Poetry

“Life Line” by Ann Townsend

 

Life Line

We’re in for a veritable songfest,
you say, as each child tunes

an instrument into submission.

A hush, then cacophony –
arrayed in rows, all mangle

Frère Jacques together, and among

the blats and quacks and enthusiastic
drumbeats, our own lovely piccolo

tugs down her skirt, her eyes

play madly about the audience, mouth
askew. Now is not the time

to take the picture. The teacher

tapping time with a cardboard baton,
the audience unraveling,

and me gritting my teeth,

building my jaw muscles apace,
though this, by itself, isn’t news

until you reach for my hand,

and look askance at the life line.
It will be at least exciting, you said, if not long.

 

From Dear Delinquent (Sarabande Press 2019) and reprinted here with permission of the press. Dear Delinquent is available for order here, here, and here.

 

Read recent reviews of Dear Delinquent here:

 

Ann Townsend is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Dime Store Erotics (1998), The Coronary Garden (2005), and Dear Delinquent (2019) and the editor of a collection of essays, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2007), with David Baker. She is currently at work on a fourth collection of poems as well as a collection of essays on poetry and the natural world. Her poetry and essays have appeared in such magazines as Poetry, The Paris Review, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and many others. The recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council, she has also received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Bernheim Arboretum, and the Lannan Foundation. With Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, Townsend is a cofounder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, awarded the 2016 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award in recognition of their work for the larger literary community. In addition to her work as a poet, Townsend hybridizes modern daylilies at Bittersweet Farm. Author photo credit: Timothy Black Photography.

 

Poet’s Note

For a brief period in elementary school, my daughter played the violin. It was clear from the start that she and this instrument were not destined for a long relationship. On the day this poem took place, I felt such love and tenderness for this beautiful human being in the process of becoming herself. I started writing the poem during the concert and finished it the day we returned the violin to the instrument rental store.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This delightful free verse poem is divided into seven spare couplets separated by six singleton lines. There is no meter or rhyme, and diction is plain-spoken and mostly conversational, with simple sentence structure and conventional punctuation. “Life Line” is a poem that wants to welcome readers in.

The first few lines establish the setting and characters: a grade school orchestral concert, with parents in nail-biting attendance to watch their daughter perform. That the speaker and her companion are the child’s mother and father is established early in a phrase I adore: “our own lovely piccolo.” Until reading the Poet’s Note, I assumed the instrument being played was also a piccolo, and that the child’s mouth was twisted as much from the challenge of embouchure as from anxiety. That’s an example of me reading my own life experience (flute, painful) into the poem, because the Poet’s Note tells us that the instrument here was a violin.

The characters in this poem comprise a family unit of mother (the speaker), father (“you”), and child (“piccolo”). Mother and daughter are both visibly anxious—the child searching the audience for a familiar face, and the mother grinding her teeth and jaw. The father shows sang-froid under fire, but we are still not entirely sure at the end if he is reaching for the speaker to comfort her, or himself. The speaker’s own incisive wit comes through in her observations as the children “mangle” a song, tune their instruments “into submission,” and play a wonderfully onomatopoeic catalog of instrumental sounds: “blats and quacks and enthusiastic / drumbeats.” The humor, mostly accomplished with artful diction, has an edge without going too far—“enthusiastic,” for example, conveys not just a funny excess of beats, but also an appreciation of the effort that goes into making them.

Watching your child struggle to perform in public—whether in chorus or with an instrument or in school, church or on the field—may not be universal, but it is a rite of passage for many parents and families. It’s deftly and poignantly captured here, engaging us with sound (the arresting “hush, then cacophony”) and then having us see and feel what mother and child are feeling as they look for each other for that life line that will get them through the evening. Again, the humor is deflationary but also tender, as in the image of the teacher’s “cardboard” baton. It’s easy to empathize with the mother’s discomfort, and also the child’s, communicated through tugging at her skirt, “madly” scanning the audience, and holding her small mouth “askew.”

