Seasonal Affective Disorder: Winter in Wallace Stevens’s “Farewell to Florida”

Key West sunset photo by Flickr user Joe Parks.jpg

Having consoled myself in damp pubs in London, creaked across frozen lakes in the deep freeze of Minnesota, and coughed my way through Philadelphian afternoons that could never decide between rain or sleet, I can tell you: there are many different kinds of cold. It’s something Wallace Stevens knew well. His poem, “The Snow Man,” is probably the most famous winter poem in modern poetry, laying before us a “distant glitter” and, within it, the full presence of winter’s unique nothingness. It’s a philosophically acute poem, five even tercets laid on the “same bare place” of Stevens’s singular thought. Many believe it captures winter in its absolute essence.

But Stevens wrote about winter in many exceptional poems. Today I want to talk about a quite different winter piece (really a seasonal/climate comparison), the opening poem of Ideas of Order, “Farewell to Florida.” It is far more expansive; it eschews austerity for something richer. It’s Stevens in a more playful mode, five sections of ten-line stanzas with a relatively straightforward conceit: leaving Key West and heading back to a wintry north. . .

Read the feature at Michigan Quarterly Review

Close Reads – “Star Witness” by Neko Case

So yeah, I’m breaking form here and doing a close read of some lyrics. For shame. And equally so that this is a clear attempt at SEO shenanigans (since I update this blog so frequently :)). So let me just complete such shenanigans: Star Witness meaning, the meaning of Star Witness, Star Witness Neko Case lyrics meaning interpretation awesomeness iPod economy largest city by population how to pirate music.

Ah cheap. But I’m really being kind of profane. This is in fact a lovely, absolutely serious song, and the lyrics are, in fact, better than many poems I have read. Please listen to the album cut at youtube here. Or you can try this live version. I’ll wait.

I mean, she’s just magic, right? Okay so here’s the text:


My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block
Of a falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive

Trees break the sidewalk
And the sidewalk skins my knees
There’s glass in my thermos
And blood on my jeans
Nickels and dimes of the fourth of july
Roll off in a crooked line
To the chain-link lots where the red tails dive
Oh how I forgot what it’s like

Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight

Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sisters if we say we’ll watch the baby”
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything
To see you again

So I’ve fallen behind…

Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such deadly wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such deadly wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight

Go on, go on scream and cry
You’re miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new, no television crew
They don’t even put on the sirens
My nightgown sweeps the pavement
Please don’t let him die

Oh, how I forgot…

Let me begin with a little caveat. I don’t know about you, but I immediately think this song is about a car accident. But I found this clip of an interview with Case where she clarifies that this is in fact about a shooting she saw in Chicago. The pitchfork link is dead, but here is the url regardless and the bit from the interview. I’m trusting it:

http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/c/case_neko-06/


Pitchfork: From Fox Confessor, on a song like “Star Witness”, I’m guessing there’s a car accident involved but the details are sketchy.

Case: I spent a while on that song. It’s about an actual event that occurred in front of me. It wasn’t actually a car accident but someone being shot to death. That was a real event that happened in Chicago.

Pitchfork: What happened?

Case: It was one of those things where there’s gang violence and somebody gets shot right in front of you, and you live it and it’s horrible. And, of course, it doesn’t make the news because the kid is black. Nobody gives a shit except for his family, and you see how much nobody gives a shit and it’s fucking heartbreaking. He wasn’t even the kid they were looking to shoot. He was just some kid who they mistook for somebody else and they shot him. I saw it happen. I didn’t make the song about me either. The song is pieces of different people but the event is in there.

I feel that I’m in a bit of a tricky position, because I want to see the shooting in this song, and at times I do, but in the end this still ends up being a love song about death and regret and not a song about gang violence, senseless murder, class and race divide, empathy, etc. And I want to recognize what is unfortunate about this, because there is a wealth of love songs about death and regret and a serious dearth of the latter, at least in the realm of folk music (for a really great poem about the difficulties of sympathy across racial lines, read Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”). But, I respect the artistry Case brings to this, the “pieces of different people,” which creates a very tangible sense of assembly to the lyrics, and that is the primary richness with which I most engage them. So I am going to read these lyrics the way I first did, as a story about a car crash.

