I sink back upon the ground . . .
I sink back upon the ground, expecting to die. A voice speaks out of my ear, You are not going to die, you are being changed into a zebra. You will have black and white stripes up and down your back and you will love people as you do not now. That is why you will be changed into a zebra that people will tame and exhibit in a zoo. You will be a favorite among children and you will love the children in return whom you do not love now. Zoo keepers will make a pet of you because of your round, sad eyes and musical bray, and you will love your keeper as you do not now. All is well, then, I tell myself silently, listening to the voice in my ear speak to me of my future. And what will happen to you, voice in my ear, I ask silently, and the answer comes at once: I will be your gentle, musical bray that will help you as a zebra all your days. I will mediate between the world and you, and I will learn to love you as a zebra whom I did not love as a human being.
This, of course, is a very untypical Ignatow poem, whose work tended to be urban and somewhat flat, with very few recurrences. However, it often had a surreal element, as this prose poem does, but rarely risked a silliness, or aspired to the fabulous. Short poems usually can afford only one turn; this poem has two, perhaps three.
Many poems don’t turn at all (and fail) because the poet is overly wedded to his original impulse or idea. He does not allow himself to doubt or refine, and therefore discovers nothing new. A turn signifies that the poem is in dialogue with itself. The poet has heard what he’s put in the air of his poem, and trusts that his readers have heard it, too, or can be made to hear it with the right counter-move. In this regard, a “but” is a very useful word, though there’s only an implied “but” in Ignatow’s poem. The turn establishes a central tension, often a rethinking. To correctly identify it (from a reader’s point of view) means we’re alert that the poem is now moving in another direction, and that we may be at the heart of the poet’s concerns. (The ninth line of a Petrarchan sonnet is a model for such a moment.) From the poet’s point of view something formal and dialectical has begun, and it’s let’s see from here on in.
Ignatow has placed his speaker (and himself) in a great and interesting dilemma. How will he get out of it? Since we’re sure the poem has no specific experiential base, we know that every line was a discovery for him. He’s invented a man who expects to die, but instead is going to be changed into a zebra. A voice in his ear tells him so. Good compositional fun, potentially just silly.
I suspect that Ignatow had at least a glimpse of what he was up to after he began his refrain (“you will love people as you do not now”). For me, it’s the moment that not only guides future choices of detail, but formally commits him to the repetitive play and variation that is the poem’s music. He’s writing about a misanthrope. The voice in the man’s ear serves as an alter ego. I’m amused by this, but as a fellow poet who likes to get himself in and out of problems, I began to wonder if I had come up with this imaginative construct, what would I do next? How might I turn the poem from something jokey to something consequential? The zoo and its keepers and the children who pet the zebra may be emblematic of a kind of socialization, but that isn’t the first turn. The brilliance of the first turn (“All is well, then, I/tell myself silently,….”) has to do with the chastised person concluding that things are fine, even though he’s been changed into a zebra. The second turn comes abruptly (“and what will happen to you, voice in my ear….”), an act of empathy we wouldn’t think the speaker – prior to the voice speaking to him – capable of. The poem enacts a misanthrope’s transformation.
I can’t imagine making either late-poem choice, and I don’t know if, for Ignatow, they were choices. They seem to have arisen out of some happy moral nowhere. What I especially admire is that he chose to keep them. He was following some wild imaginative dictate, and arrived, with the help of his two turns and his refrain, at what could be argued is a third turn. The “I” that ends the poem is the voice in the ear, the poem’s moral agent. It constitutes a point-of-view turn. High risk, one might say from afar. But I doubt it felt so to Ignatow. When you’re working well, it feels like following yourself, or someone who moves like you do, home.
Ignatow’s poem makes a series of promises. The extension of the refrain is the promise most easily kept. After a while, we know it must be funny and telling at the same time, and each time it occurs it is. Ignatow’s timing is perfect. The other promises are fulfilled in more surprising ways. The voice in his ear may be an alter ego, but also is a poet’s voice – a mediator “between the world and you.” Shall I say a magical mediator? If this were written by a sociologist or psychologist, it probably would be ruined by explanation. If it were written by a humorist, he’d likely work it for laughs. It is written by a poet, who has invented everything in it, all of its voices and its narrative drive. It is arranged for us to overhear. One imagines he discovered its comic seriousness along the way. I have no idea how many times it was revised, if any. It has the feel of a poem that came all at once, though that’s often an illusion.
Stephen Dunn is the author of 16 books of poems, and Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. His recent book of poetry is Here and Now (Norton, 2011), which received the Paterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement. His Different Hours was awarded he Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland.
David Ignatow, “I sink back upon the ground…” from New and Collected Poems, 1975-1985 © 1986 by David Ignatow. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.