If you read last week’s blog on Vahni Capildeo, you may be wondering whether a less-structured, less formalist, less obviously-rhyming poem can bear the same level of analytical whatd’y’call, scrutiny, as ‘They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))’ did. Okay, in all likelihood you’re not wondering that, but I am, so enjoy the next few hundred words of me finding out.
The poem is about the passage of time, with its opening couplet setting the theme: ‘Before there was the time we see / there was the time we saw through’. So, the present and the past. What at first seems bizarre, perhaps incomprehensible, reveals itself to be a clever way of describing the continuous now (‘we see’, rather than ‘we’re seeing’) and the always falling-away past, with ‘saw through’ (my emphasis) suggesting both that it’s over (as in, ‘We’re through’), and, more surprisingly, that it’s mysteries have in some sense been revealed (as in, ‘I see right through you’) – but as we’ll see, it’s inevitably more complicated than that. The thread of time comes up prominently again in the slowed-down, echoing bird song in stanza IV, and in the poem’s two part denouement, where the individuals in the poem are subsumed into the ever-repeating patterns of nature and made ‘eternal / immutable / from every possible angle’.
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have
Jennifer Knox is a great example of the kind of loose, informal poetic style I associate with Frank O’Hara, who famously dashed off annoyingly great poems on his lunch break.
I’m not going to waste a lot of time drawing direct parallels between the two, not least because I don’t think I could sustain it for more than a paragraph or two, but there’s a commonality there; a sense that their poems don’t sound much like ordinary speech, but nonetheless hold themselves with a sense of ease and confidence and fun, the latter of which is rarely found in poetry, except in its all-too familiar, threadbare, donnish mode, which really isn’t fun at all.
Slanted and enchanted
This week’s poem (which you can read here), uses italics to express direct speech, first in stanza III (‘Whoa!’) then explicitly in stanza V (‘Is that a yes or a no? the birds asked’). Direct speech in poetry is always a bit irritating. Most lyric (that is, to put it simply and controversially: short) poetry tends to avoid it, perhaps because it’s hard to get the rhythms right when you keep having to chuck in the odd ‘she said’, or maybe poets just don’t like speechmarks, which do clutter the place up a bit. As we’ve seen, the use of italics here keeps things enjoyably vague in the first instance, as it’s not clear who’s speaking, if at all: the ‘Whoa!’ could be the birds, the bears or the narrator, and the italics could simply be for emphasis. Later on, we find out it was actually the birds, probably! Whoa!
Exclamation marks are risky business. Where I work, there’s an office rule that no email should include more than one of them, and everyone knows that using more than one exclamation marks in a row is a sign of insanity!! Here, Knox pushes things a bit with three in total: ‘woof!’ and two ‘Whoa!’s. Even more controversially, it’s a bear saying ‘woof’, which any one of my kids’ storybooks could tell you is the sound a dog makes, not a bear. But then, this is ‘the biggest bear’, so perhaps it’s best not to argue.
Green grow the rushes, o
Stanza VI is a lovely mini stanza, the scansion of which deserves analysis by someone better at scansion than I am:
Green grass grew over them,
which was a long, green love song.
I read that as
Green grass grew over them,
which was a long, green love song.
But I’m open to other interpretations. However we chop this up metrically, the effect in the is one of deceleration in the second line – I think it’s to do with the use of iambs coupled with alliteration/repetition, something about waiting for that second ‘green’, and the way the ‘ong’ in ‘long’ anticipates the end-rhyme of ‘song’.
Whatever it is, it’s a great example of how you can achieve rhythmic and emotive effects in free verse.
(Obviously I can spell it, but it’s more fun to complain about the spelling.)
We’ve got two: woof, the sound of the biggest bear exhaling, then ‘bubbled’. ‘Bubbled’ is surely some kind of doublebonus-onomatopoeia (told you I could spell it) because it not only sounds like the thing described by the verb ‘to bubble’ but also looks like the thing described by the noun ‘bubble’, with all those rounded ‘b’s. You’ve got to hand it to bubble, is what I’m saying.
The impact of ‘bubble’ is increased by the repetition of alliterative ‘b’ sounds throughout the poem, as in ‘biggest bear’ in stanza I, and by its close repetition in two consecutive lines, and reappearance as ‘bubbling’ another two lines on from that.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the bubble, not the bears and birds (consonance again) is the central image of the poem: the notion of delicate boundaries vanishing vanishing appears explicitly twice in the poem (they’re both exhaled and lost). The boundaries dissipate with a classic onomatopoeiac noise, although granted its ‘woof’ rather than ‘pop’. The ‘holes in space’ of the last stanza again could suggest bubbles. Then, riffing off Albert Einstein/Star Trek, Knox also plays with the idea of space and time as relative in that final stanza, where the animals and their shapes are ‘eternal, / immutable, / from every possible angle’, i.e., whether they’re viewed in space or time – or both.
Taking this time/space idea back to the bubble, we could imagine a bubble of time as a delicate moment, with discrete boundaries and a distinct ‘shape’, which reappears eternally. That is, we’re back with the continuous ‘now’: always the same, always different. What’s more, bubbles are transparent, something ‘we saw through’ back in line 2.
If I’m right, here, and not stretching too much, this solves the riddle of the first two lines: a bubble distorts the view through it; just because you saw through something (the past) doesn’t mean you saw clearly.
Water, water everywhere
The flow of time and the flow of water are frequently compared in art – think Finnegans Wake with its circular structure parallelled in Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is among other things the anthropomorphised River Liffey. Here, Knox does this allusively, rather than explicitly, with bubbles, as we’ve seen, and also in the oxbow lake with which the prone bears are compared. Interestingly, oxbow lakes are formed when meanders of rivers get cut off from the main body of the original river, usually because its eroded a quicker route to the sea. Thus, the image of the oxbow lake here suggests again the idea of an isolated or contained moment in space and time, outside of the main ‘flow’, like the bubbly ‘holes in space’.
Should I include a reference to Finnegans Wake and A Tribe Called Quest in every blog? I probably could. Bonus points if you caught the ATCQ reference without needing to be told, and extra bonus points if you got the other ’90s pop reference, too. You don’t get any points for Coleridge.