When is a Polka Like a Ship Deck? On Suzanne Cleary’s Poem “Polka”

I’ll admit it. I’m biased. I love Suzanne Cleary’s poetry. I first heard her read in my second semester in the Converse College Low-residency MFA back in June of 2011. Although it probably didn’t happen exactly this way, in my mind, Suzanne walked up to the miked podium at the front of the crowd in the high ceilinged, many windowed Zimmerli Common Room, smiled, and said, “Sausage Candle.” I just about fell out of my very uncomfortable folding chair. It was the first time I realized that poetry could be damn funny and damn good at the same time. So it was with great anticipation that I went a few weeks ago to hear Suzanne read from her new book Beauty Mark, the winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry published by BkMk Press.

While there is plenty of Suzanne’s distinctive, subtle brand of humor in this collection, it was the poem “Polka” that caught my ear that rainy January night. “Dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm, water flying into the air, / sliding in sheets across the gray / wood” (43). Now, you don’t have to be a polka aficionado to get this. If you’ve heard even one polka played or seen one performed, you understand the image: “Each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like / steps in one direction” (43). The poem is accessible, a quality which I admire and for which Suzanne makes no apologies. But this poem also takes risks, something Suzanne encourages in her craft lectures and her critiques of her students’ work, and something that she practices in each and every poem.

The humorous image of people dancing as though trying to regain their balance on the deck of a listing ship becomes something more when “There is someone in your arms, and this is what / makes it a polka, although she or he / does not look into your eyes, and you / do not look either, at your partner,” (43). And more when “to dance the polka is definitely / to think of death, your partner’s shoulder / surprisingly small in your hand” (43). Then there really are two people, not simply dancing, but barely hanging on to some small human contact; two people with a tenuous hold on life but still moving, still keeping in step.

The risk is taken here in “hop-skips.” Once the reader accepts the idea of the polka as keeping balance on a deck at sea, the poem skips to the idea of one’s fleeting connection with other human beings, and the reader must balance. The next skip is to a part of US immigrant history, to learning the polka “from grandparents, whose grandparents / learned it from their grandparents, who left / Petrovavest for Bratislava, Bratislava / for Prague, for ships that took six days / and five nights to cross the ocean. / They never spoke of the crossing, / not even to each other” (43). The reader must again catch her balance.

There is another risk, another hop-skip and rebalance when Suzanne describes the polka this way: “You might as well call the dance / Walking the Ship Deck During a Storm / that Partly –Holy Mother, Forgive Me –/ I Did Not Want to Survive” and then “this dance / that could more succinctly be known as / Long Marriage” (44). This poem that starts off so simply, this poem that hop-skips across the page with its lines alternating between left-justified and tabbed over, maintains its own balance though the “deck” leans more and more until the final line which stops the poem, the reader, and the dance.

“God. You’re beautiful when your hair is wet” (44).

Cleary, Suzanne. Beauty Mark. Kansas-City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013.

“A Disorienting Place”: On Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”

During my internet ramblings this morning, I came across three things that have stuck together like the lint, hair, and tobacco shake that inevitably find that random piece of restaurant candy deep in the bowels of one’s purse: an article in The Atlantic titled “The Joy of the Memorized Poem” wherein Billy Collins discusses how Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” got him through an MRI, Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” and an article in Vice by James Franco on Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker.

Ok. Go with me on this.

I’m cruising Facebook, click on the Collins article, read it. Collins says that he discovered the Yeats’ poem in college and, after many years of reading and teaching the poem, he made himself memorize it. Of memorization of a poem, Collins writes: “This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.” And I remembered reading “Porphyria’s Lover” in college.

This was the first poem that really stuck with me, and I read it over and over, memorizing the first person dramatic monologue from the point of view of a jealous lover who kills his lady-love by strangling her with her own hair so that she would remain “mine, mine, fair / Perfectly pure and good” (Browning lines 36, 37). Naturally, I then Googled “poems about serial killers.” Which brings me to James Franco.

On September 25, 2014, Vice published Franco’s piece on serial killer Richard Ramirez complete with five blood-and-gore pictures of Franco(?) as Ramirez and four poems by Franco about Ramirez. Without discussing whether or not Franco’s poems work (see this great article in Paper by Gabby Bess for that), I want to say that the whole piece disturbed me, and not just because I was a thirteen-year-old female resident of the Los Angeles area when the fear of the Night Stalker took hold.

