Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Our Kisses,’ by Peg Pursell

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Our Kisses

aren’t much.
No hugging,
in fact little contact
at all.
We take
each other
by the shoulders,
lightly but firmly,
as much to hold
ourselves
free
as to join,
place cheek
next to cheek,
buss the air.
His cool fading body
near for a moment,
the smell of old skin.
The act is only
a symbol,
but it’s one
of something
I need.

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7865719Peg Alford Pursell is the author of the forthcoming book of stories, SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW (ELJ Publications). Her work appears in RHINO, Permafrost, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, the Los Angeles Review, and other journals and has been shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award. She curates Why There Are Words, a reading series she founded five years ago in Sausalito. Her website is www.pegalfordpursell.com.

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Notes on “Our Kisses”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This brief, spare poem captures a deeply-felt moment in its speaker’s life—a chaste kiss shared with her aging father. What I like best about the poem is the way its structure and even the way it looks on the page evoke a formality and dignity that add interest and complexity to what otherwise could be just another Hallmark father-daughter moment. Susan Cohen, a poet in my writing group, remarked recently that poetry enjoys an advantage over prose in the volumes it can communicate by its silences, and that is true of this poem. We are not told why the daughter and father are so careful with each other, nor is judgment passed upon that reticence. Readers fill in the blanks with their own histories and experiences, and “Our Kisses” can yield as many interpretations as it has readers.

In the same way that the poem’s columnar shape mimics the restraint of the kiss, the structure, just one stanza with 23 lines, is mimetic. Diction and syntax are likewise restrained. Of the poem’s 62 words, all but 14 (about three-quarters) are monosyllabic and the syntax is straightforward, consisting mostly of short, declarative sentences or fragments. The actions leading up to and consummating the kiss are stated without flourish or drama, but they are painstakingly drawn out in a way that makes them seem almost ceremonial. Notice how the very short lines dissect the action of kissing into its constituent parts and force us to read the poem slowly, with end-of-line pauses coming more quickly and often than they would if longer lines had been used.

Most lines are just two to three words long, with the longest (18) having five words and the shortest (13) having just one, the word “free.” When a line in a poem consists of just one word and particularly when, as here, it occurs almost precisely in the middle of the poem, emphasis is laid on that word. In this case, it signals readers that “free” is somehow important to the relationship the speaker shares with her father.

Because modifiers are few, the ones that are used, like “free” stand out; others impart a vivid image of the father and his frailty:

His cool fading body
near for a moment,
the smell of old skin

A similar point can be made about the verbs. With one exception, the verbs expressing direct action are so generic as almost to disappear: “are,” “take,” “buss,” “is,” and “is.” In that list, “buss” stands out, so we pay particular attention to it and notice its slightly archaic and formal qualities. Other verbs appear as gerunds or infinitives—“hugging,” “to hold,” “to join”—forms that distance the action being described.

The poem ends with the speaker saying that the kiss is just “a symbol,” but lest we deem it an empty one, she hastens to add that it’s a symbol “of something I need.” I spent a long time thinking about that last line. A kiss is a symbol of love and affection, but the way it is conducted here (with ceremony and restraint) makes it a symbol of something more. To me, there is a world of unstated history in that kiss, and I sense a relationship that has been hard and perhaps painfully won, but that in the present moment of this poem has achieved balance, equal power, and mutual respect. When the speaker calls the kiss a symbol of “something I need,” I think she is saying that she needs the respect for boundaries just as much as she needs her father’s love.

This offers an opportunity to talk about Symbols in poetry. The word “symbol” derives from the Greek “to throw together.” It is like a metaphor, but “one in which only the vehicle is given and the tenor or signification is general and archetypal” (Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, University of Chicago 1999, 465.) To refresh our memory of metaphor, let’s look at one commonly used to explain the concept, a line attributed to Robert Burns: “my love is a redde, redde rose.” In this phrase, “love” is the tenor or subject of the metaphor and “rose” is the vehicle, the image used to elaborate on or tell us something more about the subject. William Butler Yeats used symbols often, defining them as “images that are living souls” and noting their “numberless meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon.” (John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary Writers Digest books 2006, 311). A kiss symbolizes not just love but love in its many forms. This speaker takes care to portray the love between her and her father as unique to them( and their history, but the symbol is open enough to allow resonance for a wide range of readers who may be thinking about other relationships besides the one with their fathers.

What “type” of poem is this: lyric, narrative or dramatic? The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics distinguishes between poetic genres in this way: “Traditionally the lyric expressed personal emotion; the narrative propelled characters through a plot; the dramatic presented an enactment (Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, University of Princeton Press 1993, 304.) The genres can overlap in a single poem, and how to characterize a given piece tends to boil down to which one predominates.

At first, because of the way it captures a fleeting but powerful intimate moment, I thought “Our Kisses” was a lyric, but then I noticed the absence of music; the poem is quite deliberately unmetered and without rhyme, repetition, or figurative language. It could be said to tell the story of a kiss that unfolds in one encounter between the speaker and her father, but I would call it predominantly dramatic, presenting a scene in which characters (through action) express a conflict, with elements of a submerged narrative about their family history. And so we return to where we began with the notion that poetry often communicates more by its silences, what some call “the spaces between lines,” than it does by what it says.

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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.

Join the conversation

  • Marian Dornell November 2, 2015 at 9:37 am

    The poems that are chosen weekly in WVFC are in and of themselves a gift but what I live for are those comments that accompany the poems. Please do continue this format. There is no substitute for having a reader’s feelings and thoughts about a poem expanded. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Leslie in Oregon November 2, 2015 at 2:58 am

    In response to hillsmom’s comment: for me, the Notes on this poem did not “break the mood” but instead enhanced my understanding of both the poem and the mood it created. The Notes on the poems published at WVFC on Sundays also help me better read and understand poetry in general. I appreciate them very much. For those who prefer to read and savor the poem by themselves, there is always the option of not reading the Notes.

    Reply
  • hillsmom November 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    The poem did strike a nerve, as they say. However,did we need a tutorial analysis to break the mood? IMHO…

    Reply