Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Clean,’ by Jayne Benjulian

 

Clean

What was the word I can’t remember,
what words did I know at nine?
Plenty with a father like mine. His sister
cornered me. Was it the stone
room, it had a porch door
a stranger could come in, was Mother
alive I can’t remember who slept
upstairs, I turned the knob to the attic
door, it was cold, it was hot, I looked
through the box, smelled her cashmere clothes,
bra with a plastic straw attached,
blew air in the cup, slipped into the straps—
was it a curse word or a bad thought? Don’t say.

 

Jayne B book cover_Five Sextillion Atoms_4-24-16

First published in Cider Press Review, Vol. 18.2. From Five Sextillion Atoms (Saddle Road Press 2016), reprinted with permission of the press. Order at www.jaynebenjulian.com.

 

Jayne Benjullian author photo_4-24-16Jayne Benjulian grew up in suburban backyards near New York City and spent summers swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Drawn to coastlines, she has also lived on the West Coast—on an island, in a cabin in the hills, and in a house under the redwoods. She began writing as a young girl, leaving letters under the mattress to read years later to see who she had been. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Agni, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, Nimrod, the online performance journal HowlRound, Women’s Review of Books, and Poetry Daily. Jayne’s careers have been as varied and many as places she has lived: she served as chief speechwriter at Apple, investigator for the public defender in King County, Washington, and director of new play development at Magic Theatre. She was an Ossabaw Island Project Fellow, a teaching fellow at Emory University (where she earned an MA), a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Theatre Arts at San Francisco State University, and a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Lyon, France. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. She lives in Massachusetts and hikes the Berkshire Hills with her long-haired German shepherd, Ophelia, but she misses the big, brash Pacific Ocean. Five Sextillion Atoms is her first collection. Find out more about Jayne and her work at www.jaynebenjulian.com.

 

Poet’s Note

“Clean,” although derived from an early memory, was written late in the book’s composition. When I revise, I pay close attention to beginnings and endings—where is a beginning just a warm-up? Where does the close summarize or zip up the meaning? “Clean” is a poem from which I cut the last line, giving it an abrupt end that suggests, but does not state, the real-life ending.

The original closing line described the punishment for pronouncing the “word:” my aunt washed out my mouth with Ivory soap. At first, I thought it was fascinating to close this poem with a specific gesture that circles back to the opening line and solves the literal mystery of the plot. You can imagine my interior dialogue while the revision was percolating: no, if I cut the line, it won’t be a sonnet anymore! And then, I saw that chopping off the sonnet’s final line underscored the abrupt and unpleasant surprise the child felt. The revised close leaves the speaker feeling the after-shock of the child’s experience. It becomes a poem of dual perspective, not so much about the child but about the adult who filters the child’s experience. I admire poems that suggest the speaker has dual or multiple perspectives—the speaker who sees things from different points in her life. Larry Levis wrote that way, certainly, in The Widening Spell of Leaves. See ESSAYS that addresses the path to Five Sextillion Atoms at www.jaynebenjulian.com/essays.

 

Notes on “Clean”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I found this poem in Benjulian’s Five Sextillion Atoms, a book that made me reflect on the difference between mystery and depth on the one hand and opacity and incoherence on the other in contemporary poetry. It also reminded me of a reason I love sonnets, the way the form requires poets to interrogate every word and cut any not absolutely essential to the poem. As Roethke said (after Shakespeare), you must “kill your darlings,” must not flinch from deleting words, lines and even stanzas you love. You must, that is, if you want to write like Benjulian in lines that are taut, spare, and fiercely compressed. I admire her poems, too, for their cinematic sense, complete with deftly-drawn characters, vivid scenes, and authentic dialogue, and for how they align family drama with the drama of the human condition. In one poem, a stepbrother who commits suicide is compared to “Snowden, exiled to a foreign country” (“Ode to Steven”); another tells Hamlet from a woman’s perspective (“Ophelia”). White space—what has been left out—is as important as and managed with the same discipline and dexterity as what appears on the page and as a consequence, the poems Benjulian’s scalpel leaves behind are wonderfully open, evocative, and supple enough to mean different things to different readers. To me, that is the very definition of the universality to which great poetry aspires.

As you will see, the qualities that recommend Five Sextillion Atoms are well represented in today’s poem. For me, the title was a clue that the speaker had gotten her mouth washed out with soap. It made me think immediately of another powerful poem triggered by a mouth-washing incident, Heather McHugh’s “I Knew I’d Sing,” from Hinge & Sign (you can read the poem at here), and I was not surprised to see McHugh mentioned among the teachers who had influenced Benjulian’s work. But I actually don’t think it matters whether readers “get” this specific contextual detail. What is clear and matters is that the speaker said a forbidden word and was punished for it, and the punishment on some level muted her. How many among us have had this experience? I suspect more than a few. One way of reading this poem is as proof that the people with the gags—the “Aunt”—won. We never learn the answer to the question she poses (“What was the word”?) because the speaker has suppressed its memory. In fact, the muting impacts the poem by cutting off its last line and making it feel unfinished. Purists might say it wrecks the poem, converting it from being a sonnet to being no form at all.

I’m not among them, and I think this is not only a sonnet but a very strong one. Reading it reminds me that the word poetry comes from the Greek word for “maker.” The decision to leave off the last line makes this poem, in both the Greek and the colloquial sense, by enacting what it is talking about: the silencing of a voice. In a class I teach on the sonnet, I argue that line count is less important to a poem’s characterization as a sonnet than the poem’s general shape and feeling, and I describe Annie Finch’s idea that if it fits in the palm of your hand, it’s a sonnet. Okay, I’d also add that it needs to have a turn (sometimes called a volta). When my recent book of sonnets went to the printer, I was surprised to learn that one poem had 15 lines and another had just 13. The 14-line versions I found in my notes were not as good, so I let the anomalies stand.

In my class, I begin by laying out the traditional sonnet criteria: 14 lines, a turn in the 8th line or final couplet (or both), and patterns of end-rhyme scheme, stanzas, and meter. I call this “building the sonnet” and use it to explore Shakespearian, Petrarchan, and other forms. But my favorite part of the class is when I deconstruct the form with myriad examples of successful sonnets that break some or all of the rules. Let’s try applying the traditional sonnet criteria to today’s poem. Does it have a rhyme scheme? Not really, though it starts out looking as if it might, rhyming aba’b’ (where the prime symbols designate slant rhyme).

Although it does not follow an end-rhyme scheme, there is quite a bit of sonic repetition in “Clean.” Several words appear more than one time: “remember” (lines 1 and 7), “door” (5 and 9), and “word” (opening and closing lines and in line 2). The poem is also rich with assonance: “attached” and “straps” in lines 11-12 and “porch door” in line 5 are just two examples. Internal rhyme, both full and slant, echo in this list drawn from lines 2-8 in the poem: mine / nine / cornered / stone / in / can’t / turned. We can also find alliteration: “What was the word” in line 1 and “slipped into the straps” in line 12.

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