The title: Star Witness. Of course, this most directly points to the real source of the lyrics. But as we take the title against the lyrics themselves, it’s primary role is in establishing one level of engagement on the part of the speaker. What I hope to get at in this read is the way the speaker of the song, much like he of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” approaches the subject from two very different vantages, namely as the narrator with authorial power and then as the somewhat helpless object of the narrative, the subject to whom the story happens. “Star witness” has a kind of snide irony to it, which is mostly a result of the pop-legal tone of it against the deeply personal content of the lyrics. In this way, the title could be spoken out of either vantage and is really, ironically because of the irony :), one of the sincerest moments in the song, since it is the one place where both vantages of the speaker seem to meet. Perhaps this will make more sense as we get deeper in.


My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block
Of a falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive


I think I’ve been tepid, generally, about openings these days, and I will continue with that here. This is to-the-point, quite quickly and powerfully establishes, with a little bit of play, what’s going on. “My true love drowned,” is really the way anyone should start a story. It’s a little confusing, however, because the scene most immediately evoked is one of car repair and not a moving accident, an oil change gone terribly awry, and I can’t see why Case starts with this misdirection except to establish more of a sense of culture, that this was a person who loved cars, that these are the kind of alt country people the story is about, something more firmly established in the third verse. What’s more important to me here, however, is how Case leaps off one final stone from the title, “the paper said ’75 / there were no survivors / none found alive.” The reference to the “paper” and the subsequent language of papers is perfectly in step with the title and establishes the publicness of this event. Also of note is the “falcon” sedan, which foreshadows the “red tails,” and then, more centrally, the “wolves.” More on that when we get there.

This sense of the public works in very subtle ways. Again, I think it gets at the true source of the lyrics (of a shooting), but Case quickly works it into something else:


Trees break the sidewalk
And the sidewalk skins my knees
There’s glass in my thermos
And blood on my jeans
Nickels and dimes of the fourth of july
Roll off in a crooked line
To the chain-link lots where the red tails dive
Oh how I forgot what it’s like


These lines bring us extremely close to the action and the characters. “Skins my knees,” details like “glass in my thermos / and blood on my jeans” are harrowing, fragmented snippets of the aftermath and very strongly resemble the acute, if disoriented, feeling of “waking up” after a car accident. It’s personal the way someone’s body is personal, and yet, there are layers outward from that privacy. First, the sidewalk: we are in a neighborhood. Second, “nickels and dimes of the fourth of July,” which evoke both a neighborhood and a nationhood, this shared event, currencies and parties—it’s a strangely public detail to have so close to “blood on my jeans,” and the effect, for me, as the change “rolls off in a crooked line” is a kind of separation, a feeling of alienation from that publicness, or at least, a feeling of that publicness as being surreal, incongruous. In a more strident way, the values and promises the community and country have established for the speaker, in this moment of terror, are receding away. And to where do they recede? They recede to the “chain-link lots,” which is a kind of end-of-society, the edge, you know, and beyond that edge the “red tails dive.” The image here is really quite magnificent, how nature is standing right there at the end of things, and there’s a danger in that, as though the speaker has crashed right through a wall of societal protection and sees in that wound the unthinking (and beautiful) nature that, essentially, is waiting for her. Or, really, for him. And, in a slightly perfunctory way, this shakes her to remember something important, which I read as her love for this man.


Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight


And we leave the scene and enter the chorus, which is both a musical and literary chorus. Whoever is speaking seems to change here, to reference Prufrock again, is calling out “let us go then.” The person singing these words is collected, entirely oriented, and seems to understand something of great value the earlier speaker couldn’t have even hoped to have understood. It’s a godlike voice, and the great value of the tone here is the matter-of-fact way it’s delivered. We seem to be watching the earlier speaker run as though by a magic looking glass from heaven, and there is nothing good or bad about the earlier speaker’s state, but rather, that she simply is—the narrative is playing out, the earth is turning, and that’s how it must be. It’s eerily flat in tone, though of course, as it’s sung, it is sweet, sweet, sweet. The inexorable feeling of this is doubled with the latter part of the chorus, “hey there’s such tender wolves ’round town tonight.” A quick note on this, many lyrics I found hear it as “deadly wolves,” but if you ask my ears, it’s “tender.” This is really such a lovely layering as well. I mentioned the “red tails” early, flying at the edges of society, humanity, and now that animal power has, like the chorus, infiltrated the heart of the song. We see the wolves slipping in and out of the streets in that darkness as though they were busying themselves gathering something. Perhaps souls? Maybe that’s a bit heavy, but the inference stands. Now I sort of see this as serving two primary functions. The first, in a more straightforward way, is that the wolves are here to claim the person that has just died/we fear is dead (a little sketchy given the end of the song, but damn if I have time to get into it), the “true love.” Second, however, is that they are catalyzing this transformation in the speaker, the “she” that is running, and we guess that at the other side of this transformation is the “she” that speaks in the chorus with all that wisdom. It’s a characteristically mythic thing for Case to do, and I think, personally, this is when she is the best at it.


Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sisters if we say we’ll watch the baby
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything
To see you again

So I’ve fallen behind…

Kind of like the beginning, I think this verse’s primary role is to establish a kind of culture, which is so like that found in Raymond Carver’s stories it’s almost uncanny. I’m not entirely certain what’s happening here other than some sort of memory. But it might be read as a last hoorah, a throw-caution-to-the-wind, a running, certainly, and a hiding out. There’s a subdued but deep and pained feeling that the speaker is trying to save her lover, that they’ve got nowhere to go, but she has a plan. The line I really don’t get, and which I think is weak, is the third. I can’t figure out if they are having some kind of quiet fight, which she regrets, or what. The “look” on the face is nothing I can see at all. Regardless, whether this is some limbo flight or a memory of their relationship, it is the only, and, thus, most important actual connection we see between the speaker and her lover.

And the chorus again. How weird. If this were a poem, these three sentences in my read wouldn’t exist.


Go on, go on scream and cry
You’re miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new, no television crew
They don’t even put on the sirens
My nightgown sweeps the pavement
Please don’t let him die

Oh, how I forgot…

Notice how this last verse modulates—it really ups the ante musically and practically holds your tears at gunpoint. We’ve run so far we are miles out, perhaps, on the other side of the chain-link lot, finally in that void where nature rules. And the lesson here is that of a kind of natural order, that this is “nothing new.” It’s a powerfully lonely moment in the song, and Case really achieves that by undercutting the previous public quality of this event, “no television crew / they don’t even put on the sirens.” There is no fanfare, no baroque displays of cultural ritual to mollify what is, in the end, something that happens everyday and, eventually, to everyone. It’s a tricky move, but what I really think Case is doing is moving, in this single verse, from the very human “scream and cry,” spoken by that more authorial voice directly to the she who has been running and who now, at the other end of this movement, is only metonymically imaged as a “nightgown [that] sweeps the pavement,” an angelic or ghostly image of someone who has all but evaporated. This is very complex stuff, very artfully designed, but what makes it absolute magic, to me, is that penultimate line, “please don’t let him die.” Case has spent all this time setting up these structures, layering voices, tracking a character as she runs herself physically and emotionally into nothing, and she cuts through all of that with this final, direct plea. It’s so heartbreaking, so steadfast and true. She works for that line and deserves it. It isn’t a caption. She doesn’t just say directly what she was “getting at all along,”–she is enacting a drama of what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be honestly felt. In many ways, this plea is what the speaker “forgot,” so we feel, at the end of the song, an actual sense of achievement. A release. A forgiving.

