Poetry Sunday: “Eve Recollecting the Garden,”
by Grace Bauer

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between poetry and prose, a subject of much contemporary debate, especially given the flourishing of new forms that seem to blur the lines. “Genre is a fiction,” my friend Jasmin Darznik likes to say, and her prose memoir The Good Daughter and forthcoming novel Song of a Captive Bird are written in language so rich and dense with image and sound that excerpts from them do sound like poetry. Prose poems appear regularly now in journals and magazines, along with flash fiction, micro-stories of fewer than 500 words, and sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart. Longer fiction and nonfiction pieces increasingly forgo traditional narrative arcs and rely on strategies we are used to seeing in poetry—like associative thinking, catalog format, and shifting points of view—to advance their action.

More and more I think the difference can be simply stated as this: prose pays more attention to what is said, and poetry pays more attention to how it is said. Poetry is concerned first and foremost with language, and an analogy can be drawn to the difference between painting obsessed with its subject and painting obsessed with its materials and the process of creation. Not all prose aspires to clarity of revelation and expression, but quite a bit of it does. Poetry, as Mathew Zapruder points out in his new book, revels in a strangeness—“its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative daydreaming movement—is not some deliberate obfuscation, or an obstacle to communication, but [is] essential to the very way poetry makes meaning.” [Why Poetry (HarperCollins 2017), p. xii.]

Preoccupation with language brings me to today’s poem, “Eve Recollecting the Garden,” by Grace Bauer. To be sure there is a story being told in the poem, and it is a compelling one—the timeless battle of the sexes, with a contemporary feminist taking a bead on traditional religious creation myths and assumptions about original sin. But, as we will see, it is the poem’s delight in and virtuoso use of words that really shine.

Let’s get the MFA flyover out of the way. The poem is in eleven couplets, closing with a single-line stanza. It’s distinguished by its narrow, columnar shape on the page, composed of very short lines with three stresses or beats per line. The meter is mostly rising—iambic trimeter, with first-foot inversions in lines 1, 7, and 16 opening with a trochee instead of an iamb: Was it; Bee, and; Dolphin. In previous columns, we’ve seen examples of poems that use sound repetitions ranging from assonance and consonance to near-, slant-, and full-rhyme, to outright repetition of words and refrains. But here is a poem whose musical quality derives mostly from something else: tightly controlled line lengths and meter. There are, to be sure, assonant and rhyme pairings like knack/had, black/satin, and bee/sweetness, as well as consonance in “naked” and “knack” and “syllables” and “stole,” but the poem mostly feels pared to its bones, with a wonderful sculptural quality. Its diction is plain, and part of this poem’s magic lies in the way it forces focus on everyday words, like that wonderful trochaic series of “Dolphin, Starling, Antelope,” so that we see and hear the words as if for the first time. The tone is intimate, conversational, and it fits the dramatic situation of Eve having a talk with Adam to set him and the record straight about how things really went down. It modulates from mildly irritated (“the ribs you claimed”) to annoyed (“syllables you stole”) to angry (“Admit it!”). Notice the lovely, powerful figurative language such as the metaphor in the way crows become “black satin,” a bee “sweetness” on the speaker’s tongue, a lion roaring inside her chest, and apples, “blood / / red globes.” The images are gorgeous and fierce. But the focus here is less on the things themselves than with the words used to name them.

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  • Kelly Cherry January 20, 2018 at 10:57 am