Poetry Sunday: “Are You in the Room with Me Now?” by Maw Shein Win

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This 28-line poem is organized into five 3-line stanzas (tercets) followed by two 5-line stanzas (cinquains) followed by one more tercet. Is it a coincidence that the number of tercets (5) is the same as the number of lines in the two stanzas that deviate from the tercet pattern? Maybe, but I doubt it. In fact, as we will see below, this poem that appears so casual and unbound on the page was made by a series of artful decisions that bind it into a form, albeit one invented by the poet, also called a nonce form. It takes art to pull off apparent artlessness, at least to pull it off well.

A striking example of this and a distinguishing feature of the poem is its concentration of sound. The most commonly repeated sound, a long “i,” occurs no fewer than 33 times in the poem, 8 of those instances in just the first stanza. Sometimes the rhymes are full, as in “why,” “I,” “cry,” and “sty,” and sometimes they rise only to the level of assonance, as in “eyes,” “try,” and “child.” A new series of echoes are set up by the slant rhyme of “street” and “coat” in stanza 1, a series picked up in stanza 2’s “taut and tight,” “thought,” and culminating in the very last line’s “night” and “sight.” That full rhyme returns to the long “i” sounds of stanza 1 and so brings a kind of sonic closure to the poem. Many other internal rhymes and slant rhymes knit the poem; in fact, you will find them in every stanza except the fifth.

Consonance also enriches the sound mix: “small sty” in stanza 1, “taut and tight” in stanza 3, “pink paper” and “danced” and “drank” in stanza 7, and “sweat silver” and “pink paper” again in stanza 8. The poem’s last stanza uses another kind of sonic repetition (anaphora) in repeating the same word (“You”) at the beginning of each of its three lines and in the parallel sentence construction of those three lines. In general, the poem is resonant with internal rhyme, half rhyme, and assonance, but because none of it is patterned end rhyme, we still call it free verse.

Paying such close attention to the sounds in this poem enabled me to discover something interesting: In this rich sonic soup, one stanza stands out for not having any rhyme, near rhyme, or consonance. That is stanza 5, also the first point the poem deviates from its tercet pattern. Deviations in form like this can often signal corollary changes in content, so let’s investigate that. In the first five stanzas, we are inside the speaker’s head as she ponders the therapist’s question about why she, the patient, never cries. In stanza 5, where stanza form switches from tercets to quatrains and sound repetitions are rare, we are somewhere else: in an office listening to words spoken by a therapist. As we’d expect, these lines are prosier than others in the poem. They yank the reader (and us) out of her reverie, and not just by what they say but by the prosaic, flat way they are said. The therapist’s last question—“Are you in the room with me now?” —recalls the title of the poem and so is a kind of repetition. Recognizing the question, we are cued that it is important.

It’s important because the speaker is NOT in the room for most of the poem. Before stanza 5, we return with her to her childhood and visit a visionary “shimmering lake.” That lake may be what inspires where the speaker goes after the therapist’s questions, “Rio,” a place with “pink paper shacks” and a “majestic cross on a cliff.” This poem may literally be taking place in a therapy session, but what stands out are those gorgeous images of lake, cliff, and town. When the speaker says of Rio, “I thought I might die there,” I take it to mean something positive, as in she was so happy she thought she might spend her whole life there, or might die of its paradoxical beauty, captured with such elegance and brevity in those “pink paper shacks.” I am tutored in this response by the remarkable beauty and clarity of those images.

In summary, the therapist’s first question—why don’t you ever cry—triggers a memory about childhood we are privy to, and then we, along with the speaker, are pulled back out of it and into the reality of the therapy session. The therapist’s questions, especially “where are you now,” serve as another springboard into somewhere else, Rio, where the poem ends. But it ends with an interesting twist. The first seven stanzas are all told from the first-person point of view, using the pronoun “I.” In the last stanza, the point of view switches to “you.”

There are at least two possibilities for how to read that “you.” It could be referring to a third person, perhaps even to us, the readers. Having been drawn fully into the speaker’s memory of Rio, we do all the things she did there and does again in her recollection, things like “sweat silver tears” and “see through pink paper walls.” Or, it could be what is called a “first-person ‘you,’” the speaker referring to herself as “you.” We all do this from time to time, especially when we are lecturing ourselves or explaining to others how to do something. If that’s the case, though, why would the speaker refer to herself as “I” in one part of the poem and as “you” in another? Any poetry workshop would flag that inconsistency, right?

Wrong, in this case: a good example of the rule that poems don’t always have to be consistent. One reason people go into therapy is to figure out who they are and to mend broken internal connections. Referring to herself as “you” could be a sign of the speaker’s internal division or alienation, or perhaps is a deliberate distancing device and the only way she is able to release emotion. I suspect the latter, because the speaker takes such pains to distance herself from agency for the crying. It is not the “I” who weeps but a more distanced “you,” and not even actually that “you” but her “body” that is doing the crying. In a final distancing tour de force, the body is not crying for certain, but only “might” be. We readers understand that the speaker is in fact weeping at the end of the poem, but we also understand that something powerful is holding her back from acknowledging or owning her tears.

I like poems that take me places, both emotional and real, and ones that do it without affectation. The delicacy and intimacy of this poem seem uncontrived, but that quality is the result of many decisions made along the author’s way in writing and revising it. Sometimes these decisions are not even conscious, but they still get made, and this poem shows what can result: a lyric or brief moment of captured, authentic, and moving experience.

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