Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “The Dress Code” and “Wish,” by Caitlin Doyle

The second poem featured today, “Wish,” also uses repetitions, but this time in what is called a “nonce” form; that is, one invented by Doyle. Most lines in “Wish” do not rhyme, but three end rhyme sounds come back in the pattern diagrammed below, where “x” designates an un-rhymed line and a, b, and c designate lines that rhyme:

 

x
x

a

x
x

a

x
x

b

x
x

b

x
x

c

x
x

c

x
x

c

The pattern is of two sets of an unrhymed couplet followed by singleton lines that rhyme, and it is repeated three times. The first (a) rhyme pair is “key” and “me,” the second is “cent” and “spent,” and the third is “unwound,” “ground,” and “drowned;” the pairings create envelope rhyme that buries two unrhymed lines inside each rhyming pair.

Not having every line rhyme (and also the author’s decision to forego punctuation) creates a feeling of space and freedom in lines that otherwise operate according to a strict—if invented—form, something that feels appropriate to a poem about human yearning. The structure is perfect for the call-and-response-and-reply format, with the speaker expressing her desire for abstracts (“time,” “space,” “change,” and “more”) in the first line of each couplet, the beloved responding in the second with concrete things (a “cuckoo clock,” a “telescope,” a “penny jar,” and a wishing well), and then the speaker replying in each singleton line about why and how that response fell short. This is, of course, a much more interesting and visceral way to express what I am about to say in prose: what divides this couple is the lover’s inability to fill the speaker’s needs. In each instance, her request for emotional support is answered by his gifts of things that take those requests far, far too literally. How this makes the speaker feel is expressed in—and to some extent protected by—those parentheses. The problem is, as much as anything else, a lack of communication, as the speaker tries and tries to express what she needs, and her partner, taking her words at face value, fails to understand what she is really saying.

This is an old construct, but just look at how it is refreshed in the context of this poem! On one level, we smile when we see the speaker’s desire for more time answered with the gift of a clock, just as we smile at the pun that answers a need for change with a penny jar. But there is real pain in the poem as well, captured in the simple but effective images of the moon and of a wishing well that conjure vulnerability and longing. The result is poignant, especially in that last image of the moon as a coin drowned in a well.

Being in a call-response-reply format, the poem is full of turns, but a major one occurs near the end in line 13, signaled by the temporal adverb “now,” that marks the change from the speaker musing about how things were in the past (frustrating) to her report of what things are like in the present (she is undone, bereft). That “now” recurs at the beginning of every other line through the end of the poem and so functions as anaphora, a type of repetition particularly effective for communicating intensity of feeling. It works well with other repetitions employed by the poet in “Wish”: the repeating form, the return of certain images and words, and sonic echoes in the form of end rhyme, internal rhyme (e.g., “moon” and “coin” in the last line) and alliteration (e.g., “make the moon,” “spending every cent,” “clock that’s come,” and “well’s just one more wish” in lines 6, 9, 15, and 20). The poem is brief and spare, but these repetitions make it richly layered with feeling and resonance.

One thing I especially admired was the way the images not only returned, but also came together in subsequent iterations. For example, the clock and the moon of early lines are conflated in line 15 (“the moon’s a clock that’s come unwound”), and the moon and the wishing well fuse in the gorgeous image closing the poem “(the moon’s a coin the well has drowned).” It all works beautifully together in a form created by Doyle, and I, for one, intend to try to imitate it in my next writing exercise!

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  • Jessica McGowen March 26, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Love

    Reply