Jane Underwood, Four Poems from When my Heart Goes Dark, I Turn the Porch Light On: “I Was Wrong,” “Song of Absence,” “Wild Fire,” and “Porch Light”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Last week’s column featured an anthology of poems written to roadside memorials and this week’s focuses on a book of poems that, following the death of their writer, has become an eloquent memorial to Jane Underwood’s life. Cancer may have been what spurred Underwood to begin writing again, but the poems transcend the specific circumstances of her illness to become a powerful meditation on mortality, the terminal illness that infects us all.
Cancer is the health scourge of existence in America today, second only to heart disease in the number of deaths it causes each year. Perhaps as a consequence, cancer poems have proliferated, sometimes to the point where editors decline, wholesale, to publish them. Because of their sheer abundance, such poems are held to a higher standard, and not just by editors. Readers also have seen so many as to have become habituated to the tragedy they embody, and so poets writing about cancer have to work harder, not just to survive but also to have their writing about that work taken seriously.
Underwood’s poems would pass muster in just about any context. They are tight, vivid, and written straight from the heart. The first of today’s poems, “I Was Wrong,” contains clues about the author’s illness (“thinning hair,” reference to “wigs”), but the poem is fundamentally about joy, the kind snatched from the pockets of sorrow in the figure of a mockingbird that “takes on the dawn” and “[r]epeat, repeat .  .  . sings his stolen songs.” Notice the understated conclusion of this poem, especially that wonderful last, tiny word at the very end: “Things I thought / would never be enough, are.”
“Song of Absence” describes the aftermath of a mastectomy, but the poem avoids details about the procedure or its physical effects, instead emphasizing sound and form, with very spare, short-line couplets prioritizing blank space over text to enact the themes of absence and loss. One way sound is foregrounded is through internal rhyme such as that between “first” and “breast” and “absence” and “presence” in the poem’s opening lines. I love the marriage of sound and sense in that oxymoronic phrase, “presence / of the absence”! Poems about terrible personal loss and grief risk melodrama, a pitfall deftly avoided here by means of understatement and distancing techniques that enable the poet to stand apart from herself in “Poor howling / chest” and to wonder how “she”—expressed in third person—will be able to bear showing herself, post-surgery, to her husband. “Wildfire” relies on an extended metaphor of an out-of-control forest conflagration to communicate the terror and speed of cancer metastases, and its urgency, communicated through rapid-fire questions and repeated injunction (“forget the dog”), is just stunning.
The titular poem, “Porch Light,” is a villanelle, a fixed form in nineteen lines consisting of five three-line stanzas (tercets) followed by a four-line stanza (quatrain). In a villanelle, the first and third line of stanza one alternate as the last line in seceding stanzas until the last one, which concludes with both repeated lines. Stated another way, the first line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza comes back as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas before both lines return, one last time, as the last two lines of the poem. The repeating lines work the way refrains do in music and are sometimes called repetends. Typically, the repeating lines rhyme with each other and then rhyme in turn with the first lines of succeeding stanzas, and all the second lines of stanzas end on a second rhyme. Using capitals for repetends (entire repeated lines) and lowercase letters for rhymes, the form can be diagrammed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2. Note what this means for the villanelle; it has just two repeated rhyming sounds.
In today’s poem, those two sounds are variants on “-on” and “or”. The repetends are the first and third lines of stanza one:

1    Winter light fading, husband and dog gone

2    for a walk, they’ll be back in an hour.

3     If the sky goes dark, I turn the porch light on.

Those two lines recur as the last lines of succeeding stanzas and then are brought back, with a subtle but significant change, to close the poem:

They fill in what I lack, trek along

the streets, stop for snacks at the corner store.

Winter light fading, husband and dog gone.

When my heart goes dark, I turn the porch light on.

The change is Underwood’s substitution of “the sky” with “my heart,” all the more moving for being one of the very few concessions to sentiment (not sentimentality) you’ll find in the book as a whole. I never met Jane Underwood, but this book makes me wish I had. I find her poems marvelously restrained, authentic, and moving, and you can be sure that I will be recommending this book to others in the years to come.]]>

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