Close Reads – One Tanka by Masaoka Shiki

Last week we looked at “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” and I have to admit it turned rather into an allusion fest, which was or was not all that useful to you, myself, or the poem, if that isn’t too vague. While Harvey’s resistance to straight allusory reads in that poem is a factor in the poem itself, I decided I’m going to skip the Wikipedia this week, partly for the sake of my own laziness, but also because I do have some small belief that we should be just as fruitful bringing the knowledge we already have. And let’s make it short and full of wonder, shall we?

Tanka. The sort of “completed sonnet” of the “incomplete sonnet” that is the haiku, if we mix syllables up for rhyme. But that’s just confusing. Tanka is haiku with two seven-syllable ending lines, so it’s a syllabic poem that runs 5-7-5-7-7. It’s a full house of a poem, as it were. Now I don’t know if I’ve cornered you in a room at an MFA party sometime in your life, but if I have, then you’ll know that I much prefer tanka to haiku. It has that added je ne sais quoi that only a poem of slightly greater length can have. And one of my favorites? Masaoka Shiki. But I’ll be damned if I tell you who he is—all I can do is mention his name again: Masaoka Shiki. Oh and to mention that I was reading Walter Benjamin’s essay on Proust this afternoon and find the parallels in Proust’s and Shiki’s lives a bit startling—well okay, maybe not, but it might be useful for you to know that both men lived around the same time and both completed their most well known work bedridden with chronic lung diseases. But I’ve already said too much! As most tanka go, this dude’s untitled. But do read it, among many other great tanka, here. Because I’m such a badass (okay, because Makoto Ueda is such a badass) I’m also providing the romaji.


wakaba sasu ichi no ueki no shitakage ni kingyo akinau natsu wa kinikeri


tree with lush leaves
at an outdoor fair
giving shade
to a goldfish seller
as summer begins


What I really find so lovely about short poems is how they work against a kind of linear read. In Harvey’s poem last week, one couldn’t resist watching how the poem progressed, how it posited, made variation, and changed its mind. Here however, since the poem can only accommodate the unveiling of a single scene, the reader is more apt to treat it as a static entity, perhaps, a linguistic mind-painting. And by apt I really mean that—a linear read is certainly still plausible. But this is rather the effect of short poems and not specific to this example.

What we have in this scene is an exquisite layering of realms and, linearly, a very straightforward movement of the eye downward and, in a flash, outward in a total view. If it’s your first read of the poem, you might imagine the tree from the natural viewpoint of one standing, perhaps in an adjacent clearing, looking at the leaves—a horizontal landscape. However, further reads, a knowledge of where we end up, drastically changes this viewpoint to one under the tree, looking up, presumably as the leaves sway with ginger motion in the slight breeze. The effect of this is powerful—we “wake up”in the poem on our backs. Now that could just be my read, but I think this cinematic effect is common enough (watch Lost ever?) that I’ll hazard a guess and say many others would share this read with me. Much in the way the goldfish is underwater, we are under the tree—see what I’m saying? The tree brings this underwater realm, one, if not foreign to the human reader, certainly dangerous, unnatural, to him, to his realm. And this is huge—to me—the point of the poem. The compelling quality of this, in the most concrete way, is the atmosphere it evokes. The sound of the outdoor market, of the seller as he calls out his goods, is to us warbled, muted, the larger effect of which is a distance between the reader (viewer, listener) and the scene before him. This is an exquisite tension. As the language starts and we wake into it, we realize we have waken into both sides of sleep: reality and dream. Don’t you ask yourself: is this poem a dream? Because it has dream’s qualities. And yet, the clarity and simplicity of what it describes seems real enough. This is further evidenced in the way the cognizant beings are equally layered—as much as we respond to the goldfish seller’s presence, so to, we respond to the presence of the goldfish. The mind, in the poem, is in both locations, under the tree and underwater. Or, perhaps, the goldfish mirror the others in the market, whom we don’t see directly, in their mass presence. Either way, Shiki deftly draws both the physical and mental environments of terrestrial and aquatic realms into a single description.

