Poetry Sunday: “Prepositional,” by Lorna Knowles Blake

In “Prepositional,” the title casts the concept of prepositions into the form of an adjective, but what does that word describe or mean in this context? A prepositional phrase is one that includes prepositions before nouns, pronouns, or other substantives (including verbs), and functions as a modifier that “typically express[es] a spatial, temporal, or other relationship,” [dictionary.com/browse/prepositional], and in fact, the word “prepositional” even contains the word “position,” a word of relation. Thomas Cable, the metrical scholar I consulted to write this column, reminded me about a wonderful John Donne poem, “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” which makes abundant and effective use of prepositions, especially in the second line quoted below:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.

You can read the entire poem here.
What is the author saying is “preposition-ish” here? The poem itself, for one—every line opens with a prepositional phrase. Maybe something larger, too, like the speaker’s relationship with the “you,” apparently a beloved. Or, maybe something larger still, like Life. The speaker defines herself in relation to her beloved, and both are defined in terms of where and how they stand with respect to the great forces of nature expressed in the three elements of air (“sky”), water (“tides”), and earth (“salt”). One message seems to be that everything is relational; nothing stands alone.
In “Prepositional” we sense a rootedness in the domestic scene of a couple at a table set with bread and salt, and in the “raft” image. But there is also chaos and flux: “wandering,” “quicksand,” “weather,” and “tides.” Change always implies two points, not just one, on a line, and two points imply a relation. The restless rhythms of the poem, discussed above, enact a feeling of unceasing change relieved by moments of stability—or maybe stability existing in the unfailing fact of change—another fundamental kind of relation. We see the tension between stability and flux, too, in the way camera focus and verb tense operate in this poem, with movement in and out from closeups on the lovers to what is around and beyond them, and from present (first 8 lines) to far past (line 9) to nearer past (line 11), then back to present (lines 12-14).
I believe that it is in relationships that we find our bulwarks and that “Prepositional” offers a defense of the concept of relationality, including human relationships. The poem does provide some personal history of a particular couple: the “you” and “me” in a stable place now but having experienced in the past a time of wandering and needing to be found. As an aside, how interesting that it is the forest, a thing we usually think of as fixed, that is doing the “wandering” here; also intriguing is the fact that the breadcrumbs are employed “against” rather than strewn upon the paths of the forest. This is not the preposition—or relation of things—that we expect and is another way today’s poem enacts a balance between stability and chaos. The balance is succinctly captured in lines 9-10, which say first that beneath the couple lies a “rich meadow,” then, that it could be “quicksand.” That metaphorical bait-and-switch enables us to see a deeper paradoxical truth: every meadow is also quicksand. The earth literally always moves, subtly in the waves that move through soil or dramatically by earthquake or volcanic eruption—and is, metaphorically speaking, always on the verge of giving way as we approach our own deaths. Following lines 9-10, we learn more about the roles “you” and “me” play in the relationship—the “you” is a raft, a source of stability and rescue for the more mercurial “weather” speaker. And, both are ultimately the foreground of something much vaster beyond them, something whose most eternal (“unchanging”) quality is its own constant flux—“the tides.”
In its insistence on relationality, the poem seems to endorse human coupling and is a comfort to me. All the relations sketched out in the poem—“before,” “after,” “within,” “without,” and also the “you” and “me” and their position with respect to everything else—are contained within these last lines. It is possible to think of them as forming a Venn diagram with the “unfailing tides” a circle containing the smaller circles of a “you” and a “me,” and each containing something unique (something like a “raft”, something like “weather”) yet overlapping in an area that could be labeled as “us.” “Prepositional” speaks of a long relationship between the speaker and her beloved and examines the stability of their unit (“us”) against (in relation to) the larger backdrop of history and the even larger backdrop of nature and time, creating a truly unique and universal valentine.

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