Friday, March 28, 2008

Laura Sims: a close reading

My friend Amy, having read the first issue of Cannot Exist, the magazine I'm editing, said of Laura Sims' poems in that issue that she "didn't know what to do with them" (she said it in a perfectly friendly way). I realized that, while all of Sims' work in the magazine appeals to me strongly in an intuitive way, I wasn't able to articulate exactly what I liked about them, aside from a few generalities. After thinking about it for a while, I came up with the following close reading of one of the poems. It's part of a sequence called "Murder is for murderers," and appears on page 24 of the magazine:


Let time tie a millstone & pass

Through exits the children

Draw water

You fathom

What sticks in the five

Small emergency doors could be



There’s a setting: I imagine an old mill by a stream or river, kids “drawing water.” I imagine this as an archetypal scene, the sort of place where strange things are discovered—a simultaneously idyllic and creepy potential here (think Stephen King’s “The Body,” aka Stand By Me—in which I, having grown up wandering old railroad tracks, creeks and collapsing buildings in woods and overgrown lots, always felt the idyllic side as strongly as, if not more than, the creepy).

But I didn’t start with this; I started with counting.
The first line in the poem’s fourth stanza contains five one-syllable words (like five sticks). It’s also, if you count the title as also a line (which I think is justified here, for various reasons), the fifth line. The next line also contains five words, but “emergency” is four syllables. The word itself is a disruption or crisis in the sonic and rhythmic patterning, a metric emergency. This effect is strengthened by the stress patterns in the stanza. The pattern in the first stanza is something like:

What sticks in the five

(You could stress “what” as well, but I think sticks would still come off as a bit more heavily emphasized). There’s a lilting stressed-unstressed rhythm to the line. The next line, however, comes off as having every syllable stressed: a bit more on the second syllable of “emergency” than on the rest of the word, but not much. The stresses vary, so that the line’s rhythm comes off as something like:

dah—dit-dit-dit-dit —dah dih dih

with that “emergency” in its insistent, alarm-like rhythm, framed by those slightly longer sounds, as if it’s a call in Morse code or an alarm, and followed by those two softer beats, as if the alarm is failing, fading off into a silence to be inhabited by the final “More.” When I let the syntax flow from “five” into the next line, then “small” feels more rhythmically connected to “emergency” than “doors” does—which would make “small emergency” into a (five-syllable) unit. So we have multiple, irreconcilable patterns on top of each other here, and instability that the word “emergency” embodies.

Going back to the title: visually, there are five one-syllable words, if you don’t count the ampersand as a word; audibly, there are five strong beats:

Let time tie a millstone & pass

It’s a similar pattern to that in the “emergency” line—but it’s not yet a crisis here.
There are seven units in the line, counting the ampersand, and seven units in the poem, counting the title (interesting that each has one element of which I feel the need to say, “if you count this”).
The sound in the title is interesting; it moves from short, clipped consonants into liquid and hissing sounds:

l→t(m)t t→m-lll-st(n)→sss

Note the way the “l” attaches first, as a short sound, to the reiterating “t,” and then later as an opening to the emerging “s.” It’s as if the “s” passes through the “exits” (note “s” and “t” sounds in that word) of the “t”s, with the “l”s as the sound of the “t”s’ opening. Looking back at my scheme for the rhythmic pattern of the “emergency” line, I find those four punctual “t”s. Then there are the “s”s and “t” of “sticks,” which lay yet another sonic pattern onto that fourth stanza:

What sticks in the five/ Small emergency doors […] More

Again, a move from the short and clipped into the hissing and liquid, the "s" first associated with "t" and then with "l" and "r" as they take over.

I can hear this kind of sonic web throughout the poem. It connects “sticks” and “exit,” and strengthens the semantic connection between “children,” “small” and “more” (one of “more”s many connotations being that of growth), as well as linking “more” with “draw water.” Once I start to make more obvious connections, subtler (even tenuous) examples start to pop out: “fathom” connotes depth, which connects connotatively to “more”, and this connection is reinforced by the soft sounds in “fathom” and “more.”

Then there’s the syntactic multiplicity of the poem. Because of its lack of punctuation and the grammatical ambiguity of a few key words, it’s possible to read it as a number of potential, overlapping sentences:

Let time tie a millstone and pass through exits. (or, “…through exits the children,” as in “pass the children through exits”)

Through exits the children draw water. You fathom what [those] sticks in the five small emergency doors could be.

Through exits the children draw water you fathom. What sticks in the five small emergency doors could be more? [where “sticks” is a noun].

…and so on.

All these connections, multiplicities, ambiguities, make the poem into a meaning-system. From these overlapping webs I go back to interpretation on the level of semantic contents. Here are some disordered reflections:

The wheel is often a metaphor for time. The title asks that time tie that wheel and inhabit its other metaphor, passing like water. The mill is the location of two different ways of conceiving time—one in which it’s stuck, circular, and one in which it flows.

A stick is used to draw with (to mark on a surface), or to “fathom” (to test the depth), or perhaps to clear debris from an underwater grating.

“Draw” is double.

“Fathom” is double: it also means “to understand.”

Who is “you?” With “more,” it’s the most ambiguous word in the poem—but “more,” as we’ll see, is ambiguous because it’s overdetermined, while “you” is ambiguous because it comes out of nowhere—it’s outside the scene, or outside the poem. Depending on the meaning of “fathom,” “you” is either searching in the water, trying to bring up what might be down there, or else “you” is the one who knows what’s going on here—which is kind of creepy as well: the observer, hiding in the bushes? The witness, or the one responsible for the drowning? If “you” is a murderer, and “what sticks” a corpse (see below), then “could be more” is really scary.

The idea of something being stuck in an emergency door is already scary. Something tried desperately to get out, and failed. If the emergency doors are exits where water comes out, then this poem might be about discovering something that drowned, at least in part. This, to me, gives “tie a millstone” a creepy connotation—as if the stone were tied to an ankle, before dumping the body in the water.

“More:” an excess, both in terms of its definition and as a self-referential moment. More of what? More water? “More-ness” in general? More children? The word is portentous, connoting something unknown and undiscovered; it also connotes plenitude and possibility; it indicates an outside; finally, it’s a word of longing.

What if the words themselves are the “emergency doors,” and what tried to get through was meaning? This is supported by the self-referential count I started off with. Then “could be more” can be read in at least two ways:

1) “there isn’t as much as I wish there were”
2) “there might be even more,” or “we might be about to let more of that through”

Meaning as water, words as “emergency doors,” kids by the water, drawing it (in both senses of “drawing”). Meaning as a turbulent realm in which humans can’t survive, trying to exit into the world through words, getting stuck in (fixed in place by) the words. The children at the place this process happens, the place where the as-yet-undetermined excess of possibility (of childhood—the “idyllic” side) is gushing through, at the same time getting jammed up in those socialized words through which it tries with such insistent (t t t t) force to come into the world.

The poem is haunted: “what sticks” leaves ghosts: the “more” of meaning (which is not just a lost, dead thing, but is also the open field of possibility being closed off). Haunted by “you” (which might mean you, the reader, outside all this). Everything in it buzzes with the haunting of what’s missing, what’s outside the poem: these ghosts, as well as the social world with its archetypal scenes and fixed meanings… and also, in that world, the other poems (like the one on the next page of the magazine, which gathers resonances from this one that I’ve just begun to perceive). Haunted by past and future, by places time gets stuck, divided into three tenses. The poem stages these murders, these gettings-stuck, these closings-off, but by its carefully structured ambiguities holds everything open.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home