Now (and perhaps I’m too into Proust and Baudelaire now, via Benjamin)–what in our cognitive existence is most like dream and reality mashed together? That’s right: memory. So, going along with our previous responses, we ask, is this then a scene being remembered? And of course, don’t even attempt to answer that. The important factor in this question is the introduction of time. I mentioned before that this poem is static, but I also mentioned that I didn’t really mean that. And the tension in my equivocation is precisely because the poem follows a similar sort of tension. Time as it moves regularly is stalled, distended. But time as it moves within the mind is still at pace. What I mean by this is that we don’t really imagine the scene ticking away as we are taking our time (and luxury) in uncovering it. Think of the squeaky, warbly, herky jerky start of an old film, or if you start a record with the stylus mid-song. The song, or film, doesn’t seem to move independently from us (like an underground river we periodically have access to), but rather, it seems to cohere, in static form, and then move independently. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. This is what the poem does: it has to cohere before it lands on the running wheel of time, and only then can its gears lock with time’s gears and begin to rotate itself, etc. In another sense, the scene only has the appearance of moving through time; it is in fact us who are moving—and this lends a sense of simultaneously moving and not moving. Okay, perhaps this is all for naught. Let’s just look at the translation: no real active verbs. There’s “giving,” but that suggests a continuous state and not action. The real action fails to take place until the last line: “begins.” Ah ha! And what begins? Summer! A mark of time! Now, the significance of it being early summer is deep, not to mention that the beginning of summer is in fact isolated to this one moment, as though someone just turns summer on, here, in the market. The largest thing I consider with this is that, for the poet, this goldfish seller is a kind of traditional mark of summer, which relegates the statement of the poem to an assertion of ceremony. I’m not really all that interested in this, though you should feel free to be. What I’m more interested in is how we are shaken out of the timeless, dream/memory realm the poem has pushed us to inhabit into a realm of time, of inexorable time, exemplified by the changing of seasons (note that I’m avoiding the dogmatic seasonal rules of tanka and haiku). In a way, the poem kicks us out of itself. And it’s jarring, truly—one might as well get interrupted by a car alarm (isn’t this a sweet thought: the alarm of time. Go ahead and title your next poem that, I won’t care). There’s no real grand statement with this—I find the act of juxtaposing these elements, the realms, and time and eternity, satisfying enough, but let me just posit one thing: they are not in antagonism. Rather, just as the goldfish can be found in the jar, which can be found in the stand, which can be found under the tree, etc., these eternal moments, these pauses of scene, can be found all throughout time itself. One just needs the right kind of seeing, the right sense of one’s presence and the presence of everything around.

Close Reads – “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” by Matthea Harvey

Now I’ll admit that this week’s poem up for a close read isn’t the sort of poem that lends itself to people’s hearts or the fulcrum against which they decide to change their lives, become moral, good mothers and fathers and citizens of the universe, but then, I think it’s pretty clear this poem has no interest in such a place for itself. This poem does not comfort me, but I choose it because I think it is earnest in a different sort of way, as a kind of study, perhaps, of poetics and the limits of what can be gestured, etc. I wrote recently about Matthea Harvey and mentioned the book in which this is found, Sad Little Breathing Machine, as “a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers,” and I hold to that for the all the value it has. When I was thinking that thought, I was really thinking about this poem, and I hope to make you really believe me by the end of this post. What is great in “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” is how apparent the structure of her transfiguration is, how this theme re-instances itself over and over. While I would usually say such repetitions should move through variations that describe an arc of change in the speaker, I can’t really say that this is what Harvey is attempting here—that her speaker has been changed necessarily. Rather, I think of this poem much more as a kind of questioning, perhaps, unveiling, of the complexities the speaker has with her reader, the complexities of their (our?) relationship. Okay but I’ll get into all of this. Please buy this book here. Shall we then?


