Thursday, September 11, 2008

Snowed in


By Ted Burke
We brought the dog home in the trunk.

All the way from school Dad said she was
back there, feet on the same red carpet as mine.

And so Laura Polley's sad little verse "Winter Accident" opens, promisingly, intriguingly, with a couple of declarative sentences that efficiently, even a bit brutishly set in the scene, a dead dog in the trunk, a little girl on a car seat, a father reassuring her in ways none too convincing. Apprehension is the tone here, and the reader is intrigued by the situation; how did this car ride get to be so extraordinarily weird. There's enough here to make you want to read more and find out what this strangeness is all about. James M. Cain couldn't have done better.But the third line blows the game:

The February sun made me feel like a thief.

This wouldn't have been the place to use a simile, and if the use of a simile were imperative, I might not have used to describe the first person narrator but instead some other detail of this world. The intention here is to sort through a sequence of recollections that are fragmented and partial, vivid in fleet imagery, powerful in the emotional sucker punch they provide, elusive to context and details, but Polley gets ahead of herself and turns this poem into murk, almost a wallow. A bit more distance from the narrative line and a smart gathering of images that could furnish a definitive mood of ambivalence --the sense that the young girl doesn't know how to react to a sort of situation she's not yet had to deal with--could be established by implication, not direction. This is where the poem evaporates entirely, becoming an untidy set of bound clippings from some one's streaming introspection. There details, of course, precise bits that convince us that someone once walked through his house, rode in that car, cared for the dead dog

You're not part of this memory. Your figure is missing
from the strange gray half-light of the closed garage
where he tried but couldn't shut her eyes, Siberian blue,
where we stood, two blunderers, not knowing what to do
with the clumps of dead fur coming off in our hands.


But it seems stilted at best; Polley feels the need to prep us for the emotional subtext of her stanzas and neglects to connect the sequence with anchoring tropes that would make the elliptical style a more interesting thing to parse. The central theme is estrangement , I think, and that is not interesting in itself; there is simply not enough here to bother with. The poem, in brief, is a mess; interpreting it what she might have meant while writing it , for me, is tantamount to letting off her obligation as a writer and finishing the poem for her. It's a cheat.

2 comments:

  1. good critique.

    the poem lost me too.

    "The February sun made me feel like a thief" -- whuh?

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  2. Thanks for tuning in, Glenn.

    Slate pays four hundred dollars, I'm told, to the poets they publish, and I can't help but wonder what Polley would have been paid if she submitted a piece she'd actually completed.

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