Poetry Sunday: “End of the Line,” by Kate Peper

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

My May 14 Poetry Sunday column concluded with the idea that mothering is not a verb constrained by biology, and that just as we all are daughters and sons, we can also all be mothers to someone in our lives. I did not plan to feature “The Nurse Tree” and “End of the Line” in the same month; it just worked out that way, and only now as I sit down to write the columns do I notice the wonderful synergy made by these poems. I first heard Kate Peper read “End of the Line” a year or two ago in a poetry group we both attend here in Marin County. I’ve thought of the poem many times since and was happy to hear it would be included in Peper’s new book. The line that concludes stanza 1, “Five gold stars on the jamb,” especially fascinates me, and I recall I and others in our group spending time dissecting and trying (unsuccessfully!) to imitate it. To me, it’s a happy melding of sight, sound, and sense. The image is vivid and almost archetypal: one star placed on the door for each son killed in the war. We can actually see those stars, and we know exactly what they mean. One source of the line’s strength may be its adjectives; “five” and “gold” that in other contexts function as nouns and so are stronger and more concrete than most adjectives. But to my mind, the key to this line’s power is its sound. It scans as trimeter (Five gold stars on the jamb), a scansion that reveals another source of sonic strength: The line enacts a chiasmus, a kind of symmetry that (like a palindrome) sounds and feels the same forward as it does backward, in this inflection pattern: stress/unstress/stress/unstress/stress.

The poem opens in drama and mystery, telling us the speaker has a great uncle who “lost all,” a line break that evokes cataclysm and disaster even before we learn the specific circumstances of the loss. The “telegrams” and the “five gold stars” show us more forcefully than could any telling that the uncle lost five sons (and the speaker five cousins) to the war. “German” is interesting, because it counters the expected narrative of an “American” family decimated in the war against Hitler. We don’t know if the doorjamb was in Minnesota or Hamburg, but it doesn’t matter; the family’s nationality is eclipsed by the scale of its loss.

In an associative leap, the speaker’s memory of the uncle triggers the memory of an aunt who “had no children” but nevertheless did have descendants to whom she carefully bequeathed her worldly possessions. In well-written poems like this one, we can assume every word to be essential, and so I paid attention to the items chosen to represent the Aunt’s beloved possessions: a “lamp,” a “porcelain bird,” and a “bookend.” In one sense these are trivial items, mere bric-a-brac, and we smile at the idea of their obvious importance to the aunt. In another sense, though, the lamp has through the ages been a symbol of wisdom and knowledge and birds of hope. Bookends have obvious significance as framing devices, something marking beginnings and ends. The aunt is leaving all she has and is to her descendants, and these things mean everything to her.

I want to have a closer look at the phrase “survived two husbands”—why is it there? To me it creates at least two more complications to the idea of not having children. On first reading, I wondered if perhaps the aunt chose not to have children, but still had a “spirit” sufficient to see that all of us, even those without children, nevertheless have descendants. On later readings (and especially after reading the Author’s Note), I wondered if the speaker’s condition was hereditary and also affected her aunt. In that context you could, I suppose, read her gesture in labeling every tchotchke as sad, but I choose to read it as a heroic laying-claim to the younger generation in her family line and I found “My spirit to Heaven, everything / else is labeled” both funny and brave. Reading this triggered a memory of my mother, before her death, pleading with me to make sure that every piece of her prized Wedgewood collection—mere trinkets, collected one at a time over a lifetime—would find a home. Her heart was somewhere in every small blue-gray vessel, and it lives on now on the shelves of not just her children and grandchildren but also others, like the young man who used to deliver pizzas to her door.

The words of the title and the first two stanzas seed the idea that the poem has to do with offspring or progeny, preparing the ground for stanza 3’s revelation, “At eighteen, I learned / I couldn’t have children,” and the more startling revelation of how and why the speaker learned this was true. Imagine, for a moment, how it would have been to begin the poem with the scene in the doctor’s office. I think it would have created a very different tone, one that the author would have had to work hard to keep from devolving into sensationalism, complaint, or resentment. Stated another way, the information provided by the first two stanzas prepares us for the revelation of the third, locating it within a larger personal and historical context. What the doctor does and says to tell that eighteen-year-old seems shockingly unfeeling, but the flat way in which the information is delivered, plus that context, are strategies that save the poem from melodrama. The speaker does not need to tell us what the doctor said and did was awful; we hear exactly what she heard and saw and experience for ourselves some degree of her bewilderment, shock, and dismay. There is pity (empathy) and terror again, Aristotle’s sine qua non for good poetry, not described to us, but actually evoked in our own bodies and minds as we read the poem.

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