Poetry Sunday: 'Clean,' by Jayne Benjulian

To summarize, the poem is rich with sound repetitions, but except for in the first four lines, they are not organized into a pattern or rhyme scheme. Other traditional sonnet criteria eschewed by “Clean” are meter, traditional stanzas, and the 14-line rule. What is the author saying here, in beginning with but then abandoning traditional Shakespearian sonnet form? Perhaps it’s a feminist gesture, rejecting the patriarchy of dead white guys who for so long forged the rules of western literature, perhaps not. What I like is that readers who need to are free to read the poem this way.
A few of the traditional sonnet criteria are in fact met in “Clean.” So many contemporary sonnets substitute assonance and internal rhyme for end-rhyme that this variation has all but been subsumed into the form. There are turns exactly where we expect to see them, in line 8 when the speaker turns the knob of the door to the forbidden room and in line 13 when she turns from talking to falling silent. Also, Shakespearean sonnets delight in paradoxes like the one we see in line 9’s description of the attic: “it was cold, it was hot.” Finally, like many sonnets, this one is working out a mental problem. It’s an activity for which the Shakespearian sonnet is uniquely suited, posing the problem in the first quatrain (thesis), refining or examining it from another angle in the second (antithesis), offering another antithesis (rejoinder) in the third, and setting up a turn to allow resolution of the problem in the closing couplet.
Here, the first four lines recover a memory of a punishment the speaker endured for uttering a forbidden word.  The second four work out details of the room where the punishment happened, then consider (as Gaston Bachelard might) other rooms in the house, bringing us to the threshold of the attic. In the 8th line’s thematic pivot point, the speaker is poised to go from one room (bedroom) and state of mind (innocence) to another (attic and sin). How wonderful that at the moment where Petrarchan sonnet form prescribes a turn, we actually see the speaker enacting one by “turn[ing] the knob to the attic”!
What would be the third stanza in a Shakespearean sonnet (lines 9-12) is spent in the attic, recalling the time the speaker committed another transgression, snooping through her aunt’s (or mother’s) clothes, and trying on an inflatable bra. In the last line (what would have been the penultimate line of the closing couplet), the speaker circles back to where the poem began in the memory of her aunt punishing her for saying some forbidden “word.”
The poem’s last line has been cut off, and I noted above that one interpretation is that the punishing Aunt has succeeded in silencing this speaker. But I prefer an alternate interpretation, one arguing that the cut actually empowers the speaker and serves the purpose of the poem. As the author points out in her notes, we are meant to feel the way the child felt: thwarted, cut off, frustrated, and altogether squelched. Cutting off that last line increases the poem’s drama and impact.
What about the title? Does the speaker feel “clean” after she is punished? I highly doubt it; punishment for “sins” of this nature generally has the opposite effect. I am guessing that the title means to convey an irony that undergirds this poem: the more one’s mouth is washed out with soap, the dirtier one feels. But as I type this, an even deeper irony occurs to me, because it is precisely by not speaking (striking the last line) that the speaker is able to remove the gag imposed by a centuries-long tradition that strictly imposes 14 lines on the sonnet form.
For sure, I’ll be adding “Clean” to my Sonnet Class handout. I love that a woman poet has taken a form invented by men and made it her own, bending the rules to suit her aesthetic purpose and writing about an experience so many women have had. Who among us has not surreptitiously tried on our mother’s, sister’s, or aunt’s bra? And has not experienced that terrible moment of being silenced, sometimes just for repeating a word whose meaning we did not even know? And I love the author’s brave, last transgressive act that finds voice in the decision to defy tradition and jettison that last line.

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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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