Small Frogs Killed on the Highway
by James Wright
I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
Of the dead never moved, but many
Of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets
Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon. They can’t see,
My Mother Would Be a Falconress
by Robert Duncan
At Shedd Aquarium
by Robyn Schiff
Watch them be themselves
in habitats contrived
in dark rooms with openings
like televisions broadcasting
a dimension where Pigment rides
in its original body
and metaphor initiates impractical
negotiations with Size and Color
and Speed and Silence
too thoroughly forward
but to feel
the self an excess.
Fastness, I am tired of resting.
Isn’t it indecisive not to be smaller
driven through waters barely perceivable
but where a wake scribbles
a line like a Chinese character
abandoning its construction box
to slip as line only
into an opening
smaller than its shoulders?
Each fin scores the air
as it opens the surface.
A sliver of a fish circles
forever that day
as if to turn something over
in its skinny head keen
to resolve a difficulty
It is an opera with a lonesome
heroine pacing revolving moors
engineered to seem panoramic.
The diva opens and closes
the tragic mouth singing
deliberate, even breaths
Theater of false proportion. Theater of constellations reconfiguring. Theater of readjusting the reception. Theater of missing appointments. Theater of driving into the ocean with the headlights turned lowest green and the theater of the engine shifting into oceanic-overdrive. Theater of hearing something coming closer over theatrical fields of theater set crops. Theater of this can not be my life, for which, it is too quiet. Theater of seeing something moving in the one light in the distance which is darkness. Theater of stopping. Theater of my mistake: not coming forward, going further, the something moving in the theater of lighting in the theater of the hour between the theater of morning and the theater of night in the theater of years in which the theater of regret is keeping the secret theater of the revision.
Theater of slipping between
two points in a simulated rock-mountain.
Theater of who will not tell
Each time I consider the turn and how it can function in a poem, I find myself thinking about what happens when I present “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” by James Wright, to my students. As I start discussing the extended metaphor of the poem and the ways in which that metaphor is developed, I inevitably focus on two moments in the poem in particular. Both of the moments are turns, though one might be considered “macro” and the other “micro” in status and scope. Both turns act as velocity and joint to this fluid machine framed and fleshed of words. Both act as fulcrum and knuckle to its moving parts. But the macro-turn accomplishes the severe and overt severing of the poem’s direction, acts as a right angle or elbow bending so that a new course may be set. The micro-turn is more understated, more delicate, a seismic shift, the barely-felt reallocating as of platelets of earth.
When “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway” greets us with the single word “Still,” an entire, emphasized line in and of itself, we are traveling already on the energy of a turn. This macro-turn acts as the poem’s vestibule; its abrupt nature demands our attention. As we step into the poem at this entry point, that single word flags a train of thought or exchange originating off-page. This turn is also used to ignite a connection between the speaker and the frogs killed, as Wright continues, “I would leap too / Into the light.” The connection is made with the acknowledgment that it may be an unreasonable one, and that it goes against whatever has been previously understood about the actions of these frogs and their logic.
Twelve lines down, when Wright says, “The drivers burrow backward into dank pools,” a micro-turn acts as further connective tissue between the speaker and the frogs. In following the “drivers,” carried down from the previous line, with the verb “burrow,” an act more easily ascribed to frogs in mud than to humans navigating their murderous vehicles, Wright executes a much quieter pivot through a shift in the language. There is no hinge-word, no grand “But,” no resonating “And yet.” Nonetheless, the surprise resonates fully. And the moment is more inclusive. In pluralizing the human subject, the speaker is no longer the sole frog-like creature. We are the frog-like creatures. The connection between frog and human deepens in what it suggests, and the poem broadens.
It is turns like these, large and small, which allow the human in the animal to be explored and the parallels of the extended metaphor to expand and grow subtly complex among plethoric shades of meaning. The evolution is achieved by these moments of surprise and connection enacted through the structure of the language. Metaphor is one aspect of a poem that finds its boundaries and takes its shape according to the surprises or suggestions embodied in such turns. As a result, that metaphor which travels the poem’s whole, the extended metaphor, developed in increments and built as the poem is built, is perhaps most fully dictated by the veerings made within its mother poem.
In this way, whole poems, and entire extended metaphors, can be scaffolded on the micro-turn or macro-turn. Robert Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be a Falconress” realizes its animal/human metaphor through a network of subtle rotations. In this poem, a sequence of micro-turns embodied as variations in repetitive phrases function as a series of tumblers in a locking mechanism, revolving in place, misaligning and then matching up according to the precise timing of the whole.
