Poetry Sunday: “Here, Too,” by Jennifer Nelson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I love repeating forms, and the one featured in this week’s column, the villanelle, is one of my favorites. Here’s how it works. Nineteen lines are divided into five three-line stanzas (tercets) followed by a four-line stanza (quatrain). There are two refrains (called “repetends”), the first and third line of stanza 1 alternating as the last line in seceding stanzas until the final stanza, which concludes with both repeated lines. Stated another way, the first line of stanza 1 comes back as the last line of  the second and fourth stanzas, the third line of stanza 1 comes back as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and then both lines return as the last two lines of the poem. Typically, these repeating lines rhyme with each other and also with the first lines of succeeding stanzas. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form can be diagrammed as shown below with respect to today’s poem:



You’ll notice that even though there are 19 lines and each has a rhyming partner, there are actually only two different rhymes—a and b—in the poem as a whole. This supersaturates sound and creates an echo chamber effect, one source of the villanelle’s haunting, obsessive quality. Another source is the repetition of entire words and phrases in the repetends. In today’s poem,the rhymes are all whole, and sometimes polysyllabic. In the first (a) rhyme scheme, “relation” is rhymed with “preservation,” “invitation,” “predation,” “obliteration,” and “salvation. In the second (b) rhyme scheme, “retreats” rhymes with “beats,” “eats,” “elites,” “cheats,” and “repeats.

You can see that one key to the successful villanelle is coming up with a strong pair of repetends—do that, and half your poem is already written. A pitfall of the form is sounding wooden  or redundant, and the generally accepted antidote for this is to vary the repetends. Words that first appear as nouns can appear in subsequent iterations as verbs or other parts of speech, punctuation can be varied to shift meaning, and so on. That is true, but be aware that there are examples of highly successful villanelles—“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas is one—that repeat the lines without any variation. A less obvious way to breathe life into this fixed form is to create context that, even when the repetends are repeated verbatim each time, changes the meanings of those lines. This is where “Here, Too” excels.

The repetends are introduced in stanza 1: “Here too many things stand in relation” and “Empire is the only form of preservation.” At this point the ideas are abstract and can be taken at face value. Readers may think about the pitfalls (“too many”) of cultural relativism, for example, and the way empire consolidates and erases individual differences. Here, and for the rest of the poem, the speaker is an omniscient third person making pronouncements that feel universal, and we cannot tell yet how she feels about what is stated as fact: cultural diversity can be too much of a good thing leading to oblivion (“every human thing retreats”) and the only protection against that is “empire.” This sentiment seems to continue in stanza 2 when it pokes gentle fun at liberals, with their “letterpress” invitations  to “dance to other people’s beats,” and stanza 3’s apparent allusion to the vigilance occasioned by political correctness: “too many things stand in relation // to allow for any real vacation.” The next line states a Hobbesian view of the world “Everyone murders so everyone eats”perhaps as a way of explaining why the authoritarianism of empire is defensible: It is a dog-eat-dog world out there and civilization is a necessary bulwark against chaos. The next lines continue to develop this concept, acknowledging that Empire is rapacious but at least “polices its ritual predation” and is itself subject to predation (its “own obliteration”). Notice how that line break in line 13 allows “obliteration” to be read first as a noun and then as an adjective modifying the noun “fantasy” in line 14. What stanza 5 seems to express as a whole is that empire has an “obliteration fantasy” (genocide, perhaps) that plays the predation game but—hold on a minute—“cheats” at it. This is perhaps the first overt clue that the poem is not going to come down on the side of Empire.

Following the depiction of Empire is a predator that fantasizes about cultural obliteration and cheats (with its vastly greater resources) at the “game” of predation, “Empire is the only form of preservation” takes on ominous overtones, and we start to wonder if “preservation” is always such a good thing. The doubt is underscored in “Imagine history without salvation.” I take this as an injunction to imagine history that is frozen (preserved) and does not accommodate change or diversity. A civilization in this state is lost, and “without salvation.” My favorite line comes next: “A form obsessed with loss repeats.” The form referred to here is, of course, the villanelle, often called an “obsessive form,” and the line is slyly self-referential. The last two lines are a tour de force, even though, except for the insertion of a comma after “Here,” they repeat verbatim the repetends from lines before. In “Here, too, many things stand in relation,” that comma changes everything. Instead of being an adverb intensifying the adjective “many,” the word “too” morphs into an adverb meaning “also.” The locus of thought is shifted from broad abstract generalizations to the here and now, and we are asked in this moment to view our own civilization as an “Empire.” More than that, we are asked to view that empire as one of those things that “stand in relation.” Yes, empire can preserve culture—think of France’s efforts to preserve its language by refusing to include new words in its dictionaries or its cuisine by barring McDonalds. But if the poem does not outright make us question the value of preservation, it at least asks us to consider the costs.

“Empire” is such a loaded word today that it is hard not to read it with suspicion and irony in any context, but it strikes me that isolationists and fans of strong government could read “Here, Too”as an anthem to empire and its ability to bulwark against disintegrating change. My own reading is, of course, formulated in the beaker of my own liberal politics. To me it is a strength of the poem that it can be read differently by different readers, though naturally,  I believe my interpretation is the one that’s correct! In any event, “Here, Too” is a remarkable poem. In the words of the judge who chose Nelson’s book for the 2016 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, Anne Boyer, “Who knew that poetry could frack the totality?” Excuse me now, please, while I log off to go order Nelson’s new book.



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  • Meredith Bergmann July 16, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    “Imagine history without salvation.” Wonderful line, very effective poem- thank you!

  • Cara July 15, 2018 at 7:43 am

    I often contemplate putting my decades of writing into a book format, Kindle or other publishers have attached to me at this time. I am asking for opinions on publishing. Christian inspired? Women in caregiving positions? anyone who has recently published and had a “good” experience. Chapters are written, outline defined years ago. Title already picked by me. Lastly any ideas on ghostwriters as I might not see the truth in my story, as they shall see it. Thank you