Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Sieve,” by April Ossmann

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I heard Ossmann read “Sieve” at a Third Thursday Series Reading at the Marin Poetry Center last spring. It’s from her new book, Event Boundaries, full of sensitive, accessible, and highly musical poems. I chose “Sieve” for its images and sounds, and its many graceful, effortless turns that transform the human spirit from “mercury” to a “liquid” that can pass through a sieve and the human body from a geometric figure to “death’s vessel” then to a cup that turns out to be the “sieve” that fails to hold the escaping soul.
The poem is free verse, without meter or end rhyme, organized into seven three-line tercets in staggered lines. The first five stanzas comprise one sentence that ends in line 15 with the word “shape” and the last two stanzas make up a second, complete sentence. Punctuation and syntax are regular and diction simple with mostly one- and two-syllable words, and none that send readers to dictionary.com. In fact, none of this poem’s words are “poetic” or even unusual; it is the way they are employed that creates the magic of this poem.
“Sieve” begins, as all good poems should, with an attention-grabbing first line, “Young men seem all edges,” and then ups the interest ante with two delightful and apt similes, “shoulders like shelves” and my favorite, “bellies like slides / to the most obvious / of pleasures.” That’s a sly, possibly punning allusion to sex, of course, and one I haven’t seen before but that feels just right. The first simile, “shoulders / like shelves,” uses alliteration or consonance (repeated sounds at the beginnings of words) and is an example of the subtle sound repetitions that recur in this poem—see also “crisp curves,” “slipping / and sliding,” and “solid we seem.” Repeated vowel sounds, or assonance, are found in the short e sounds of “men seem all edges” and “death’s vessel,” in the long ee sounds of “seems / geometrically,” in the -r sounds of “morph, like mercury” and “blurring / as we morph,” and in the short i sounds of the triply-assonant “sieve it is” in the poem’s last line. “[S]lip the cup” is an internal slant rhyme that slant-rhyme with two other end words, “leaps” in the stanza 4, and “shape” in the stanza 5. These sound repetitions help bind the poem into a thread that loops down the page in those skipping tercets and are one source of the delight we experience in reading this poem.
Another is the images and the way they, as the poem explains bodies do in aging, morph from one state into the next. From those young men with their remarkable shoulders and bellies, the poem moves to the “crisp curves” of young women and then to the surprise of those very different bodies coming together in a “union” Ossmann memorably calls “geometrically insoluble.” Like any good poet, Ossmann enables us to see afresh something we took for granted, namely, the miracle of the differences between our bodies, and the greater miracle of their joining. As an aside, I love how “insoluble” sets up the later allusion to “liquid,” a solution in which things can, or cannot, dissolve, another example of the very precise and deliberate diction choices so important to this poem.
From here, Ossmann proceeds to the next and perhaps greater subject, how our bodies “soften as we age,” and how that softening is a kind of preparation for death. This is serious stuff, but Ossmann treats it with sensitivity and humor, and older readers will smile at the process of aging taking place “in small / or quantum leaps.” Great truths are described here in simple, vivid terms, such as the way we “morph, like mercury, / into each new self we shape” and “[l]iving softens us / to fill death’s vessel.” As used here, “mercury” does an excellent job of conveying notions of speed, elegance, malleability, and a sense of something treasured and nearly magical.
The phrase used to express the act of dying, “slip the cup,” is so lovely and poignant, and then the image is extended yet again as the cup is likened to “the sieve it is.” Here, simile becomes metaphor, and we understand the message present from the start: our improbable, wonderful, miraculous bodies are in fact fallible, and in aging only become more porous until they finally allow the soul to escape. Love and Death, or Leibestod, is a classic motif in literature and poetry, but it is often ponderous and dark—think Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde. What a pleasure to see it treated with such a light touch in today’s poem!

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  • Marianne Sippel August 1, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    As a 63 year old woman, poet since I could write and human, I love this. I know this. Thank you, April. We look a lot alike.

    Reply
    • April Ossmann August 8, 2017 at 8:01 pm

      Thank you, so glad to connect! My doppelganger?

      Reply
  • Marianne Sippel August 1, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    As a 63 year old woman, poet since I could write and human, I love this. I know this. Thank you, April. We look a lot alike.

    Reply
    • April Ossmann August 8, 2017 at 8:01 pm

      Thank you, so glad to connect! My doppelganger?

      Reply
  • carol ann hoorn July 23, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    I like Sieve very much as it describes very well my youthful past, middle age strengths, and sometimes laughable physical weakness as
    I slide closer to the final sip , now at 83. I am fortunate that my brain, though slipping, is still fairly sturdy and can still laugh at how clumsy I am. I must admit, I long for cooler weather, as the heat has me turning into a liquid I find distasteful.

    Reply
    • April Ossmann August 8, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      Thank you, so nice to hear this from my senior in perspective, and you made me laugh with “a liquid I find distasteful!”

      Reply
  • carol ann hoorn July 23, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    I like Sieve very much as it describes very well my youthful past, middle age strengths, and sometimes laughable physical weakness as
    I slide closer to the final sip , now at 83. I am fortunate that my brain, though slipping, is still fairly sturdy and can still laugh at how clumsy I am. I must admit, I long for cooler weather, as the heat has me turning into a liquid I find distasteful.

    Reply
    • April Ossmann August 8, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      Thank you, so nice to hear this from my senior in perspective, and you made me laugh with “a liquid I find distasteful!”

      Reply