Thursday, August 13, 2009
Sex Next Door
It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs – tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always) until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.
[From The End of Travel by Julie Bruck (Brick, 1991), with permission from the publisher]
Julie Bruck is that increasingly rare poet who insists upon using the poem, first and foremost, as a vehicle for communication and upon using it well. I love the compassion she feels for the people in her poems – again, a rare quality, and rarer still for being authentic. All of it is grounded by careful attention to how a poem can be made to communicate so that emotion no longer belongs exclusively to the poet but is transpersonal, evoking compassion in the reader, too.
How Bruck achieves this is partly illuminated by a comment Timothy Steele made in his highly useful book on prosody All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing. In short, one of the wonderful attributes of iambic pentameter is its asymmetry and a capacity not shared by other meters like the ancient hexameter or the traditional French alexandrine to disperse the caesurae or pauses along the line. Bruck’s poem demonstrates that the “floating” caesura can occur in poems that don’t follow the strict iambic pentameter model. Indeed, traditional iambic pentameter’s great gift to free form poetry might be this distinguishing feature of the caesura.
To the extent that Bruck’s poem is metrical at all it follows a fluid pattern of iambic and anapestic feet, which deliver most of the poem’s rhythmic energy as it moves forward, carefully counterbalanced by caesurae distributed irregularly across the poem. This, coupled with well-placed long syllables (“rare”, “frail”, “so”, “praise”, “how”) has the effect of slowing movement so that lines re-enact and sustain the painful slowness of the two people in the poem.
The technique culminates in the last three lines of the poem which replicate the act of sex using a central metaphor, rowing a boat - converting the short, halting, broken rhythms that occur earlier in the poem to longer, more even strokes of a boat’s oars, i.e. rhythms analogous to the motions of sex: “bailing when they have to/but moving out anyway/across the black water.”
Steele makes another assertion we all know to be intuitively correct: Poets don’t write iamb by iamb but in larger phrasal sections. At the same time, good poetry occurs when a poet has familiarized her ear with the attributes of smaller metrical and metaphorical units. Bruck shows she has just such an ear. I like, for example, how she employs alliteration and those larger vowel sounds at the back of the tongue in “awful, hollow coughing fit”, cleverly masking the alliteration’s middle term while reinforcing the meaning of the phrase through onomatopoeia. Something similar occurs in the consonants of the third line where natural sibilants are impeded by hard t’s in “the street, the stairs – tiny, Lilliputian”. These are complimented, again, by that nicely placed pause before the hyphen, and together provide the halting, impeded flow needed to capture the same in the movement of the frail woman.
A final word about the shape of Bruck’s poem. Unlike the looser structures of her other poems with their slightly longer, more enjambed lines and more discursive style, Bruck here aims for the tighter coherence of the free form sonnet. This is in keeping, it seems to me, with the very carefully circumscribed subject and non-polemical intent of her “argument”; that is, very simply, to persuade the reader as clearly and as resonantly as she can of the validity of the sex life - and love - of the couple next door. To do this Bruck relies on careful, regulated pacing, the kinaesthetic feel of images (“bed nudging”, “boat rub(bing) its pilings, “twitch/..of our common floorboards”) and upon her own unerring, deeply felt empathies.
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