees.

This poem’s detached tone comes from its reliance on (to use Professor White’s lecture) rhetoric over imagery or “made-ness.” It is literally rattling off statistics in a totally matter-of-fact manner. Several sentences begin with or involve “but” or “although” or some word related to them. The poem treats death humorously as it discusses people dying during picnics and an impaled-but-living man walking through doors sideways so his golf club appendage won’t smack against the walls. In this case, the use of the impersonal third-person (not sure of the exact grammatical term for this) makes the poem even more removed. “One loves the exceptions,” “one does not round off human beings,” “but many more than one might expect,” etc. The speaker never identifies himself nor addresses anyone in particular.

Trope and trust in the speaker

Trope figures prominently in A Cradle Place as Lux uses it to develop bizarre subject matter found in many of the poems. In “Terminal Lake,” Lux writes about the lake,

All’s blind down there, and cold./ From above, it’s a huge black coin,/ it’s as if the real lake is drained/ and this lake is the drain…” “It’s a huge black coin” isn’t an extravagant metaphor but it does a good job of helping us imagine the physical shape (circular) and color (black) of the lake. In “asafetida” he writes,

The good, good thing for you

as prescribed by another, bitter

to the taste,

and, too, it stinks

like a neck after a boot heel is lifted,

for a moment, from it.

Like an eely

spike in a sinus. A horse-choking pill

put in a plunger

and shot down your throat—it’s good

for you, will improve you, you need it,

put a little honey on this tiny bomb

and take it down, take

it right down.

Wow, this “good, good thing” is compared to an “eely spike in a sinus,” “a horse choking pill,” a “tiny bomb” and its stink is compare to a “neck after a boot heel is lifted.” All these similes and metaphors in such a short poem and about one object definitely places great importance on the object. The problem is, this trope doesn’t give us much concrete imagery. I, for one, can’t really imagine what a “neck after a boot heel is lifted” smells like, or what an eely spike in a sinus looks like. It seems as though Lux doesn’t really want us to have a grasp on what exactly this “thing” is or what it smells and looks like. the speaker does call it a pill, but the fact that he has compared it to such strange things makes me take that statement with a grain of salt. If he calls it an eely spike in a sinus then I really can’t know if he is actually stating that the thing is a pill or it is just another odd metaphor. I think this dilemma is related to our discussions on whether we can “trust” certain speakers. It certainly appears to be something that others claim is a medicine, but we can’t know that it is an actual pill.

A Cradle Place by Thomas Lux

The first things I noticed about this book as a whole were the disturbing and/or comical titles of many of the poems. Titles like “Flies So Thick above the Corpses in the Rubble, the Soldiers Must Use Flamethrowers to Pass Through,” “Can’t Sleep the Clowns Will Eat Me,” “guide for the Perpetually Perplexed,” “Three Vials of Maggots,” and many others. Here’s “Three Vials of Maggots.”

Three Vials of Maggots

were collected from the corpse

found lying in a field

near a small stream. From these the lab can tell

at what time the dead one died.

The have schedules, the flies.

Some lay eggs

which hatch to maggots

which consume the corpse. Others come to eat flies, maggots, eggs.

Hide beetles arrive to clean the gristle.

It’s an orderly arrangement.

What the maggots do

they do for you.

The first notable observation is how interconnected the title and poem are. The title explicitly states the occasion of the poem and also acts as the first line of the poem. Many times we say that any title acts as a first line and this is an extreme as the first line of the poem (the real one) would not make sense without the title beginning it. This heavy reliance on the title is a common practice of Lux’s in The Cradle Place as it appears in “Three Boatloads of Mummies,” “Can’t Sleep the Clowns Will Eat Me,” “From the High Ground,” “The Ice Worm’s Life,” “The Chief Attendant of the Napkin,” “Burned Forests and Horses’ Bones,” “To Help the Monkey Cross the River,” “Can Tie Shoes but Won’t,” “Ten Years Hard Labor on a Guano Island,” and “Say You’re Breathing.” You can also tell by now that his titles are very unique, if not extremely odd.

