Something we can feel

I was writing a small poem recently that had a pair of recurring lines–it seemed like a triolet, but not quite. To remind myself of the exact rhyme scheme of a triolet, I turned not to a stodgy textbook but to The Shifting Line, the debut collection by a master of the form, Chelsea Rathburn. Indeed, there are at least half a dozen triolets in the book. One might suggest that Rathburn is single-handedly trying to revive or rescue this increasingly rare form, often neglected in favor of its more familiar cousins, the villanelle and pantoum. (OK—maybe not single-handedly: Stallings also achieved wide recognition for her triolet beginning, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes…”)

What I love about repetition (aside from its ability to satisfy my OCD impulses) is how it demonstrates, literally, an odd fact of phenomenology: when you really look at something, it ceases to be what it was, or what you assumed it was. Stare at your hand long enough and it takes on an uncanny “otherness.” Likewise, when you repeat the same line, it takes on different meaning every time. And this is a quality that I find in my favorite contemporary poems–the ability to say something quite simple that is completely true on more than one level. In modern politics, the conventional wisdom seems to be that if you say something often enough–even if it is a baldfaced lie–people will start to believe it. Repetition in poems functions in the opposite manner: say something often enough, and it becomes entirely suspect. Consider, for example, Bishop’s “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps, in this way, the form demonstrate’s Auden’s assertion that poetry “makes us more difficult to deceive.”

The triolet is also one of those forms that showcases the writer’s skill (or lack thereof). Deceptively easy, it has only eight lines, and only five of those are unique. Well, not quite–the skill comes in knowing how to alter those repeating lines for maximal effect. For example, “Home Maintenance” begins, “Charred cords, bad lines, the smell of something burning, / and currents we can’t see but must repair.” By the final line, that’s been changed to “currents we can feel but can’t repair.” The negation, “can’t,” is still there, but it’s moved, changing the determination of the earlier line to the resignation of the last. Also, “can’t see” becomes “can feel.” On one level, the change is dictated by moving the word “can’t.” But it also makes the sensation more visceral. Also, the negation works in an interesting way. The phrase “currents we can’t see” implies a desire to be able to see them, whereas “currents we can feel” implies a desire not to feel them. I’m not sure why this work, or whether it appears that way to every reader, but it certainly does to me.

This poem, by the way, is largely representative of the book overall, which often focuses on domestic unease and “the woe that is in marriage.” (That’s Lowell, not Rathburn). The title of this poem, for example, speaks not just of the need to keep up an aging house, but to service a tenuous home–that is, the domestic relationship. The poem is ostensibly about an effort to fix a burnt fuse–and the reader can’t help feel that it was written after somebody “blew a fuse.”

Carrying this theme further, several poems pick up on the Orpheus myth from the perspective of newly disillusioned Eurydice, and still others treat the newlywed subjects of a Van Eyck painting. The most poignant, to me, are the poems that focus on an unnamed teenage daughter. These are still tinged with frustration and fear, but they are manifestly different from the emotions that bubble up in the spousal poems; it is a tender frustration, one that hits home without sentimentality. They certainly add depth to what could’ve been a one-dimensional (though equally gripping) collection.