That image aches, but it is immediately undercut by the speaker’s dry observation that “this is not the time / / to take the picture.” Sentimentality is the pitfall of writing poems about our children and, as you can see, comedy a very useful tool for avoiding it. I love the word “askew” for its onomatopoeic quality and also for the way it so viscerally communicates the child’s consternation and concentration—I kept seeing a Peanuts cartoon character or Heloise in a predicament, acutely cute. As for the parents dying the thousand deaths of all parents watching their small children perform onstage, their intense discomfort is palpable in the way one clenches her jaw and the other reaches for her hand.

What happens next elevates the everyday into metaphor. The “you” looks “askance” at the life line in the speaker’s palm, observing that it “will be at least exciting . . . if not long.” Like “askew,” the word “askance” is an elevated-diction departure in this otherwise conversational poem, and its sophistication and hyperbolic quality adds humor and drama. The words don’t just begin the same way and sound similar; both also suggest a quality of being off-kilter and vulnerable that forges a linguistic link, one that makes this speaker’s voice distinctive and also connects father and daughter in the poem.

Let’s look a little more closely at the metaphors and resonances in the final couplet.

and look askance at the life line.
It will be at least exciting, you said, if not long.

What is meant by the term “the life line” and by that last line? Literally, a “life line” is a crease in the human palm said to predict the length of one’s life, and the father here is thrown by (or expressing mock horror at) a prediction that the speaker’s life will be short, but eventful. One reason for that excitement, the poem has already told us, is that the speaker is a habitual jaw-clencher who cares very intensely about things.

Because “Life Line” also serves as the poem’s title, however, we are invited to seek other, less literal meanings for the term, and for the “it” in the poem’s last line. The antecedent for that indefinite pronoun may, as syntax suggests,  be “life line” from the line above. However, we can also read “it” to mean, simply and amusingly, the concert itself. Or more broadly: this couple’s shared life, or their family, or life in general. “The life line” the father is looking at could also be the couple’s joined hands, itself a symbol of their union. Or, the daughter onstage, creating a life line going both ways and connecting past, present, and future generations. It’s amusing to read “it” as referring to concert—a near-hopeful commentary on its anticipated length—but these other contexts lend the poem more gravitas.

I’m really getting down to the level of word now, but for me the poem’s most intense drama happens in these last two lines. In the term “the life line,” why did the author opt for the definite article (“the”) instead of indefinite (“a”) or the more personal and specific pronoun (“our”)? I think maybe because “the” is flexible and neutral enough to encourage a multiplicity of interpretations without the sentiment risked by those other words. Another question is the reason for the verb tense change in the word “said” in the last line. All the action in the rest of the poem takes place in present tense. Rendering that last line in past, let alone the way it also references the future (“will be”), is a distinct departure.

Up to this point we feel present in the room with the speaker, and it is easy to imagine that the scene is unfolding as it happens before our eyes and ears. In the last line the slide suddenly drops back into its slot, and we see that experience for what it is: a memory. At that moment we understand the speaker to be looking back, and moreover, from a present-day perspective that has seen the ends of some things, like her daughter’s childhood for example. Come to think of it, a line  mentioned earlier—“Now is not the time / to take the picture”—does feel like something that would be said more by a person-looking-back than by one in-the-moment. Maybe that temporal remove accounts for a sense of loss I feel even as I smile at that last line. In any event, “Life Line” ends in a powerful place, funny and poignant at the same time.

What makes the ending so effective is that it does what my teacher Heather McHugh once told me all good poem endings should do: feels like the inevitable result and culmination of what came before at the same time it opens into something larger and new. In the first part of that proposition, a successful ending creates a feeling of closure, or of the potential for closure, but not of being hermetically sealed. Yeats is known for saying that a good poem closes with the click of a well-made box. But I prefer to think of poem endings as portals—liminal thresholds that mark the end of something but also the beginning of something else. In this case, the last line completes the poem’s dramatic arc but leaves us pondering the idea of life lines, real and metaphoric, and what they mean in our own lives. “Life Line” sets up subtle resonances, like harmonics in music, that reverberate and stay with us after we have turned the page. In these divided times I am grateful for poems like this to remind us of good things we may have taken for granted before—like just “getting” to sit in an uncomfortable folding chair in a school auditorium—and of the experiences many of us have in common.

 

 

 

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