I think that the defining characteristic of this poem, and many of the others, is its understated wit and dark humor. The poem is about a rotting corpse found near a stream, but Lux doesn’t discuss the person or his life. No, he discusses the usefulness of the insects that pick away at the corpse and ultimately states that the maggots are indeed helping us. Another dark but impersonal poem is “Hospitality and Revenge,”

Hospitality and Revenge

You invite your neighbor over

for a beer and a piece of pie.

He says words inappropriate

about your Xmas bric-a-brac.

You shoot him, three times, in the face.

While you complain to his first son

re high off-white-couch cleaning costs,

he shoots you in the face five times.

At your wake, your first son pumps eight

slugs behind his first son’s left ear.

Your wife invites your neighbor’s widow for tea.

Let’s see what exactly about the poem makes it so disturbing and cold. The tone of the poem is so detached because he never uses any words to describe the people dying or make any attempt to personalize the poem. The most we know about the neighbor is that he “says words inappropriate.” The use of slang words almost act as euphemisms such as when “your first son pump eight slugs.” These words devalue the victims and make the poem almost comical as that sentence seems straight out of a comic book caption. Also notice that the speaker writes in the second person saying “You invite,” “your Xmas,” “you complain,” etc. Regardless of the fact that the speaker isn’t necessarily addressing the reader, the nature of the second person itself will bring the reader’s own family into his/her mind making the poem most disturbing for him/her. However, the detached tone of the poem combined with the personal nature of “you” only augments the coldness of the poem.

The poem also makes a small observation on the nature of revenge, as the number of bullets each revenge-killing involves increases. “You” shoot “your neighbor” three times, his son shoots “you” five times, and “your” first son “pumps eight slugs” into the other son’s head. Many of the poems in A Cradle Place have disturbing subject matter yet the speakers handle it with no emotions and even hints of humor.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tripp's comment on "Vietnam"

I was interested in the questions that Tripp raised as to whether she is a "woman who cannot understand hardly any english? is she playing dumb until her children are put at risk? is she just confused and has no idea what is going on around her and all she knows is that she wants her kids to be with her?" Let's look at the text and see if the evidence favors one of the possibilities.

Here’s the poem once again:


“Woman, what’s your name? “I don’t know.”

“How old are you? Where are you from?” “I don’t know.”

“How long have you been hiding?” “I don’t know.”

“Why did you bite my finger?” “I don’t know.”

“Don’t you know that we won’t hurt you?” “I don’t know.”

“Whose side are you on?” “I don’t know.”

“This is war, you’ve got to choose.” “I don’t know.”

“Does your village still exist?” “I don’t know.”

“Are those your children?” “Yes.”

a) A woman who can understand very little English:

This does not seem to be a likely scenario as she understands “are those your children,” which really isn’t that simple of a sentence. It’s difficult to believe that she would understand that and not “what’s your name.”

b) She is playing dumb until her children are put at risk.

This is certainly a possibility but if we examine it we must also discern why she decided to actually answer the last question. I’ll explain that in a little bit but I do think that the third possibility is the most plausible.

c) She is extremely confused with what is going on around her.

There is one word that leads me to believe that this woman may not care as much for her children as is evident on the first read. The soldier says “are those your children.” Judging by my classmates’ comments on my poems, the distinction between the demonstrative pronouns carries much weight with it. Frequently there are comments suggesting the use of “this/these” rather than “that/those” because the usage of the former places more importance on the noun at hand. I totally believe in that observation as well. I also believe, however, that we can’t pick and choose when “that” (or its plural form) reduces importance and when we can ignore the choice of “that” (as in this poem). If we hold to the conclusion that “that/those” reduces importance and immediacy then we must apply it to “are those your children.” “Those” inadvertently reduces the importance of the children but also tells us that the children are physically away from the mother. If this woman really is completely protective of her children then why are they not by her side in a time of war? Human nature and the nature of the English language can explain how she knew the answer to the last question. “Those” is considered a pronoun but for it to be intelligible it must be specified what “those” is referring to. Since the soldiers are asking simple questions, they did not previously mention the children and therefore their only option would be to physically point and/or look at the children as they ask the question. As you can see, the motioning actually goes beyond human nature and depends on English grammar. The textual evidence is telling us that the woman knows very simple English answers but is totally overwhelmed and confused by the war going on around her. She answers the last question because it is a simple yes or no question and not necessarily because her children are all-important. We can speculate on the setting they are in (an interrogation room, field, house, etc) or other things but ultimately we have to rely on the text to lead us in the right direction. Unfortunately we have little text to work with, but I think that all we really need is the word “those.”

