Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Blackbody curve,” by Samiya Bashir

Commentary by Contributing Editor Amanda Moore

Today’s poem takes its title, “Blackbody curve,” from thermodynamics, but before tackling the scientific elements, I am interested in exploring the form and language in this series of single, end-stopped lines, each acting as a complete stanza. The poem is structured around repetition: The final word of each line is repeated as the first word of each subsequent line. The literary device using this kind of repetition is called anadiplosis [Source here], and it is what structures a crown of sonnets in which the last line of a previous sonnet becomes the first line of the next. A phenomenal example is Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” previously featured in these columns here.

“Blackbody curve” opens with immediacy and movement. “Stairs: a flight down thirty-eight; French doors unlocked always” enacts a seemingly fluid, if rushed, entry. The repetition of “Always” at the beginning of the next line introduces a hindrance, a never-ending static state followed by “a lie, an argument,” two fraught concepts that feel in opposition to the flow and access captured in the opening images.

“Argument” carries the reader into another scene entirely where “two buck hunters circle a meadow’s edge.” The hunters evoke violence and predation, and “edge” hearkens back to the notion of a doorway but now with “one of us outside.” “Bleeding” might relate to the hunters and their one-sided argument with their prey, but it also speaks to the French doors, now described as “locked” and seen near “shards of glass” and a “carpet awash with blood.” In any event, the graphic violence in both the indoor and the outdoor images is extended in the tight, alliterative sequence of words—“blood,” “breeze,” “bone,” and “bone—that open lines 7-10.

Line 10 breaks the anadiplosis pattern by beginning not with “at” as the previous line would predict but again with the word “bone.” The result is “bone” heard three times in rapid succession, setting up a compressed sequence that builds the poem’s climax and, if we consider the title, the apex of a “curve.” Afterward, the poem begins to descend back down the curve toward its origin.

Anadiplosis resumes when line 11’s end word (“drips”) repeats at the start of the next line and so on through the end of the poem. Images also repeat as we revisit the fawn who “faces down each hunter, each gun.” Next, two short lines compress the repetitions to heighten the urgency of what sounds like a call for help: “Gun: again. / Again: somebody call someone.” (lines 13-14) The tension begins to resolve in the longer and more contemplative line, “Someone: almost always prefers forgetting.” The poem’s penultimate line echoes line 2, but instead of simply repeating “a lie; an argument,” inverts its terms into “an argument; a lie.” The change is significant, transforming the act of seeing a lie benignly as a difference of opinion into adjudging a difference of opinion a lie. As such, it calls into question the veracity of all we have thus far read and understood. “Stair,” of course, returns us to the first word of the poem, though the landscape is now completely changed.

The repetitive form used in “Blackbody curve” is based on anadiplosis but has no name, and Bashir further puts her imprint on it by, in each case, following the repeated word with a colon and an explicative word or phrase, as in “Gun: again” in line 13. Schemes of repetition are often the basis of established poetic forms, such as the villanelle, ghazal, pantoum, and sestina. In today’s poem, Bashir creates a “nonce form,” one invented by the poet and often used a single time or in a specific context. Nonce forms can be useful for highlighting language and resonating with a poem’s ideas and conceptual wrangling. They also allow readers to discover a poem’s pattern for themselves, free from the historical and literary connotations inherent in received forms. I look to Marianne Moore’s use of nonce forms, especially in her poem “The Fish,” to understand the power of creating a specific form for a singular subject or poem.

In Bashir’s form, repetition creates cohesion between the single-line stanzas, a natural curving back at the end of each line that charts the poem’s progress along an x-axis and y-axis, a form that can be graphed. Again, the title references a physics term, “blackbody,” defined as an “idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation” [source here], and it is arguable that the “blackbody curve” graphs the relationship between temperature (heat) and the emission of light (radiance) in Black bodies, just as the poem’s curve is a representation of the relationship between form and content.

 

[Source here]

The bell curve in the image above will look familiar to anyone who has learned—probably in middle school language arts—the five points of a narrative arc called Freytag’s Pyramid: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Although Bashir’s poem resists a single, clear narrative, her use of anadiplosis plots disparate elements—the meadow, the stair, the broken glass, the fawn—in relation to one another along a curvilinear form. As the poem moves from stair to meadow to bone, its action rises, climaxes, falls, and resolves, and at the end, “stair” returns us to its beginning, the y-axis on the graph.

In physics, a blackbody curve graphs heat and light occurring in a “blackbody,” defined as something that reflects no energy and is “a perfect absorber” [Source here]. A poetic parallel might be “perfect vehicle,” the image, object, character, or idea that bears symbolic weight in a simile or metaphor. A societal parallel might measure heat and light in human bodies, along with considering the elements—physical and abstract—our society requires Black bodies to absorb. Ideas are central to Bashir’s book Field Theories, where “Blackbody curve” is nestled between poems that explore “Notions of temperature,” “Consequences of the laws of thermodynamics,” and folk hero John Henry and his wife Polly Ann. The notion of a Black body and its relationship to light is also reflected in the collection’s cover, a stunning drawing by Toyin Ojih Odutola that renders Black skin through layers of colors to capture multidimensional texture and light.

Exploring the deep context of a literary work can sometimes deepen the experience of reading it but shouldn’t be necessary to reader engagement. As enriching as it is to consider “Blackbody curve” in terms of its scientific allusions or placement in Bashir’s collection, it’s important to note that the poem stands on its own as an enjoyable and rewarding literary experience. Although I haven’t heard Bashir read today’s poem, a highlight of my summer was hearing her read others from Field Theories at the outdoor amphitheater at Reed College. Bashir’s performance, itself a study in physics involving mastery of time and space, featured repeated lines (even whole poems!) with different emphases and pacing as well as maximum audience engagement through use of several microphones, sound effects, and props. It was so rollicking, immersive, and enjoyable that some people ran to the back to purchase her book mid-reading in order to better follow along. I waited until the end to snag my own copy, and I’m endlessly grateful to find each poem as rich on the page and in my own mouth as it was in her performance.

 

Amanda Moore, the author of this column, is a contributing editor to Poetry Sunday. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member. She lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: K.C. Ipjian.

 

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