To Zanzibar by Motorcar


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain

I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temple

My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things–mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where

the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical

& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


So, the title—it hits first with its anachronistic tone and diction, this oldschool, let’s call it British (unfair, but you’ll see why I bring this into it shortly), “motorcar,” and the gleeful, almost insouciant declaration of adventure, but then it hits quite quickly again with the sonic proximities of “motorcar” and “Zanzibar,” which really secures the joke, an albeit outdated, wordplay kind of joke (ahem, anachronistic)(and O, Zanzibar isn’t exactly accessible by motorcar, at least not car alone). Of course, if we really think about Britain and Zanzibar and, I guess, the entire history of post-colonial Africa, this might rub us as a bit insensitive, but let me assure you this doesn’t go unaddressed, if you don’t see it already. What is really significant, to me, is this sonic wordplay, and let me just come out and tell you that this whole poem is about parallel existences and experiences. Already in the title we have the sonic parallels of the two main nouns; we have the suggested parallel of Britain and Zanzibar; and, perhaps most seriously, we have the parallel of the light-hearted language and the serious subject (the collapse of colonialism). O and what do we get next?


In Regensberg, the cloud
left the mountain. In vain


That’s right, couplets! When I read this line I can’t help but hear the echo of another joke, which has many iterations, but is essentially “In America, money owns people,” or “In America, jeans wear you,” and so forth. I’ve puzzled over Regensberg for a little while now and can’t come up with anything conclusive other than the fact that Germany was another colonial contender and entered into a treaty with Britain over Zanzibar, though this treaty, as far as I can tell, was preemptive—Germany never had anything to do with the place. Whatevs, so the cloud left the mountain, which is code for “the curtain is lifted on the drama,” in this case, the drama of landscape as we traverse it. Now, the cloud is slightly anthropomorphized, but I’ll be damned if I have time to think about that. Also, “vain” and “vein,” as in rivers, circuits, roadways, if youknowwhatImean? But MOVING ON:


I crumpled my crinolines,
scuffed the sand outside the temples


“Crinolines” kind of hides in equal, uncertain possibilities. It establishes the speaker as a woman, prolly, of the nineteenth century, and her attempt at undermining her fabric (ahem, her social place) is in vain due to the fabric’s stiffness. That’s a pretty simply metaphor to understand, but let me also posit that crinoline gains its stiffness, historically, with a warp and weft of differing materials—hmm, kind of like a parallel. Ah but what I think is way more important in this couplet is the fact that the speaker is not in fact located in Regensberg, what with “sand” and “temple” and all. And so we take the suggestion that she is in fact in Zanzibar already, thinking of Regensberg, and here we get, to me, the central parallelism to the poem—the parallel locations of imagination. Zanzibar is the destination in the title, but in the poem, that destination seems to be Regensberg. With that established, we move deeper into her current location and her kind of state-of-affairs:


My eyes took in only eye-shaped
things—mouseface flickering

in the mousehole, pansies
twitching with palsy. Where


This is pretty standard fare—we are introduced to the act of looking, and we sweep briefly around her environment. Of course, she complicates this by showing us only very small things, and this lends us a sense of her deeply private existence there. She sees only that which her faculties can accommodate, but doesn’t it just so happen that both those things, the furtive mouse and the twitching pansies, are things that appear afflicted. The symbol of the mouse moving quietly behind the walls is so established as a symbol of an oppressed people she might just come out and say it, except for the fact that these lines are much more ostensibly about shape (like, of the eye). Here are the other parallels: eye/eye-shaped; mouseface/mousehole; pansies/palsy; flickering/twitching, with the larger parallel of mouse/pansy. While the remainder of the poem continues in this vein, with an unrelenting display of parallels, this section is especially concentrated around really visible parallels, largely, through the repetition of word and sound. This is where her theme tackles language itself, and this is the clearest presentation of the technique to the reader, the one that most immediately demands our attention. It’s a kind of climax and marks a significant shift in the poem, which ends up being one from a concern about the speaker’s situation to that of Zanzibar itself, as a locale:


