Poetry Sunday: “Getting Close,” by Victoria Redel

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Victoria Redel in a poetry workshop I took with about a dozen others at the Provincetown Fine Arts Workshop in the summer of 2013 or 2014. That was one of those very special workshops where we—students and teacher—all clicked (to borrow a word from today’s poem) and found ourselves not just commenting on each other’s work but also inspired by it in a palpable, generative way. We wrote new poems responding to the ones shared in class, and a few of us kept up a correspondence for years after the workshop had concluded.

“Getting Close” is free verse—17 variable-length lines gathered into 13 stanzas ranging from one line to two-line couplets to a three-line stanza, the third from the last in the poem. The poem opens in medias reswith what seems to have inspired it, the overheard “click” of an old-fashioned purse snapping shut. The sound makes the speaker “come alive” with the memory of her mother, who “loved pocketbooks.” I identified with this tiny detail that evokes an era before modern technology gave us purses with magnetic snaps, no snaps, or snaps that close mutely. Those old clasps sometimes pinched nosy young fingers and were very effective for punctuating the end of a meeting or conversation, and I sometimes miss them. In any event, the sound brings the speaker to attention, triggering a memory, and the next line and stanza pushes the connection to her mother further, telling of her surprise (“unexpectedly”) when “a faux crocodile handle makes me weep.” It’s funny, isn’t it, how our emotions attach themselves to things like the possessions of our departed beloveds—and sometimes not the things we’d expect? The memory of my father’s worn slippers, or even just seeing others like them, never fails to recall him to me. My mother comes back, alive, every time I see a stylishly tailored winter coat or taste a ripe tomato, warm from the vine.

For the speaker, just the sight or even sound of a purse of a certain era has this effect, conjuring her mother so vividly that she can almost, well, not see her but hear what she calls “sound tattoos”—her mother clearing her throat in her unique “breathy” way, the rat-tat-tat of her heels on the pavement, and in the poem’s stunning ending, even her voice. The sense of touch is also triggered in “a smooth arm.” These sensory memories seem to set up in the speaker a craving to experience her mother in a physical way beyond memory, and so she visits a thrift store “to feel for bobby pins caught in the pocket seam / of a camel hair coat.” Besides showing us how much the speaker misses her mother, that activity also fills in the outline of her mother as a character in the poem: she was fashionable (favored camel hair coats and faux crocodile purses), and she wore her hair long.

The speaker’s exploration of memory using the senses, especially of touch, continues in the next stanza when, still in the store, she hangs a satin bag on her arm for its “hinge” feel in the crease of her inner arm and then buys a change purse, items that resonate with similar things in the speaker’s memory: “My mother bought this for me. This was my mother’s.” Repeating “buy” twice in a single line draws our attention to the word, especially when it is repeated several times again in the next line: “I buy and then I buy and then, another day, I buy something else.” What is the significance of all this buying? It is, I think, one way the speaker can access more than noncorporeal memories of her mother; the physicality of these things is a touchstone comfort.

In stanza 8 we learn other salient facts about the speaker’s mother: She used to live in Paris, where she had a small dog named “Bijou,” left behind when she and someone else had to flee Paris in 1942. That was two years after the Nazi occupation of the city, and by this line the speaker informs us that her mother’s family was part of some victimized demographic that put them at risk under Hitler’s regime.

Forty-one years later, in 1983, the speaker’s mother died, and because the same word (“left”) is used, it makes us think again of the mother unwillingly leaving her dog behind in Nazi-occupied France; in both cases, creatures she loved had to be abandoned due to factors beyond her desire or control.

Stanza 10 brings the poem foursquare to the present, or at least the present in which the poem was written, thirty years after the speaker’s mother’s death. In the poem it is 2013, and the speaker is “exactly her [mother’s] age” when her mother died, something we learn when the speaker, in line 14, half-jokes with her husband that does not expect to survive the day. Those of us who live as long or longer than our parents often wonder, when we reach their ages, if our own time is up, or will be soon. By means of a bit of a cheat (Wikipedia) I determined that Redel, born in 1959, would have been 54 years old in 2013, and from this we may be able to infer that her mother was 54—relatively young by today’s standards—when she died in 1983. Reverse engineering this number with information from the poem, we learn that the speaker’s mother was just 12 years old when her life was completely uprooted in 1942. Even if you don’t take time to do the research and math, reading between the lines allows readers to understand that the mother was just a child when she fled Paris and that leaving that little dog behind was a real loss, deepening the poignance of her—and the speaker’s—story.

I say “may” be able to infer because doing so violates a general proscription in poetry against ascribing the motives, characteristics, or situations of a poem’s speaker to the writer of the poem. The idea is that poems are not intended to be autobiographical, or strictly autobiographical, and often mix fictional with factual elements. A poem is less like journalistic reporting and more like what Picasso said about art—it sometimes must lie in order to tell the truth (or a larger truth). In most workshops, participants are asked notto assume that the speaker in a poem, even when that speaker is referred to as an “I,” is telling an autobiographical story.

The idea of preserving the separation between speaker and author is related to what New Criticism called “intentional fallacy” in the early twentieth century. Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and others held that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. In their essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue that authorial intention should and cannot be used to judge the success of a work of literary art and, more pertinently for today’s discussion, that the author cannot be reconstructed from her writing. Details about the work’s composition or the author’s intended meaning found in other documents, such as journals or letters, are “not a part of the work as a linguistic fact” and are thus secondary to the reader’s engagement with the text itself. [Source here] When reading poems in the first person, though, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to equate an author with her characters.

The last three stanzas of “Getting Closer,” still set in the poem’s present, use a few deft gestures to flesh out the characters. We learn that the speaker is now in what seems to be a happy marriage; her husband’s teasing about only buying enough fish for one person is tender, funny, and intimate. That strategy—using action and dialogue (instead of description) to build character is a classic storytelling technique and it—along with the way this poem’s components virtually beg to be sequenced into a story—reminds me that this writer is a master of prose fiction as well as of poetry. Ditto for her use of flashback to give us the mother’s backstory, and her technique of opening the poem in medias res.

“Getting Closer” is a hybrid: part lyric, capturing a moment of emotion in time, part elegy, communicating the speaker’s sense of loss, and part narrative, telling a tale. In the end, we are left not just with a sense of the speaker’s relationship with her mother, both before and after her death, but also with a sense of the history that made her mother the person she was. I love the way plainspoken poems recounting a personal experience can, like this one, sometimes attain a kind of universality and so seem to speak to me and other readers directly. My mother also loved purses that clicked shut and well-made coats and treasures found in thrift stores, and I enjoyed having her back with me for the duration of reading and thinking about this wonderful poem.

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