I see two voltas I care about in this poem—both marked by big “but”s. There’s haughty distance in the first section—spatial distance, with the tabs all over the place, and syntactical distance, talking like Yoda with “yr verses I taught.” The only place I see that disdain tearing a little is in the knife turn of repeating “destitute.” BUT then there’s that “but”:
Ah, but that was, as you’d say
Here Jonas lets the ex-“destitute” ex speak for a moment, but only to damn himself: what kind of ungrateful a-hole tries to re-cast that obvious rescue, the volta in his life, as nothing but “the past”?
I don’t know. But I bet everybody who read this poem when it came out in 1960 knew who was getting outed with that “doom of Atreus” dig. BUT that’s not the only dig: the next “but,” the second volta I love, comes here:
but the bed you slept in
does not lie vacant
new fauns have come to my crags
to try my tender fern shoots
Look how big I am! You were just a little Eliza Doolittle, and I am a god damned landscape. Crags, fern shoots: I’ve got it all. All the hot fauns are crazy about me. Your loss. Oh, and did you forget that when you hang out with me, you get awesome lines like “to try my tender fern shoots”? Maybe. But now you remember, a-hole.
I lied about there only being two voltas I care about here. The last three lines make a new one, “but”-free.
let there be deep woods between us
and briar thicket impasse
in the beyond.
I can be human and petty; I can dig at your former losses and current ingratitude. But ultimately? I’m so over you. I’m way bigger than you are. And I don’t even want to know you after we’re dead.
Stephen Jonas is dead. Our loss. But this poem is very much alive. Lucky us!
Pushcart prize winner Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), and Where You Live (Salt, 2012). The recipient of NEA, Cullman Center, Fine Arts Work Center, Witter Bynner, and Stegner fellowships, her work appears in Slate, The Threepenny Review, Best American Poetry 2011, and elsewhere. She teaches poetry at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the online writing program at the Fine Arts Work Center.