the squint & the kiss are common,
there are no rebels lurking

between the 15th & 16th parallel.
Children are symmetrical


I’m breaking the excerpt at an unfortunate place to maintain the strophe, but what the hell. So, we have now shifted from “My eyes,” to “Where…are common,” a shift from the self to the place, and once again it’s handled in a fairly conventional fashion, describing cultural behaviors and norms and, I suppose, their historic context, the “rebels” and “15th & 16th parallel.” Now the inclusion of “rebels” feels almost perfunctory—it really is her duty to be clear about this aspect of the location—but again the odd thing is that she in fact testifies to its absence. This kind of coincides with the fact that Zanzibar is not, in fact, located between these latitudes, north or south. So what are we supposed to do with that? Have we again shifted to a different location, just north or south, where there is peace, or, at least, where rebels do NOT lurk? Is she alluding to the “red line” 16th parallel of Vietnam? Oh my God is this about the Cold War? The short and long answer is that we don’t know, and while this might strike us as her evading a difficult subject (for any number of legitimate or illegitimate reasons), I think she is actually getting at something deeper, which is better seen, perhaps, by the fact that she has also shifted, in this section, tense. We are now in the present tense, and while this seems relatively natural grammatically, since we might take these descriptions as unchanged, mostly, by time, as characteristics of this place (versus the cloud that left the mountain, or her eyes that “took” things only during the period of her stay), it also raises an interesting narrative question (and makes the title work again!). Perhaps the title is in the present tense and her description of being “outside the temple” is in the past, SO, her call for adventure (in the title) is in fact a call to return. She remembers this place and has decided to go back. This makes for a more compelling story—we assume she has some kind of unfinished business, that she has reason, but isn’t it just like poetry to give us just a taste of that and no finisher? Again, we really can’t be certain; we are living in conjecture. But before I get ahead of myself let me finish the poem out:


& zebras fingerprint the plains.
Ask me if I’m pretending

& I will freeze to delineate
my non-nod from my nod.


I have to think that this ending is quite purposely ugly. It is in a mode of antagonism rather than one of rapture, seduction, and this tone, even as it can be read, again, as jocular (she’s “pretending”), strikes me as quite serious—it makes no apologies for itself, and, we assume, it exhibits this strength to empower its subject. My point in all of this is that the speaker refuses clarification. How do you delineate something by freezing, by making no action at all? It’s a kind of protest. And what I think she is protesting, ultimately, is the folly of history. We don’t know if the rebels are there or not; we don’t know if she is there or not; we don’t know if this is a land of flickering mouses, palsied, ruined flowers, or if it is a land of kisses; we don’t know if it is a squint against something (pain? light?), a squint of pleasure (as when people kiss), or a squint to sharpen one’s view toward something of importance; and we certainly don’t know if the children are symmetrical as they stand in the street or as they lie in a mass grave. By going through all of these confusions, we get to see what the action of history is like, how it hides and confuses, how it makes ghosts that haunt the perfect weather. The poem then really, truly, becomes one about vision, what we can see, in the brief moment when the cloud has left the mountain, or when the mouse appears in the mousehole, etc, and how this operates in relationships of otherness, the parallel existences at either side of power.

Close Reads – “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

So listen, we’ve been beating around the bush for some time now, and I think it’s time to finally cut through the malarkey. Now, one of the primary reasons I started this blog was to offer up a poem a week with some brief but otherwise genius commentary by yours truly. Truly. I was even extremely close to calling this Close Reads Blog, but its awkwardness and my sudden fancy for the words “plot” and “oath” in some as then yet undecided order compelled me in a different direction. Life is full of regrets, caprice, remediation.

O this deserves a new paragraph. The time for bravery is upon us! I offer for your challenge, to tease the fear right out of you, the first of many Close Reads. For the inaugural festivities I choose “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. Read all of him here. I know this poem intimately—it is one of my favorites, even as I’ve otherwise moved on to less gentle pastures. It is a favorite of many, and for good reason. Now, in full disclosure, I’ve taught this poem several times as a great example of how diction affects mood, so, free of university charge, I’m essentially going to give you that lesson in this big classroom in the sky we call The Internet. Alright enough fussing around.