The poem is knit through a series of small linguistic stitches, evolving the comparison and its implications forward in minute bursts rather than massive leaps. For example, when Duncan says, “She would bring down the little birds. /And I would bring down the little birds. / When will she let me bring down the little birds…?” in the third stanza, the linguistic structure of the lines is almost identical. And yet the delicate shift, the “let me” in the final question, implies that, though the desires of the speaker and his mother seem identical in the first two lines, the speaker is limited in his freedom to pursue that desire. Through this micro-turn implanted within the parallel language, we see that the speaker is at the whim of the mother, that he must do as she dictates, and that perhaps even the desire to catch the birds is not fully owned.
A similar micro-turn occurs in the transition from the fifth stanza to the sixth. Duncan says “I would bring down / the little birds to her / I may not tear into” at the end of stanza five, suggesting that the speaker is merely retrieving the birds for his mother/falconress and cannot damage nor consume them. However, stanza six begins with the line “I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood.” And here coils the surprise. The same tearing that cannot happen to the pristine birds happens to the mother, as the son turns his checked violence on her. By the end of the poem, the transformation of the speaker to beast at the hand of his mother swivels on its pin like a disco ball, emitting flashes that, through their oscillations, illuminate the room.
Robyn Schiff’s “At Shedd Aquarium” is a poem governed instead by the grand gesture. In its progression from pronoun to pronoun and stanza to stanza, “At Shedd Aquarium” executes macro-turns so cosmic that the whole of the poem threatens to blow apart. The first stanza opens with the speaker requesting that we watch “them be themselves,” speaking of the fish, and then beginning to anchor a bit of metaphoric expansion as she states the movement of the fish must cause them to “feel / the self an excess.” Despite this slight suggestion of more, we are surprised when the next stanza turns abruptly from the concrete “them” of the fish and begins, “Fastness, I am tired of resting.” Is the fish still the subject here? Who is the “I”? Human? Fish? The act seems to call up the sudden flashing movement of fish in a tank, and yet the self seems to embody the speaker. The startling return to the “I” at the end of the third stanza, as the fish is said to circle the tank as if to think over and “resolve a difficulty / I have,” firms up the metaphoric connection for us as readers. The speaker comes clear as an “I” whose relationship to the fish is evolving as she watches them and feels her own situations abound in their behavior and appearance, physical situation and imagined emotional state.
Then: jolt. The poem macro-turns again at stanza five. A complete gyration on the axis of the poem’s approach, language, and sentence structure occurs as we enter a stanza consisting simply of a list of theaters, spaces that exemplify the fish tank as a constructed space of observation and the unreal. Included are “Theater of missing appointments” and “Theater of driving into the ocean,” “Theater of this can not be my life” and “Theater of my mistake.” The Tetris game of this stanza stacks impressions and experiences until pieces of the speaker’s psychology fall into place. This unanticipated transformation narrows the poem’s focus to an unnamed event, completing the circuit of the speaker’s metaphoric correlation with the fish.
These turns frilling their skirts in service of the metaphor are not, of course, the poems’ only scaffolded twists or skeletal bends. Schiff’s “At Shedd Aquarium” micro-turns repeatedly to blanket-weave its tapestry of theaters. “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway” pirouettes fully to move us “Across the road,” and then with the suture of “Not yet,” wields a small linguistic gesture with huge implications: the suicidal quest of the poem is inevitable. Duncan’s piece concludes in a flurry of macro-turns as we discover the mother is dead and then achieve the poem’s final “would draw blood,” a finale that moves us out beyond the poem to a space where the mother-son dynamic lives on to inflict the speaker’s relations with others. But the central metaphoric drive of each poem does seem more completely grafted onto those particular turns addressed here, creating an impact that goes beyond the mere considerations of size and scope.
A turn is a pick and chisel. A turn is a shovel and hoe. It twists into existence microscopic shapelinesses and hacks away at established roots. Within these poems, similar in aim, similar in approach, the turns compile to layer metaphoric parallels. Wo/man is transformed into beast. Through the earth-shifting and essential surprise of each turn, whether great or small in structure, we are gifted with the twinned realities such assemblages can unveil.
Jennifer Militello is the author of Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and Body Thesaurus, named a finalist for the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2013. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008.
James Wright, “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway” from Collected Poems © 1971 by James Wright. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.
Robyn Schiff, “At Shedd Aquarium” from Worth. Copyright © 2002 by Robyn Schiff. Reprinted with permission of the University of Iowa Press.