How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand
. . . . . . . .
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

 –Theodore Roethke, “I Knew a Woman,” 9-11, 31-32

 

In his love poem to the Muse, Roethke exalts in how she uses the body, through dancing and singing, to guide him through the pleasures of verse, of wave-making, of undulation. The turn, counter-turn, and stand (terms Ben Jonson adapted from Pindaric odes: strophe, antistrophe and epode) embody poetry’s ancient beginnings in dance and song.  The Pindaric odes were staged by a troupe who moved to the song they sang, the choreography (chorus + graph) directed the singers to cross the stage in one direction, then the other, then pause. Consider a simple dance move: right foot, left foot, and turn.  Repeat.  Folk dances, the waltz, polka, the foxtrot, swing, tango, electric slide, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em’s “Crank That”: most dances are variations on this simple notion of turn, counter-turn, and stand.

Of course it’s not just the steps that make the art.  Choreography–like meter or form, or any artistic measure or technique–requires the presence of the whole artist at every second.  Wretched dancing occurs when the dancer doesn’t sway to the beat but to something else, like pain or an idea.  You often see bad dancing–and bad writing–when the artist moves to an idea of what the beat is, rather than moving to the feeling of the beat. In my classes students learn to pound on the table and stomp their feet to learn how to hear the beat in poems.

We live amid a flurry of cut and paste poetry, poetry that often has removed itself so far from the physical body that it has difficulty moving us.  Many contemporary poems seem to be concocted only on a computer screen, with very little physical activity involved, very little weighing, very little registering of tempo, much less chins stroked, feet tapped, skin quickened.  Sometimes such poems give me the sense they were written on spaceships without benefit of the flavors of Earth, just pictures of flavors.  Poetry must be in the world and of the world to matter to us.  The rhythm of great poems is so affective (and one of the key poetic features that tugs at us is rhythm) because it acts on our bodies, and such action connects us with our physical lives, to mortal things which are precious.

Besides its physical sound, a poem’s rhythm also lies in its proportions–proportions created by line, syntax, rhythm, image, rhetoric, white space–whatever creates tension and release–and helps the poem move: to turn, sidestep, back up, turn again.  Let’s consider this poem by Mark Jarman:

 

How My Sister, My Mother and I Still Travel Down Balwearie Road

In a night where ice and darkness have made a pact, the road appears.
It has found its way under trees whose branches, carved from anthracite,
Smudge out the stars.  Voices are approaching, though it is hardly possible,
Unless the cold-killed night speaks from the grave.  There is laughter
And a grinding swish of friction.  This is far, far north, where the dead night keeps
Its compacts with darkness, with cold, with trees and stars that agree to die.
Yet down the road come voices and a sound of shoes sliding on ice.
Through the darkness come a boy and girl, and a woman, in scarves and cloth coats.
They have broken the boundaries of time and slide out of the night, laughing,
Then wait where the road ends for the bus, two tiers of light and warmth, which comes to take them home.
It is still cold, still dark, just as I said, and late.  But not as late as I thought.

 

The demarcations of the rhetorical turns are sharp as ice: “In a night where (1). . . . Yet down the road come (7) . . . . Then wait where the road (10) . . . . But not as late as I thought” (11.5).  The proportions of the poem resemble those of the sonnet in that we have the first part, a kind of octave, in lines one to six, then each succeeding part is shorter, and the space between each succeeding turn accordions: three lines, one and a half lines, a half line.  The structure reminds me of the first poem of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella which also ends on a final-line turn: “Fool, said my Muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write.'” Or recollect Sidney’s LXXI which ends, “But ah, Desire still cries: ‘Give me some food,'” also the end of Herbert’s “Love III” (which is a sacred imitation of Sidney’s profane poem LXXI, as Sidney’s is a take off on Petrarch’s CCXLVIII) : “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.”

In Jarman’s poem notice the sure-footedness and grace of the final turn.  Except for the title (more on this in a moment), Jarman, up until the closing line, doesn’t locate or identify his speaker. Indeed the universe of the poem seems magically animated by strange, cosmic agencies.  We begin in a night where, not a night when. Ice and darkness “have made a pact,” and the road isn’t seen but “appears”; it exerts independent action, for it “has found its way.”  The trees that “smudge out the stars” haven’t grown but been “carved from anthracite,” that buried coal metaphor, forbidding and repellent, reappears in the penultimate line with the transforming image of homecoming with the double-decker bus arriving as “two tiers of light and warmth.” But first Jarman settles us firmly in an uncanny world where the “cold-killed night speaks from the grave” and the “dead night keeps its compact with darkness.” The stressed syllables pushing at and shouldering each other intensifies the sensations.