Those Winter Sundays


Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?


Right of the bat let me point out the title and the inclusion of the quite definite article “those.” Poetyness could otherwise allow Hayden to omit that article, and one can certainly hear the imagistic emphasis he misses by not simply titling it “Winter Sundays,” which means essentially the same thing and allows the body of the poem a little more space to define itself for itself. But he doesn’t title it that; he is quite specific, “those,” and the effect is a kind of wistfulness. The speaker wants you to know we are entering into a very specific and personal (nearly private) territory, and he expects you to follow. This will be a poem about the poet, not “Winter Sundays.” How, what’s the word, solipsistic. Am I right?

Observation two requires your rulers, you scientists, you. Notice a little something about the rhythm? If you said iambic pentameter, you are one third right. Shall we then:

SUNdays TOO my FAther GOT UP EARly

and PUT his CLOTHES on in the BLUE BLACK COLD

THEN with CRACKED HANDS that ACHED

from LAbor IN the WEEKday WEAther…

Or about that—I’ll admit I’m no expert at this. A little rough, which is actually a point I will get to, but despite that we can still see a trend, even in these first four lines. Hayden is masterful. He alternates trochaic with iambic lines. A trochee is the opposite of an iamb, stressed/unstressed. So we get this sort of pattern: T/I/T/I, etc. Can you see it? Can you HEAR it? Good. Moving on.

The important thing about this alternation is that it begins to hint, formally, at a kind of attitude. Here is my fishing-for-a-specific-answer question: what action does the speaker describe twice? Yes, he’s that inefficient. Well, what it is?

You’re right!:

…got up early / and put his clothes on

and then:

and slowly I would rise and dress,

One sounds a lot better than the other, right, the second one. This is really where the meter becomes important. The other difference between the two lines is that one is a description of the father and the other is a description of the poet, the “I.” See that rubble-mess of stresses up there when the father is described. “Got up early” is hardly language that pours like honey out of the mouth, but “slowly I would rise and dress” is so sweet it will give you lockjaw. So the father gets the tough language and the poet gets the smooth. What a jerk, right?

What this maneuver suggests to me, however, is in fact a kind of irony. The speaker is conscious of his talent at spinning words—he is not a stupid fellow—and he realizes that the privilege of his talent has come, perhaps, at a cost his father has had to bear. His father “got up”in the cold so he didn’t have to. This much is clear: the speaker feels guilty. This is the sort of thing I’m sure a number of artistically inclined menfolk can understand—this emotional push/pull that surrounds the fact that the father cannot or refuses to follow the son into his more tender life.

Now, with guilt so palpable, redemption can’t be far around the corner. But what I absolutely love about this poem is how carefully the speaker navigates this—you can feel him refusing to give this poem that sort of release, that sort of redemption. It sounds resigned, “what did I know,” but I really think it’s in fact exactly what the poet needs to do. He admits his failure, his lack of knowledge and, subsequently, words. The tricky part to this, unfortunately, is that he doesn’t end there. I don’t fault Hayden for this—I recognize that the poem can’t end there, and while the following line seems to reverse this triumph of modesty with a display of pretty metaphor, it also achieves the poem’s greatest sonic accomplishment. “Love’s austere and lonely offices”–there are so many “o” and “au” sounds in that! And to me, almost always, this signifies a kind of nothingness. Think of the shape of the mouth—it is open, it refuses definition, it surrounds a vacancy, and the tension of the beautiful, exact metaphor with this sonic emptiness is just exquisite. This is, of course, in addition to the tension of the metaphor itself, the idea of love as an office, and, going all the way back to the beginning of this post, the final marriage of the father with a clean run of iambs. I think this is one of the best poems in the English language not because it achieves any one of these things, but because it centers all of them toward such an exact emotional tenor and logic. It’s god damn genius.

So you love this poem now, right?