Poetry Sunday: ‘Nursery Rhyme,’ by Meredith Bergmann

Another way this writer torques up the tension is in the poem’s sounds. As noted above, the rhyme scheme itself, being top-heavy and unstable, generates a pressure, and that is augmented by what I have called in other columns a “saturation of the rhyme pool.” Let’s look at that rhyme scheme again: ababcdcdefefgg. If you read the poem aloud, you’ll perhaps notice that the word “work” that ends line 7 slant-rhymes with the end words in lines 1 (“freak”) and 3 (“speak”). The same is true of the end words in lines 8, 9, and 11 (“Unheard,” “fade,” and “made”): they slant-rhyme with the end words in lines 2 (“said”) and 4 (“read”). In fact, you could diagram the rhyme scheme of this poem like this: abab’a’b’a’b’c’cb’cdd, where the prime symbols denote slant rhymes and reveal that the end words are all variations on just four basic units of sound ending in –k, –d, –ce, and eep. Sound is further saturated by the high incidence of other kinds of sonic repetitions in and across lines; the assonance in single sentence (line 1) and repetitions of “un-” in “Unheard / unvoiced / untasted” in lines 8-9 are two examples. Note also the remarkable prevalence of words about language (“sentence,” “said,” “speak,” “read,” “words,” “unheard,” “unvoiced,” “phrases,” “voice,” “poetry,” “talk,” “said”) in this poem that is ultimately about—its loss.

As with any sonnet, this one has a volta or change, and as in most English sonnets, it takes place in or before the final rhyming couplet. The three quatrains build suspense about what it was the child said, and we are made privy to the memory reporting his exact words in the closing couplet. But there is also another, more subtle turn in line 8. If you take the time to read about the history of the sonnet, you’ll find out that it originated in the Sicilian court in the 13th century in the Petrarchan form and came to England in the 17th century where it evolved into the form we see in today’s poem. In Petrarchan sonnets, the volta takes place in or around the eighth line, the line closing the opening octave (abbaabba) and preparing for the closing sestet (cdecde). Because they evolved from the Petrarchan form, it is perhaps not surprising that many Elizabethan sonnets have “shadow” turn in the eighth line. I find one here in after the period in line 8, when the speaker turns from the ways in which she works to preserve the lost words to look more closely at those words, now “[u]nheard, / unvoiced, untasted.”

That remarkable and devastating series of negations was when I felt pierced, and the dagger went in with the poet’s utterly self-conscious and very effective use of cliché in line 13: “when talk was cheap.” Talk is cheap, to most people. But not to parents whose child has lost (or never had) the ability to speak. By the time I got to the last line, I found what the son said worthy of all the build-up that preceded it, wonderful and magical in its own right and also authentically child-like, exactly like the kind of thing our own beloved children or grandchildren might perhaps say, words we consider charming at the time and—if we are very, very lucky—do not become a singular, inestimable, irreplaceable treasure.

Editor’ s Note: for another poem on this theme, see “Annual Review” by Connie Post, the subject of this column on April 26, 2015.


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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.


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