Poetry Sunday: ‘Sins of Grammar & Usage,’ by Ellen Doré Watson


Sins of Grammar & Usage

We bookended you, and exhaled what we knew
would be fire, outlining your split-infinitive world:
a topic sentence so hot, running was your declarative.
Every everyday thing looked at you, useless, your tree
too full of caterpillars, the cellar door. You gave us
hours and days waiting on the shelf, as if punishing
with dark two toys who refuse to get along. You
gave us silence, then breakage, then subject-verb
with a lot of fuck in it.

He told you about the not-Mamma woman he loves,
I told you to sleep, sleep, you carefully folded your anger
and left it on his suitcase. You’ve made despise an active
verb. Who can tell you which love is what? Who can tell me
what grout is, where to take the garbage? This is the plate
he set before me three months ago, not it’s your turn
not to eat. We “fucking idiots” say: this is not about,
because of, or on account of you, and you say the hell
with therapists and prepositions.

Now that we are two, I think you like all the scrubbing
I’m doing. You make allowances. When I can, I cook you
rice for breakfast, build a fire. My arms are often full of wood,
your fuse is lit, I miss his shoulders, I say Daddy’s left me,
not you, I forget how to stir-fry. There’s something here
about direct vs. indirect objects, the objects of our affection,
the not-me you are. We three are still a unit of grammar, yes,
radically modified, expletive deleted. This at year ten
is your sentence.


“Sins of Grammar & Usage” from This Sharpening, published by Tupelo Press, Copyright 2006 Ellen Doré Watson. Used with permission. Dogged Hearts (Tupelo Press 2010) can be ordered here.


Ellen Dore Watson cover_Dogged Hearts_3-3-16



Ellen Dore Watson_author photo_4-28-16Ellen Doré Watson’s most recent volume of poems is Dogged Hearts (Tupelo Press, 2010). Earlier collections include This Sharpening, also from Tupelo, and two from Alice James, We Live in Bodies and Ladder Music, winner of the New England/New York award. A fifth full-length collection, pray me stay eager, is due out in 2017 from Alice James.Her work has appeared in APRTin House, OrionField, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker. Honors include a Rona Jaffe Writers Award, fellowships to Yaddo and MacDowell, and a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. She has translated a dozen books from the Brazilian Portuguese, including three by Adélia Prado, The Alphabet in the Park: Selected Poems of Adélia Prado (Wesleyan University Press), Ex-Voto (Tupelo, 2013), and The Mystical Rose (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). She also co-translated contemporary Arabic language poetry with Saadi Simawe. Watson lives in Western Massachusetts, where she teaches and directs the Poetry Center at Smith College and serves as poetry and translation editor of The Massachusetts Review. Other teaching includes the Colrain Manuscript Conference (core faculty), and the Drew University Low-Residency MFA Program in Poetry and Translation.  

Author Photo credit: Stephanie Garland.


Author’s Note:

During the months after our marriage was suddenly “called off” by my then-husband, the most wrenching part of it all was the hurt and turmoil our ten-year-old daughter was experiencing, which was totally undeserved—the punishment of an innocent bystander.  Since we were a writerly family, the minute I thought of this as her “sentence,” this poem became a door into how to describe our telling her what was happening and her response.  How amazing that the structure of language—the very parts of speech—were the ready-made tools I needed to get inside the disassembling of the architecture of family.


Notes on “Sins of Grammar & Usage”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Sins of Grammar & Usage” is free verse, three stanzas of nine lines of roughly equal length except that the last line in each stanza is about half the length of the others. I love the poem for its heightened use of and very canny look at language; that is, words and the grammar and syntax that govern how those words are used. “Grammar” is the system of rules that govern language, and it includes morphology (how words are formed) and syntax (formation of sentences). In contrast, “usage” is tradition, habit, convention—the customary way of doing things. Usage is trendy, arbitrary, and constantly changing, and one generation’s “amen” becomes another’s “right-on” becomes another’s “word,” and in today’s parlance could, I suppose be “woot.”  It strikes me that, being free verse, today’s poem is itself an example of usage: a departure from fixed form so accepted as to have become its own convention.

How do notions of grammar and usage animate this poem? One way is by outright references that make them a metaphor for the complex relationships in the speaker’s broken family. A daughter caught in the middle of her parents’ agon occupies a passive position, “something here about direct vs. indirect objects, the objects of our affection.” The parents’ arguments acid-etch her fractured, “split-infinitive” world, their breakup a “topic sentence” too “hot” to handle. The daughter’s reaction, called her “declarative,” is expressed first as silence then “subject-verb / with a lot of fuck in it,” likewise cast in grammatical terms. Near the end of the poem, the speaker says outright that “we three are still a unit of grammar,” but the reader realizes that while “we” are fused in the subject of that sentence, usage (life) has ruptured the bond. Perhaps the most poignant example of grammar functioning as metaphor for the family is in the poem’s last line, “This at year ten is your sentence.” Taken literally, those words make up an actual sentence in the poem. More fundamentally though, the speaker means that her daughter has received a kind of prison sentence—a life sentence—to a family forever sundered.

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