Poetry Sunday: “Prophesy,” by Jill Bialosky

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Prophesy” is from The Players, a collection released in 2015 called by a review in Publisher’s Weekly “a heartfelt ode to the American suburbs and countryside” exploring “the complexities of interpersonal, particularly familial, relationships” in writing “as personal and measured as a mother penciling her son’s height on the kitchen door frame.” At the Poetry by the Sea conference in 2015, Bialosky read poems about baseball and motherhood and including a sonnet sequence. That hit three of my obsession triggers at once, and so I stayed up all one night at the conference to read The Players, along with Bialosky’s moving memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life.

In one interview, Bialosky describes The Players as using the conceit of baseball and the people who populate the field and bleachers as a Greek Chorus capturing the “family dynamic” and “legacy of generations” so that those Little League players and their coaches and fans “are really the players in our lives.” Given the reference to Oedipus in today’s poem, that caught my attention. As another interviewer put it, today’s poem and many poems in The Players uses a “choral” persona of “plural speakers,” a “mythic we,” and sometimes a “big American we” that includes archetypal figures like mothers, fathers, children, players, and guardians. In that Los Angeles Review interview, Bialosky describes poems in The Players as “elegiac—mournful—in the sense that I recognized that many of the emotional concerns in the work had to do with emotionally preparing for my son to be launched.” I am always on the lookout for poetry like Bialosky’s that is not afraid to treat motherhood as a subject but that also takes care not to devolve into sentiment.

“Prophesy” begins with a title that creates mystery and suspense, sustained and augmented in the poem’s opening lines: “We knew how it worked. / Our precursors warned us. / It would happen when they were teenagers.” How what worked? What is the “prophesy” and what does it predict? We want to know because that collective “we” implicates us from the start. We must read on to learn the answers to these questions, an example of one very effective way to ensure that readers will finish a poem.

A word about the title before I turn to prosody. Strictly speaking, “Prophesy” is the verb form of the word and “prophecy” the noun form, but through usage, the two spellings have become interchangeable. Is the title meant as an injunction, telling readers to go out and predict the future the way the future gets predicted for the speaker in the poem? Or is the entire poem itself a “prophecy,” a thing or noun? By choosing the less common verb form, Bialosky calls attention to the word and gets to have it both ways.

“Prophesy” is unmetered and unrhymed, free verse that uses regular syntax and punctuation in 33 lines organized into one stanza. The lines are short, but the first and last two are noticeably more truncated than the others, creating visual ring construction on the page that reflects the poem’s concern with the struggle that recurs between mothers and sons from generation to generation and even from century to century. “Prophesy” invite us into its speaker’s experience, familiar to all mothers, of adoring children transforming into teenagers who find our presence intolerable. Its message is expressed through action and allusion, showing rather than telling. Thus the teenage boys in “Prophesy” look “right through” their mothers, their cheeks turn “to stone” (a reference to the mythological Medusa) when kissed, and the intensity of their recoil is communicated via allusion— “as if they were / Oedipus discovering he’d married / his mother.” Diction is plainspoken, vernacular one- and two-syllable words. In fact, except perhaps for “precursors” and “abide,” no words are “poetic” or unusual; it is the way they are employed that weaves the magic of this poem.

Free verse does not use patterned end rhyme or meter, but that does not mean it cannot be lyrical, just that it must rely on other devices for its music. This poem does it with repetition, sometimes of words and phrases and sometimes of sounds. The words “her” and “were” that end lines 22 and 24 fully rhyme. Subtle rhyme concludes other lines: “boys” in line 4 slant-rhymes with “voice” (11), “us” (14), “worse” (17) “dress” (25), and “trees” (33), just as “girl” in line 7 has echoes in “exile” and “turmoil” ending lines 29 and 30. Word repetition is present in the use of the word “we” throughout the poem and in the word “dress” that bookends line 25. Alliteration—repetitions of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words—strikes sonic echoes in the poem, which opens with alliterative w’s in “We knew how it worked. / Our precursors warned us” echoed in “It was as if they were suddenly warned” in line 18. Other alliteration is found in “deceived or deluded” in line 22 as well as in “married / his mother” in the next two lines.

Another species of repetition in “Prophesy” is anaphora, a rhetorical device that repeats words and phrases at the beginnings of lines, sentences, or clauses. The phrase “it was as if” occurs three times in lines 18-22. One effect of anaphora is incantatory: Just saying the same words over and over has haunting and compelling power, a quality harnessed by some of history’s most memorable orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, it also builds tension in a sequence that culminates in the central revelation of the Oedipus story. In general, the poem is resonant with repeated sound that helps bind it and make it more pleasurable to hear and read, but because the repetition is not patterned, we call it free verse.

I’ve made the point before that free verse is anything but “free” and is instead itself a form with its own set of rules and expectations requiring at least as much technical virtuosity as other forms. Robert Frost is famous for saying that writing it is like “playing tennis without a net.” With meter, line length, and rhyme scheme not prescribed, the poet must write without a template and according to his or her own vision of what the poem requires. “Free verse” does not mean “anything goes” or that line-broken journal entries make good poems. The best free verse is recognizable as art, shaped and honed into its ideal expression (Coleridge’s “best words in the best order”), and today’s is one such poem.

As mentioned above, diction is simple, and syntax, grammar, and punctuation are regular, with lines organized into declarative sentences whose clauses are carefully controlled for dramatic effect. The poem is accessible in the best sense of that word. It’s popular now to use “accessible” as a pejorative, but it absolutely does not equate with simplistic or shallow, just as “difficult” does not equate with complexity and profundity. I prefer to think of “accessible” with an emphasis on that “-ible” at the end, like a door made accessible to differently-abled people by means of installation of a ramp. It’s still not easy to get a wheelchair up that ramp, but it is at least possible to go through the doorway. An accessible poem is one able to yield results for readers willing to try to enter it, even if entering it sometimes still involves some effort. I also think of “accessible” in terms of audience, and it seems self-evident to me that a poem that speaks powerfully to a wide range of readers regardless of education or class is more effective than one unintelligible to everyone except a very few highly educated readers. “Range” and “powerfully” are important qualifiers here; Fifty Shades of Gray may command a large audience, but no one would call it great literature.

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