Poetry Sunday: “Little Epiphanies,” by Allison Joseph

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Who doesn’t love a poem that trashes housekeeping in favor of epiphanies? This week’s poem, organized into 15 short-line couplets, with regular punctuation defining its four long sentences, is a list poem cataloguing items the speaker wants and doesn’t want or likes and dislikes. The method of reasoning is deductive: From a group of things, the speaker is trying to figure out the rule, or what binds things in one category to each other and distinguishes them from things in the other category. This kind of thinking involves search, or rather, research, a compiling of data from which to extract a larger truth, and it strikes me that it’s related to how epiphanies work. From the Greek word for “appearance,” an “epiphany” is the apparition or manifestation of a deity, and the meaning has expanded to include a sudden intuition or perception of truth, usually by means of some homely or commonplace thing. Here, the things inducing epiphanies are quite everyday, including activities like sketching, stretching, writing (and collecting the “ink,” “pens,” and “reams” of paper one needs for that), knitting, and the like.

The poem opens immediately with a question that preoccupies the speaker: What, in general, is the difference between what is “required” and what is “desired?” Those two words meaning nearly opposite things are near-rhymes, and having them paired in this way is a source of delight for readers and especially for those who hear the poem read aloud. To answer the question, the speaker gives us a list of examples of things that are “required” versus things that are “desired.” Required is not, as you might expect, an entirely pejorative term. Yes, it means the things that are absolutely necessary, in the sense that we “have” to do them, but it functions also in the sine-qua-non sense. Thus, into the “required” column fall things like “chocolate” when one is making cake and the “car” in order to have a new car experience. Later, “required” does designate things the speaker must (“should”) do—like “sweep and scrub, strip and sterilize”—as opposed to the things she “want[s]” to do, like “stir, sketch and stretch.”

The poem proceeds down the page by listing and contrasting the things that the speaker likes and dislikes, what she wants to do as opposed to what she must do, and Joseph employs a number of devices to keep the listing lively and interesting. One is the use of short lines with well-chosen line breaks. As mentioned previously in this column, short lines give the appearance of speed but in fact slow down the reading of a poem; this is because the reader (and the eye) must pause at the end of each line in order to find the beginning of the next. Even where, as here, the author elects not to reinforce line breaks with punctuation, the pause is there. If you time yourself reading the first three couplets as Joseph wrote them and then again as I re-lineate them below, you’ll see that it literally takes longer to read them in the short-line format:

The difference between what’s required and what’s desired is the difference
between the chocolate and the cake, the car and the new car smell,
the nightie and the night. There’s so much I want to twist around my fingers,

Short lines work well in list poems and make us pay attention to the things being named. Another thing keeping the list lively is the poet’s choice of interesting and strong end words. A teacher once taught me to isolate end words, making me see how in strong work they often can stand alone as their own poem, or at least stand as a good synopsis of the poem’s intent. Trying that here, we have: “required,” “difference,” “cake,” “nightie,” “want,” “stroke,” “much,” “strip,” “dirt,” “instead,” “study,” “kneel,” “shadows,” “kitchen,” and so on, and you can see how these words telegraph the poem’s concerns. Note how they tend to be vivid, one-syllable words (often nouns) that receive a stress when they are read aloud.

Speaking of stress, let’s talk briefly about meter. Because the poem does not rhyme and its tone is casual and conversational, you might be tempted to call it free verse. However, free verse is unmetered and this poem in fact scans as iambic trimeter. By way of example, the first three couplets read as follows (with bolded syllables and words showing where the stresses land):

The difference between what’s required
and what’s desired is the difference

between the chocolate and the cake,
the car and the new car smell, the nightie

and the night. There’s so much I want
to twist round my fingers, to stroke

Trimeter means three beats, here called “iambic” because the pattern is of stressed following unstressed syllables, or a rising meter. If we assume that ~ designates an unstressed and / a stressed syllable, the first line scans like this:

~        /   ~   ~    ~    /        ~         ~  /
The difference between what’s required

Strong, regular meter propels this poem forward and is another technique that distinguishes it from a mere list. Another enlivening device is diction, with Joseph using vivid and sometimes even risqué language to grab and keep our attention. Who doesn’t perk up at the mention of “low-rent henna / / for the lazy and uninhibited,” “nudity,” and (my favorite) “gaudy bras”? Wordplay adds interest and humor, as in that oxymoronic rhyme pairing of “desired” with “required” as well as in the arch phrase that does exactly what it says it ought not to do: “I should keep unmentionables / unmentioned.” That line gives the tone an edge of sass, another thing that keeps us riveted. What a fun poem this is to read aloud! Strong verbs predominate: “twist,” “stroke,” “stir,” “sketch,” “stretch,” “sweep,” “scrub,” “strip,” “wring,” “scurry,” “study,” “kneel,” “banish,” “sprung,” and so on. If you read those words out loud you’ll notice yet another device knitting and adding sonic texture: internal rhyme (e.g., “sketch” and “stretch”).

The poem seems to ramp up as it goes on, with the speaker having more and more fun with words at the same time she grows more passionate about her subject:

The difference between what’s whole

and what’s held, what’s withheld
or revealed, what’s real and what’s

revelation—that’s what I seek, [lines 24-27]

In the end, we understand there is no real answer to the question posed at the poem’s beginning. The difference between what’s required and what’s desired is not something that can be boiled down to a tidy definition but is best illustrated by giving examples from which readers are free, if they like, to deduce a rule. But the real point is not the “answer” but the search itself, exactly what this poem does. That’s where joy and meaning lie, and if we are open, we too may experience in our everyday lives what the author seeks here with such passion and humor: “little epiphanies, tiny sparks surging / out of the brain during the clumsiest speech.”  I’ll take that over housework any day of the week!

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  • Jan Hersh May 1, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    on my day off
    sleep in
    savor a fried duck egg with toast
    load and run the clothes washer
    think about emptying the dishwasher
    return to bed
    catch up on email
    read your provocative poem
    smile and sigh just to know
    I am not alone