Saturday, September 15, 2012

on a poem by Jericho Brown

I encountered this poem a couple years ago at the Rumpus website, and it immediately made a vivid impression—I left a brief comment saying I thought it was an awfully good poem.

Of lately I've been putting together for possible publication my "appreciations", the pieces I've written in praise of particular poems, and thinking about possible candidates for further such proselets, I was reminded of this one by the author posting a comment here recently.  It had been in the back of my mind anyway, so I was glad to have my memory of it prodded.

Another Elegy
by Jericho Brown

This is what your dying looks like.
You believe in the sun. You believe
I don't love you. Always be closing,
Said our favorite professor before
He let the gun go off in his mouth.
I turned 29 the way any man turns
In his sleep, unaware of the earth
Moving beneath him, its plates in
Their places, a dated disagreement.
Let's fight it out, baby. You have
Only so long left. A man turns
In his sleep, so I take a picture.
He won't look at it, of course. It's
His bad side, his Mr. Hyde, the hole
In a husband's head, the O
Of his wife's mouth. Every night,
I take a pill. Miss one, and I'm gone.
Miss two, and we're through. Hotels
Bore me, unless I get a mountain view,
A room in which my cell won't work,
And there's nothing to do but see
The sun go down into the ground
That cradles us as any coffin can.

Let me see if I can properly speculate about this.  I see a lot of poems online, meaning I glimpse them, "page-view" them, but few take or hold my attention as this one did.

The title is ambivalent and perhaps not especially effective.  It's a bit innocuous.—

Another elegy in the sense that my life (I, the speaker of the poem) has been full-witness to so many deaths, overdreaded with the deaths of those close to me, dear enough to me each that they each demanded an elegy, more and more, elegy after elegy I have had to compose until at last exhausted I can only think of them as blurring into one after Another—?

Or another in the PoTech sense of saying Okay here's another elegy like all the poets throughout history have always written and here's another one with the ironic acknowledgment of such in its title, the wry winking belatedness all contemporary poets must profess cop to before they can even hope to begin to—

Or both senses blended.   Or a third I can't think of—?

23 lines: 8 octosyllabic; 7 enneasyllabic; 4 decasyllabic; 3 heptasyllabic; 1 hendecasyllabic.

Maybe the meter of the 1st line grabbed me: those 3 trochees followed by that spondee.  Their hardness eased/released by the 3 anapests in line 2.

Internal sound-rhyme in line 1 of dy/li strangely echoed by sight-rhyme in line 2: lie/lie.

But lookylook at the L's in these first 3 lines: Looks/Like/beLieve/beLieve/Love/aLways/cLosing.

(Which is Liquid counterpoint to their harsh content and abrupt curtal lines and sentences, perhaps.)

Line 4, 4 internal rhymes kick it home: OUR / [fav]OR[ite] / [profes]SOR / [be]FORE.

Periodic structure effectively varied throughout poem.  Starting with 3 short sentences in the first 3 and a half lines, followed by a 3 and a half line sentence; followed by a 4-line sentence, followed by 2 short ones; etc.

Internal rhymes fill the poem knit-tight and hold it taut-tensioned.   I won't mention them all, but look at:

lines 4/5: PROF[essor] / OFF ; 

line 6: I / [twent]TY / NI[ne] / [w]AY / [a]NY ;

lines 8/9: PLA[tes] / PLA[ces] ; ITS / PLATES / DATE[d]    . . . .

ENgage the ENtrancement of those N's line 5 through 9: guN/turNed/aNy/maN/turNs/uNaware/beNeath/iN/disagreemeNt.

The craftworkship of the poem ensures its element. 

The distribution of enjambed and end-stopped lines seems like a perfect mix of vis a vis. 

