Thursday, September 4, 2008

Divorce Poems

For a little while I’ve been toying with the idea of posting a short list of good divorce poems, and today Billy Collins and Poetry Daily moved me from musing to writing. Poetry Daily just posted a short poem by Collins called "Divorce" from his new book, Ballistics. It’s the kind of poem that I’m normally a sucker for, an elusively brief poem with a near symmetry that sounds almost like irrefutable logic.

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

The structure of it reminds me of A.R. Ammons’ delightful short poem, “Small Song”:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away

Despite their very different subjects, the poems’ structural similarities simultaneously draw attention to the subtle effectiveness of Ammons’ poem while pointing out the relative flatness of Collins’ work.

Ammons’ poem has two interrelated subjects, the wind and the reeds, and the poem echoes that pairing with repetition. In this 12-word poem, there are three words that appear twice—wind, give, and (a)way. He uses the alliteration of the w-sounds and the short i sounds to create a whispery susurration that also imitates the sound of the reeds in the wind. What the text of the poem describes also represents a doubling, visually the reeds give evidence of the wind, but as the title suggests, they also do that audibly. Ammons’ powers of observation and concision are funneled through these pairings—note also the two couplets of the poem—which reinforce the symbiotic relationship of the wind and the reeds.

Collins utilizes a similar structure—a single sentence spread over two two-line stanzas—but I don’t find it nearly as compelling a work. Collins has taken the comforting image of a couple spooning in bed (a cliché), and stretched the silverware metaphor from the domestic tranquility of the opening line to the threat of the lawyers in the final line, but the poem lacks those qualities that make Ammons poem so ineffable. Collins’ lines are not as compact or lyrical as Ammons’, and the images are not as effective. Spoons have turned into forks? And “tined” forks seems forced and redundant. Doesn’t every fork by definition have tines? The goal here seems to be to ratchet up the tension, but do forks ever really threaten each other? And while the knives of the final line represent a clear increase in the tension over the previous forks and spoons, I question whether lawyers are where the real pain of most divorces comes from (and keep in mind, the title “Divorce” really suggests a generality, that the poem itself is a metaphor for the topic). The damage and pain are usually done by the soon-to-be ex-spouses to each other. Often they have cut each other far worse in their spoon incarnations (as Collins’ imagery would have it) than those nasty knives ever could. And—in my questioning mode—do forks hire knives? And why a granite table? Yes, it may be cold, and it may suggest some kind of dining table, but it doesn’t seem (except in its coldness) to suggest a negotiating table or a courtroom table, and why should the kitchen utensils and setting represent the dissolution of a marriage? It seems a metaphor stretched too far with little concern for logical coherence or the music of the language.

Finally the rhyme/repetition in Ammons’ final word returns us back to the initial appearance of that word in the first stanza. It is a poem that leads us to reread it, that reveals its mystery even while continuing it in the sound and structure of it. Collins’ poem, on the other hand, ends absolutely at the period at the end of the fourth line. He has made his statement with an almost mathematical precision, but there’s nothing to lead us back into the poem. And I can’t find anything that enriches the poem with closer reading. In fact, that almost mathematical precision seems to fall apart upon further investigation into the imagery.

Obviously, I am not going to build my imaginary divorce poems anthology around Collins’ poem. Here are some I would include, however:

• “How Cow Bones Look After Your Wife’s Run Off” by D.C. Berry from his wonderfully titled collection, Divorce Boxing.
• “We Started Home, My Son and I” by James Harms, which originally appeared in West Branch, and has been reprinted in the current volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology. This is a heartbreakingly poignant poem which had me thinking Harms was one of the tribe, but I believe his marriage is intact, which makes his empathetic accomplishment even more impressive.
• “The Poet’s Wife Leaves Him for a Carpenter” by J.P. Murphy. This poem appeared in the March 2007 issue of English Journal, a publication for high school English teachers, which means it is readily available at most academic libraries, but it also means most literary tastemakers haven’t seen it. This is one of those times where I felt like the writer was taking notes from my own life. Mr. Murphy, if you're ever in St. Paul, I would be honored to buy you a drink.


redpartyshoes said...

as much as i appreciate billy collins and his work--and find myself depending on it in the classroom, something about his work becomes a burr in my saddle. reminding me of my AP teacher's tirade when the pittsburgh symphony (in what would appear a desperate move to sell seats) began advertising attendance as a means of unwinding after a hard day. art is work!

Clarence White said...

The Ammons poem is much more brilliant, indeed. It shows us the folly of our attentive stare, that we are looking at the reed when the grand mystery is that wind, that has no shape, color, and is so hard to grasp with out hands--until we figure out that the wind is not to be used that way, even if we could do that with the simple reed.

Still, Collins' piece seems more fitting. We think the forks are attacking each other, but they have been subsituted by the lovers, sometimes unwittingly by one or both, to attack the love space that has become so familiar that it is beyond taken for granted--it is an invading stranger.

Amy L Sargent said...

Harms's does have a failed marriage from the 1990s that predates his current marriage . . . I believe that first marriage was the one about which he wrote in that lovely poem.