There are many ways to evaluate and measure the strength of a turn so, I would like to reflect here on how turns successfully build the energy of a poem and effectively direct that energy towards the pith. Poetry intends to exact the Truth from one’s experiences and imagination. These experiences must be shaped, defined, and polished as if by a lapidary before they are given over to the world; and so, the turn or turns in a poem might well be the moments in which the poem begins to reveal its humanity. Just as Michelangelo’s unfinished group of statues The Slaves emerging from the marmoreal are the synecdoche of his David, so are the turns to a poem, which build toward the greater whole.
I’ve recently enjoyed a collection of poems entitled Rough Honey, by Melissa Stein. Her poems navigate the heart with such limpidity that by the end of the book we are left with a map. The accomplishment of her poems is due in part to the efficacy of their turns. In her poem “Aquarium” I spy four turns. The first two effectively generate the energy needed to propel the reader deeper into the poem. And the last two uncover the heart and steer the reader into the revelation of the poem.
These girls wear sex like lipstick. I think
this one’s the Undead. Heavy-lidded,
pawing the air like a drugged kitten,
stilettos piercing holes in the scuffed-up
linoleum. I’ll bet she tastes like
a red paper valentine. No, lemon
on a cut tongue. I try to lose myself
in the muffled beats through the glass.
A succulent chicken-thigh shimmies past,
dimpled softly like a golf ball. That vampire won’t
look at me. Wall-eyed, carp-eyed. I’ve been here too long
soaking in the slot-machine atmosphere. I think of
what’s not waiting for me at home. What if
Elvira here’s really a sweet homemaker,
come to bring me my slippers and paper
and walk the dog twice a day rain or shine?
No, she’s coming at me like a bat, dissolving
the glass like gelatin, knocking me to my knees.
Poor blue Chuck’s never gonna be seen again
at the office noosed in his trout-silly tie,
experimenting with paper cuts and binder-clip
nipple clamps. Has anything changed
since I was a kid? My lunchmeat urges,
my baffled jeans. My pimp breath, my laboratory
kisses. Nope. Not much. In the aquarium a butter clam
floats by, soothing, the way it takes its time,
going nowhere, and the girl it’s attached to,
soothing too, a manageable storm of boredom
and sex, now headless, now armless, pressing
against the glass, white anonymous lullaby half-
babydoll, tottering on skyscraper heels, oh
I want something so beautiful I forget my life.
The first turn comes at the seventh line, “I try to lose myself.” Here the poem turns inward giving us a glimpse into the speaker’s psyche. We may venture to paint the speaker as a desperate man realizing his desperation has led him to fantasy which is magnified by the peepshow environment he has involved himself in. This turn is quick but provides us with a necessary show of humanness by introducing us to the speaker. The energy of this turn whets the appetite of the reader as it creates a natural anticipation for some discovery regarding the human condition.
The second turn comes at lines twelve and thirteen, “I think of / what’s not waiting for me at home.” This turn reveals the speaker’s concern and subsequent motivation for being at a peepshow which is the longing for companionship. We learn however that his loneliness is only the beginning of his affliction. Immediately following the turn, we warp into the speaker’s masochistic imagination where we are seduced by a wayward fantasy involving auto erotic asphyxiation, “…noosed in his trout-silly tie, / experimenting with paper cuts and binder-clip / nipple clamps.” The turn here is used as a launching pad propelling the reader further into the anxiety, frustration, and tedium of desiring what is seemingly unattainable. We come away from this turn with a clearer sense of our speaker’s want for change, his yearning for metamorphosis: to be taken and kilned, erected and made-new as he says in the eleventh line, “I’ve been here too long…”
Lines twenty-six and twenty-seven reveal a third turn, “…soothing, the way it takes its time, / going nowhere…” For the first time we feel the speaker relax. And in this moment of relaxation he sees the current situation for what it is, “…a manageable storm of boredom / and sex…” What this allows the reader to experience is pathos. We find compassion for our speaker understanding his submission as a necessary response. We know the human condition is vast and varied, and here we witness a wisp of contentment within the unsettled heart of our speaker. We come off the excited energy of the previous turns to arrive at this moment which slows us down, taxiing us towards the coup de grace.
“I want something so beautiful I forget my life.” This last turn is the poem’s revelation. Packing a powerful punch, the line is a magnificent permutation to a long and rich tradition namely Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” The last line savored for its surprise and transformative aura is what elevates this poem out from a seemingly bored and vulgar experience. As readers we too witness this ending as a stroke of equanimity. The Truth here is exactly as Lynda Hull once put it when she said that, “It is a common human longing to want utterly / to vanish from one life and arrive transformed / in another.” Who would have figured that attending a peepshow would have yielded such a revelation!
For all my talk about the energy in this poem, I would be remiss not to mention the role language plays in the generating and facilitating of said energy. As I’ve mentioned, the energy of a poem is used to create propulsion which is why the element of surprise is integral to producing effective and interesting turns. Stein’s imagination is full of surprises, vivid, smart, and edgy. Her language is both fierce and gentle rendering a lush and poignant sangfroid. Her poems remind us that in this life you can count on being derailed, but that also, you can count on being able to recover. And it is precisely out of this ebb and flow of human circumstance that we as readers find ourselves riveted by the strength and unfolding of Rough Honey.
Jasper Haze is an absurd logophile who lives in the Bay Area. He was awarded the Most Likely to Drop that Dun Dun Dun Senior Superlative in high school. On the Saffir-Simpson scale, he’s a category 1. Tiddlywinks, balloon modelling, and cosplay are some of his favorite pastimes.
Stein, Melissa. “Aquarium.” Rough Honey. Philadelphia, PA : American Poetry Review, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author.