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

In the speaker’s words, that family has been “radically modified, expletive deleted.” There is much to notice in just these four words. “Modified” describes the family unit while also making punning reference to the action performed by adjectives and adverbs on nouns and verbs. Within the poem, “expletive deleted” describes the cessation of the daughter’s hostility as she becomes willing to “make allowances.” On a more meta level the speaker, panged by how drastically the family unit has been altered, is suppressing the urge to utter a curse. Now that I think about it, this may be an example of the writer breaking the third wall and editing out an expletive her speaker has just burst out with. Finally, it occurs to me that “expletive deleted” could be a reference to the absent father; in other words, he is the expletive (one can think of many fine profanities that would work here) expunged (or scrubbed?) from the picture.

As a last point about how grammar functions in this poem, let’s examine one unit of grammar, the personal pronoun. First-person pronouns (“I” and “me”) and possessives (“my”) appear twice in stanza two but in stanza three appear nine times as if to underscore that in the post-divorce world of the poem, the speaker is very alone. The pronoun “you” always designates the speaker’s daughter. The father, referred to sometimes as part of a first person “we,” at other times is a third-person “he” clearly outside the nuclear family. Given neither pronoun nor name (called only “not-Mamma”) his new lover lacks even an identity separate from her relation to the speaker. But of all this poem’s personal pronouns, the one most fluid is the second-person “we.” In one instance, it designates the speaker, her ex-husband, and their daughter (“We three are still a unit of grammar”); in another, just mother and daughter (“Now that we are two); and in three instances, it describes the father and mother. The most dramatic of these is when the parents come together (“We ‘fucking idiots’”) to reassure their daughter that “this is not about, / because of, or on account of you.”

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about the “Grammar & Usage” part of the title, but what about its reference to “sins”? Sins are bad acts, things to regret. How can one commit a sin in the act of following or departing from grammatical rules? Grammar is involved, of course, every time language is wielded in a way that causes pain. When these parents “exhale” vitriol (“what we knew / would be fire”) they singe each other as well as their daughter. She in turn hurts them with her verbally expressed outrage and scathing silent treatment. Going deeper, sins are sometimes called transgressions, a synonym with connotations of breach of law or trust. Here the husband and father commits a kind of sin in breaking his marriage vows and the structure of traditional family, a rule-breaking that then becomes the accepted practice (usage) going forward.

I’m out of time but want to make a few last craft points: take a look at where lines end and notice which ones (for example line 6) do not break at natural pauses (punctuated, or implied by the syntax). Anytime a poet breaks a line unconventionally, it disturbs the integrity of the line and creates a syntactic stutter that complicates meaning (and sometimes also the ability to read the poem aloud). The emotional difficulty of subject—how the speaker and her beloved daughter are wounded by the demise of their family—is captured in these tough line breaks, and the truncation of the last line of each stanza creates a white space that visually invokes that absence and loss.  Finally, I admire the poem for its handling of a complex range of tone. Tone moves from rage, to sorrow (“I miss his shoulders”), to profound maternal tenderness (When I can, I cook you / rice for breakfast”). At the end I felt sad for the demise of the original family, but at the same time found myself rooting with all I had for the beautiful new family of two. 


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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.


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