Motion in poetry?


You’re crying here, but there they’re dancing,

there they’re dancing in your tear.

There they’re happy, making merry,

they don’t know a blessed thing.

Almost the glimmering of mirrors.

Almost candles flickering.

Nearly staircases and hallways.

Gestures, lace cuffs, so it seems.

Hydrogen, oxygen, those rascals.

Chlorine, sodium, a pair of rogues.

The fop nitrogen parading

up and down, around, about

beneath the vault, inside the dome.

Your crying’s music to their ears.

Yes, eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Who are you, lovely masquerader.

The perception of motion in writing is an interesting concept because a writer must elicit not just imagery in the reader’s mind, but dynamic imagery. This poem does not strive for elaborate images, however. Simple words like “dancing,” “glimmering,” “flickering,” “gestures,” “rogues,” and “parading” lend a perception of action and activity within the poem. Also, the elements hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine, and sodium are highly reactive in their elemental forms which will also add to the “motion” of the poem, if the reader is familiar with chemistry. In addition, notice how the poet says “almost the glimmering,” “almost candles flickering,” and “nearly staircases.” There is never any completion and only perpetual motion.

Despite the active diction, I believe there are elements of the poem that hinder the perception of motion and perhaps this relates to the occasion of the poem. Enjambment, which would create a hurried feel while reading the poem, occurs only in the 11th and twelfth lines. The abundance of end-line punctuation seems counterintuitive for a poem utilizing active words as it stops the reader at the same time every line. There is no unpredictability or acceleration in this technique. Also, there are several multisyllabic words that don’t exactly roll off the tongue: “glimmering,” “hydrogen,” “oxygen,” “sodium,” “nitrogen,” “Nachtmusik, and “masquerader.” These words slow the reader down in his reading and complement the punctuation well.

It seems that the occasion of the poem is a person crying alone at a party while everyone else is having fun and in motion. The contrast between the state of the loner (alone, still) and that of the partygoers (dancing, active) directly relates to the presence of both active diction and end-line punctuation.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


This next poem is really interesting and has a lot going on in it without actually having any figurative language or noticeable complexity to it.


“Woman, what’s your name? “I don’t know.”

“How old are you? Where are you from?” “I don’t know.”

“How long have you been hiding?” “I don’t know.”

“Why did you bite my finger?” “I don’t know.”

“Don’t you know that we won’t hurt you?” “I don’t know.”

“Whose side are you on?” “I don’t know.”

“This is war, you’ve got to choose.” “I don’t know.”

“Does your village still exist?” “I don’t know.”

“Are those your children?” “Yes.”

The entire poem consists of dialogue between what I believe to be a US soldier and a Vietnamese woman. Pretty much any work of art about Vietnam will be very emotionally charged and typically quite political. What’s impressive about this poem especially, however, is that the poet does not opt for the common route for war-themed works of art. This common route is the heavy use of vivid imagery to convey the horrors of war and basically frighten the reader/observer enough to make him realize the human toll of war. Wislawa Szymborska creates such a relatively simple poem that manages to be as powerful as any imagery-dependant poems/works of art in general. The repetition of “I don’t know” after 8/9 lines reinforces the sense of chaos and confusion during war. The fact that she only answers “Yes” when asked about her children tells us how utterly lost this woman is. She is displaced from her home, doesn’t know if her village exists anymore, has no idea what side she is on, and bit a soldier out of fright. Her life seems to be in great disorder. I just wanted to post this poem because I love how Szymborska can convey so much in 9 lines of simple dialogue.