How captivating each of the turn-places are.  The opening six lines place us in a night so bitter that the trees and (even!) the stars “agree to die.” Listening closely to the phonetics here shows that stops (like ‘d’ ‘k,’ ‘b,’ ‘p,’ ‘g’) and affricates (like ‘ch’ ‘tr’ and ‘dg’–“smudge”) dominate.  These sounds are created by abruptly shutting down the air-flow when we speak. The “octave” also creates tension through a rich texture of fricatives, with ‘f,’ ‘v,’ ‘h,’ ‘s,’ ‘z,’ ‘sh,’ and ‘th’ sounds; Jarman even nods in this direction with the word friction in line five. As with most discussions of sound features in English, I’m mostly paying attention to what happens in stressed syllables:

In a night where ice and darkness have made a pact, the road appears.
It has found its way under trees whose branches, carved from anthracite,
Smudge out the stars.  Voices are approaching, though it is hardly possible,
Unless the coldkilled night speaks from the grave.  There is laughter
And a grinding swish of friction.  This is far, far north, where the dead night keeps
Its compacts with darkness, with cold, with trees and stars that agree to die.

The stiffness in some words and phrases creates a sense of tightness in the throat, of suffocation, a feeling of death by exposure–to quote Dickinson–of freezing persons recollecting the snow: “anthracite,” “smudge,” “cold-killed night speaks,” “grinding swish,” and “dead night keeps its compacts with darkness.”

Before the turn, the poem prepares for the turn with the part-line of “There is laughter . . . .” The sound opens for a moment and a note of joy is injected into the poem before the darkness closes in again.  To return to my argument from dance, such preparation occurs in the finest dancing when the dancer with an arm or leg gestures toward what will happen next or when she glances in the direction she will be moving next (this glance is called “spotting” and it helps steady the dancer).  This first part of the poem plays primarily with visual and tactile imagery, the most remote and the most immediate senses.  When the aural enters the poem, with the voices and laughter, the dead silence gets a combatant and fights back with the “grinding swish” as if to permit any sound at all it must be one that grates on us.

After the first turn the sounds become warmer as the bleak and foreboding landscape is peopled:

Yet down the road come voices and a sound of shoes sliding on ice.
Through the darkness come a boy and girl, and a woman, in scarves and cloth coats.
They have broken the boundaries of time and slide out of the night, laughing

Jarman’s deft inversion of the predicate and subject in the third line cited (“come a boy and girl, and a woman”) holds off this peopling a moment, building tension and allowing the voices to announce the arrival of the human into the forbidding landscape.  Notice, too, Jarman doesn’t use any fancy-pants verbs.  The poem is quiet and steady; “come” and “slide,” he insists even as this little family practices principles of Einsteinian physics and breaks through the space/time continuum. To sweeten the scene, he bundles up the trio with “scarves and cloth coats.”  But the voice doesn’t say who these folks are; it’s as if the speaker can’t yet make out who they are or doesn’t yet have the words for me, my sister, and my mother: a family.  The universe of the poem at first doesn’t recognize loving human relationships.

The next turn is buried within the sentence but deploys an enjambment so the turn happens gently as the mother and her kids softly break through the time barrier: “laughing / Then wait where the road ends for the bus, two tiers of light and warmth, which comes to take them home.” The road ends, but they don’t.  They merely wait, and wait for a crowd, for a cheerful bus, full of people. Further comfort comes with the emergence of the iambic, with fluting variations, that Jarman carries into the poem’s close:

…two tíers of líght and wármth which cómes to táke them hóme.
It is stíll cóld, still dárk, júst as I sáid, and láte.  But nót as láte as I thóught.

The title of the poem, “How My Sister, My Mother and I Still Travel Down Balwearie Road” itself glances in the direction the poem takes us.  The word “How” promises an explanation about the manner that this space-travel happens; it happens through and within the poet’s voice. Jarman placed “How My Sister, My Mother and I Still Travel Down Balwearie Road” as the introductory poem to his 2011 Bone Fires: Selected Poems, an exquisite choice, for here in this poem’s final turn, the poet steps onto the stage, but not to drum at us, but, arriving as he does in an imbedded clause, he quietly insists on his voice, his intelligence and spirit, to guide us through the work of his life.  And that’s the whole point of any turn in a poem.  A turn must be genuine, each time, or it’s just clowning around in silly shoes.  Like the dancer, when a poem turns, it must wholly turn and face a new direction; its shoulders, its hips–so to speak–need to turn fully and honestly.  It can’t be a feint or a slick trick.  The best poems, like Jarman’s, require a poet’s inner-most resources for the truth.  They turn us deep into ourselves, and we are redeemed by them.

 

*

Michelle Boisseau received her second NEA poetry fellowship in 2010.  Her fourth book of poems, A Sunday in God-Years, was published in 2009 by University of Arkansas Press which also published her third, Trembling Air, a PEN USA finalist, 2003.   Her textbook, Writing Poems (Longman), in its 8th edition is with Hadara Bar-Nadav.  She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Mark Jarman, “How My Sister, My Mother and I Still Travel Down Balwearie Road” from Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems.  Copyright © 2011 by Mark Jarman.  Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Sarabande Books, www.sarabandebooks.org.

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