Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Einstein’s Violin,’ and ‘Some Birth Day,’ by Sally Ashton

This week’s column features two prose poems by Sally Ashton, part of a manuscript called Behavior of Clocks, composed chiefly of prose shorts along with some more traditionally lineated poems. The title is from Einstein’s book written for laypersons called Relativity. Struck by “the seeming absurdity of clocks and trains in Einstein’s conceptualizations” and by moments in her life that “seem to coexist across time and place,” Ashton says she tries to recreate a similar simultaneity in the speaker’s experience in her poems.

Let’s talk briefly here about the prose poem, a form I resisted when I first encountered it. The term “prose poem” seems like an oxymoron: prose is one thing and poetry another, so how can there be a hybrid of the two? The Prose Poem is in fact a form of poetry, but one that borrows from and resembles prose in many respects. The most obvious of these is that the lines are not broken; they extend all the way to the right margin, making a blocky shape that appears at first glance to be a paragraph from an essay or story.

In his book Best Words Best Order, Stephen Dobyns explains a function of line breaks, and what happens when they are omitted:

The traditional metric poem contains two clear rhythms: the rhythm of the sentence and the rhythm of the line .   .   .    powerful effects of traditional verse are achieved by playing off the syntactical movement against the metrical movement. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2d ed. p. 108)

The tension between the rhythm of the sentence and the rhythm of the line is called “counterpoint,” a quality absent from prose poems since they employ only the rhythm of the sentence. Thus, prose poems must rely on means other than counterpoint to achieve tension. The venerable (if sometimes curmudgeonly) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics lists the “principal characteristics” of prose poems as “high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition; sustained intensity and compactness” (1993 ed., p. 977). To this list I might add heightened language and image and a quality of surprise sometimes provided by surrealism. A prose poem need not contain all of these elements, of course, but in the absence of rhythmic counterpoint, such a poem must rely more heavily on some of them to keep the writing from going slack.

In the first of Ashton’s prose shorts, “Einsten’s Violin,” we can see a few of these poetic devices at work. Parallel sentence structure (Einstein “tucks,” he “cocks,” he “scans” and he “sees”) forge a pattern reinforced by a pattern of sound repetitions. The sound patterns arise from rich internal rhyme (Eintsein’s/violin, tucks/cocks/cheek, string/running, finds/lines/scans) and assonance (tucks/cupped, chin/fingerboard, bow/so).

Ashton achieves simultaneity of action, place, and time by articulating each of the violinist’s movements in a context that includes concepts of place (e.g. “distance”), all accompanied by Einstein’s tapping foot. The effect is heightened by the synesthesia that merges two senses when Einstein hears music “the way he sees the nature of energy, vibrating.” Tension is achieved by compression and also by the way the poet spring loads that dramatic moment at the beginning where everything and everyone is poised, waiting for the music to begin.

How does the second poem, “Some Birth Day,” sustain poetic tension? Like “Einstein’s Violin,” it is highly compressed and in that small space develops a rich concentration of repeated words and sounds. The word “can” appears eight times and others—“empty,” “open,” “tin,” to name a few—are likewise repeated. Sound repetitions like the rhyme of “can” and “planet” or the slant rhymes of “can” and “tin” create momentum, especially when they occur closer and closer together as the poem unfolds. Note also the word play and punning, with “dark matter” morphing into “matter of fact” and the word “can” used sometimes as a noun and sometimes as an auxiliary verb. Another technique that drives this poem forward is the evolution in diction from scientific at the beginning to the intensely lyrical “a comet’s glance, the knife blade moon slicing, sliding, o moon.”

It took me awhile to get used to the idea of prose poetry—I love rhyme and meter and at first could not imagine poetry without these musical qualities. But reading the prose poems of contemporary poets like Russell Edson, Stephen Dunn, Stuart Dybeck and others has opened my ideas to the imaginative possibilities of this form, and I hope that these poems by Sally Ashton will do the same for you.

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Einstein’s Violin


He tucks it under his chin, raises bow to string, the fingerboard
running straight from cheek into the palm of his cupped left hand.
Cochlea, clavicle, each fingertip curved, some for the balance of
the bow, others poised on the strings. So much curled into the
minute before music begins. He cocks an eyebrow toward the
music stand, finds his place in the lines and spaces. The intervals
of sound, like distance and time, paused. He scans the pattern of
notes, the signature, the notation. A specific gravity. Downbow,
and the universe moving in one direction feels the pull in another.
Sound expands, reverberates, notes improvising some rhapsody,
harmonies he hears the way he sees the nature of energy, vibrating.
He taps his foot, keeping time.


Some Birth Day


Because my soul, open like a tin can under heaven, caught lost
light refracted from a planet or star I never saw but felt illuminate     
my empty core, the dark matter of fact, and like a can once opened
can never be resealed, this became the because of my tin can life,
the thin curved metal of my remaining days, the lid-off-mouth-
open-catch-all-that-can-be mystery of moment rolled under
aluminum stars, a comet’s glance, the knife blade moon slicing,
sliding, o moon. And you sun, bleached memories of
wakefulnesses flickering empty as a can, complete as a can can be
opened, open empty under heaven, matter’s dark fact and the
seasons, turning.


These poems, from a manuscript titled Behavior of Clocks, first appeared in Sandhill Review and are published with permission of the poet.


Ashton_6-8-15Sally Ashton is the author of Some Odd Afternoon, Her Name Is Juanita, and These Metallic Days. She is Editor-in-Chief of DMQ Review, an online journal featuring poetry and art. She was awarded first prize in the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction contest, and recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Zyzzyva, and Poet Lore. She teaches at San José State University and various workshops including Disquiet: International Literary Program, Lisbon.

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