Just one more technical detail, admirable for its sturdy undergridding of the climax:

beginning end of line 18, the poem's longest sentence is its last—and in

line 19 starting with the second foot, the meter turns wholly solely iambic through the end of the poem line 23, with only three variations, trochees,

all of which are stressed on their N-sound: ANd / NOTHing (line 21) / INto (line 22)—

indeed the N-sounds re-emerge strongly throughout this final five-line sentence, 

which concludes the poem with these words: aNy coffiN caN.   ENd ENd ENd.  

ANother elegy.  ENother alogy.

The imperative mode: This is what your dying looks like.  You believe this, you believe that, you have only so much time left so let's fight out our old disagreements.  Listen to me, Mister, I'll tell you what's what.

But! at that point in the poem, midway, the word "you" disappears.  The direct confrontational address ends, and the "you" becomes present now only by implication—or suggestion:  ?  —

is he the "man turn[ing] in his sleep", the man who refuses to look (look at your dying, man) at the photo which shows him sprawled simulacrum-recumbent of death, that final turning away, death the "bad side" of life, the "Mr. Hyde" to life's Jekyll. . . 

"[H]is Mr. Hyde / the hole in a husband's head" is like the mouth of the professor in line 4, or like "the O of his wife's mouth."   Those aitches and that o.  Ho ho ho: some joke.  

Jocular, somewhat, the poem turns now, no? Sardonic—"Every night, / I take a pill.  Miss one, and I'm gone. /  Miss two, and we're through."  And then, speaking of ho ho ho: Hotels / bore me, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb . . .

But why the "turn" from the 2nd-person intimate-spoken "you" to the 3rd-person (impersonal-descriptive) "his"—?

Not sure I understand this dramatic shift.  But the "you" which ends in lines 10-11 also ended in line 3, and vanished for 6 and a half lines: "You believe in the sun.  You believe / I don't love you." (lines 2/3)—

You believe I don't love you, and to prove it I'll ignore you for the next 6 and a half lines, until I can face that dated disagreement (line 10) of whether I love you or not, and confront you: "Let's fight it out, baby.  You have / Only so long left.  A man turns / " (lines 10-11) . . .  (In fact, the "you" has no time left, it is immediately "left" behind and transposed into the third-person "man" . . . )

The repetitions in the poem, the repeated words and phrases work, I think.  And the reappearance of imagery like "sun" in lines 2 and 22 (also there visually as the O, the hole of lines 14/15).  

(Does the somewhat-taunting "You believe in the sun" imply that I don't believe in the sun?  — what does it mean to not believe in the sun?  how does this relate to the sunset at the end of the poem?)

Indeed the poem is aided greatly by these recurrent insistent themes, for example the link from "look" in line 1 to "look" in line 13 to "view" in line 19 and "see" in line 21,

and they don't become (for me as a reader, anyway) monotonous or facile as they might in a poem less well-constructed.

The turn in the middle must have something to do with the you believing I don't love them (him).  That doubt makes me (I, the narrator) turn away at that point to think of past dyings, other elegiac events (the professor's suicide; my turning 29, ie the death of my youth; the continental drift of ancient planetary extinctions foreshadowing the shift of my own deviations toward indifference and defensive postures (let's fight) and the distancing maneuver of slipping into the 3rd-person)—

If he turns away from me and won't look at my bad-sided vision of him (lines 11-14) it must be linked to his wife, Mrs. Jekyll.  Sleeping with me brings out the hole, the Hyde in him, he thinks, or his wife's mouth thinks, and her mouth makes me think of the professor letting the gun go off in his mouth.  Cradle to coffin it fits right in.  It swallows that pill, that sun.

Turnings, endings, closures ("always be closing", line 3), closings which bleed into openings of the mouth or opening of the space between the lovers, or between husband and wife, the gap that separates, the endless gulf across which "my cell" won't reach—

It's a mountain view: objective perspective of the elegy; which in its dimensional instances is not a lament. 

Some provisional thoughts for now; maybe later I'll revisit revise or augment the notes above.  I've probably misread some of it, or perhaps most of it, but it's rewarding sometimes to try to stay with a poem for a while if the poem merits it, if the poem flatters my attention.


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