In the article, Franco says that he doesn’t want to humanize Ramirez; he wants to understand Ramirez from an actor’s perspective. What would it take to get into that character? (In 2011, Franco was supposedly slated to play the part of Richard Ramirez in a film that, apparently, was never made.) Franco goes so far as to write that he “can relate a little to Ramirez’s feelings” because he, too has felt the “need for power — especially sexual power.”

I recoiled at this. I wanted to dismiss the idea that taking bloodied pictures, that writing poetry was a way to get into a character’s head, and that getting into a character’s head does not humanize him or serve to “celebrate a killer” (Franco). But then there was “Porphyria’s Lover” sitting there in the back of my mind, all dead woman posed so that she would remain “perfect” for the speaker forever. Browning put himself into the speaker’s character, someone who saw nothing wrong with murder, someone who, in fact, believed he was answering his love’s “one wish” (line 57).

About his own writing, Collins says, “I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.” The imaginative space in Browning’s poem is a disorienting place, and it is a challenging place. The reader is placed squarely into the mind of a killer in plain language. The reader feels Porphyria’s hair pull tight in the speaker’s hands. The reader sits on a bed, the dead Porphyria’s head on his or her shoulder. It is disturbing at the same time that it feels genuine, and that is what makes this poem work.

I’m not quite sure why “Porphyria’s Lover” was the poem that first stuck. Perhaps Gabby Bess comes close to explaining it in her article on James Franco’s Vice piece, “Now more than ever, there seems to finally be a sense of what can happen when men feel entitled (and that entitlement is culturally reinforced) to something that was never theirs.” Perhaps my college self needed to be disoriented, to be challenged to understand that no one owned me but me.

Bess, Gabby. “Some Observations on James Franco’s Serial Killer Poems.” Paper. Web.        14 Nov. 2014.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Collins, Billy. “The Joy of the Memorized Poem.” The Atlantic. 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Nov.      2014.
Franco, James. “Four Poems Inspired by Serial Killer Richard Ramirez.” Vice. 25 Sept.            2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Jab, Cross, Uppercut! Humor in Bruce Covey’s Poetry

What would you expect from a poem titled “I’m a Bitty Cupcake”? Some lines about the virtues of buttercream? Maybe a study of sprinkles? Ganache, perhaps? Whatever you might have going on in your head about tiny bits of fluffy wonderful, I bet it wasn’t this: “I’m a Bitty Cupcake But if you fuck with me, I’m gonna kick your fuckin ass, you know what I’m sayin?” (109).

Bruce Covey’s poems are always unexpected, always challenging, and often funny as hell. I know that, from now on, every time I see a cupcake, I’ll snicker inside. Children’s birthday parties will become immensely more entertaining when I envision a dozen cupcakes going off half-cocked. Covey’s humor works. I mean, seriously.

Consider the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Moon in Atlanta, GA.” This is a dialogue between Covey himself and the moon. Like, the moon in the sky at night. He plays with the idea of poets overuse of the moon to hilarious effect. “Look, I don’t know shit about poetry. Fucking poets are always staring at me, talking at / me, writing about me. I’m fucking sick of it. You want inspiration? Use fucking Google, / like the Flarfists do” (83). Covey manages to make poet-readers flinch just a little bit when they think about all the references to la luna that they’ve penned over the years. I started to think about just how many of my own poems involve the moon, and I was a tad embarrassed.

Covey’s Chevy Impala-driving, cigarette-smoking, panhandling moon doesn’t stick to railing against poets and poetry in general, no. She gets personal. “Look, I’ve never heard of you. Bruce, right? Don’t go nuts on me with all of your moon / stereotypes. I don’t give a shit whether you write poems. I just want a fucking cigarette. / Now give me the 5 bucks?” (83). The idea that the moon, something many people dream on, something many people associate with lovers and long moonlit walks on the beach and a way-super-cool light to bathe in, that this moon is indifferent about poetry…well, it makes me laugh. It takes some of the gravity out of the concept of poetry (get it? gravity?).

While not all of Bruce Covey’s poems are this overtly humorous, a good number of them invite the reader to play by playing on words and by playing with concepts. Covey’s sense of joy in language is clear, even while his bitty cupcake throws a mean uppercut to the jaw.

Covey, Bruce. Change Machine. Las Cruces, NM: Noemi Press, 2014.