Poetry Sunday: “Wife’s Disaster Manual” and
“The Gulf, 1987,” by Deborah Paredez

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Both poems featured today begin with a received form. “Wife’s Disaster Manual” is a villanelle and “The Gulf, 1987” is a sonnet. Received forms are associated with the English poetry canon, that venerated mass of published work that, sieved by the years, can be said to have withstood the test of time. In our lifetime we have seen the canon’s contributors change dramatically. Once dominated by white men of European descent, twitter’s OWM (old white men) or DWM (dead white men), it now includes women and minorities and poets whose points of view are significantly expanding and enriching its content. Many contemporary writers, anxious to break new ground, actively avoid received forms. Some agree with Audre Lorde that language is a tool of oppression and that you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle his house. This is one premise of the Language School, poetry that advocates language for language’s sake and rejects received forms right down to received syntax, but which is, of course, just its own new form that forgoes meaning for a fierce focus on its components—the way postmodern art sacrifices figure for brushstroke and representational for abstract art. Other poets—Sherman Bitsui, Terrence Hayes, Mark Jarmon, Marilyn Nelson, and today’s author are just a few who come to mind—choose instead to salvage the master’s tools and use them to achieve their own, very different objectives.

In villanelles, the first and third lines of the first tercet become the last lines of alternating stanzas until they come together again as a rhyming couplet in the poem’s last, four-line stanza. Those lines coming back at intervals (“repetends”) create a haunting effect and work the way a song does on the psyche: they create expectations that are fulfilled or not fulfilled, with resulting feelings of satisfaction or frustration that create tension, nearly always a good thing in poems. Some villanelles feel circular, coming back repeatedly to the same place. Such circularity can sink a poem by making it feel wooden, or can serve it, as in what I recall as Ted Kooser’s villanelle about the claustrophobia of weather or one that, say, uses the form to capture the obsessiveness of a mind afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Other villanelles use variations in diction or punctuation to allow the repetends to grow and develop, to have different meanings in successive iterations, and that is the case with today’s first poem.

“Wife’s Disaster Manual” begins with the familiar biblical story of Lot’s wife and turns it on its head. In this way, the subject serves the form and the form its subject, as both begin with a received thing or “truth,” but are then transformed by the poet’s vision. The villanelle form is closely followed in “Wife’s Disaster Manual.” The repetends recur faithfully where we are trained by the poem and tradition to expect them and conclude with a full rhyme, “burn” and turn.” The second lines of stanzas all end with different full rhymes: “fled,” “bread,” “instead,” “shed,” “dead,” and “ahead.” As with all villanelles faithful to the form, there are just two rhymes in the poem as a whole—end words rhyming with “burn” and end words rhyming with “turn.” The effect is sonic saturation and the haunting effect mentioned above. As in many villanelles, Paradez makes use of other literary devices to knit her lines and increase their echo chamber effect. Alliteration, as in “stand still, silent as prey,” is one such device, and internal assonance (“after the men and children have fled”) is another. The meter is regular iambic pentameter with many first-foot inversions.

The form is followed with fidelity, but the poet makes it her own with her unconventional choice and treatment of subject. The received mythology, which we can safely assume was originally created by one of those DWMs, has versions in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions:  two angels tell Lot and his wife to flee the corrupt and fallen cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without a backwards glance. In the Christian version, Lot’s un-wife (not given her own name, no surprise there) is a morally weak and flawed creature who cannot resist the temptations of the flesh. She does turn back, for one last longing look, and so is transformed by God into a pillar of salt to stand as a lesson for what happens to those who break the faith, who refuse to follow their husbands and dare to break the commandments of God.

Not so in this poem. Here Lot’s wife is the hero, the one who refuses to run, choosing to stay with and bear witness to the fallen, and the poem goes a step further by recommending this as a general course of action. Cast in the injunctive voice— “turn / back,” “Resist,” “Show concern,” “Come,” “Stand,” and “Return”—it instructs us to do exactly the opposite of what the story of Lot’s wife was meant to teach. By stripping the poem of overt biblical references—you will find no mention of Sodom or Gomorrah or even of Lot’s name here—the poem becomes something larger than the parable, degrading it to just one (and not necessarily the ideal) way of responding to the situation of a city in flames. The poem’s images are abstract in the sense that we do not know exactly what place and what time is intended—this could be any city in just about any time—but they are also wonderfully specific and concrete in the way they juxtapose the woman against a disaster scenario. A city is starting “to burn,” “iron gates” are “unlatched,” and there are “collapsing doorways.” Amid all the chaos and the “righteous scurry” of those who flee, one woman retains her dignity and moves slowly and deliberately to turn back to “learn / the names of the fallen.” As such, “Wife’s Disaster Manual” offers a new way to see the Bible story. Maybe the city is in flames not because it deserves it, but because someone or thing inflicted wanton destruction upon it. Maybe Lot’s leaving is an act of cowardice that his wife refuses to condone. Maybe it is not the worst thing in the world to be a pillar of salt, a monument of human tears.

Sometimes it seems like our news pages and screens fill daily with images of cities in flames. Once, perhaps, we took refuge in the belief that such disaster was earned and deserved, God’s judgment on the fallen. It is hard to take refuge there now, as we watch children and other innocents get gassed or crushed in and by the rubble of their bombed-out homes, and this poem gives us another way to view that situation. Was Lot righteous, or was he a coward? Was his wife faithless and weak, or was she strong and resolute, determined to bear witness to the suffering and willing to die to do so?

“The Gulf, 1987” presents a slightly different case of interaction with a received form. It is a sonnet but one that is unrhymed—what some would call an “American Sonnet” and others, because of its regular meter (iambic pentameter), a “blank verse sonnet.” As such, it has 14 lines and turns more or less where we expect to see them. The biggest happens in the last two lines when the poem turns from its ostensible subject—eating raw oysters—to its real subject: the same bay that grows those oysters is a repository for drowned refugees trying to reach America. A subtler turn happens in line 10 when the poem, preparing for that big shift at the end, switches from declarative (“I squint into the glare”) to injunctive (“Don’t be shy”) sentences.

The sonnet has long been venerated as an elastic and generative form and engaging with its tradition by breaking the rules has by now become a part of that very tradition. This one breaks the rules by eschewing end rhyme, as mentioned above. Perhaps an even more significant departure is its subject. Sonnets evolved from the 11th-century Sicilian court and came to England by way of courtiers like Sir Philip Sydney and the Earl of Surrey, whose innovations shifted the envelope-rhymed [abbaabbacdecde] Petrarchan form into what we now call the English form using alternating rhyme [ababcdcdefefgg] and concluding with a rhyming couplet. For centuries, the main subject of both forms was courtly love. Over time, subjects expanded to include spiritual as well as earthly love (think Herbert, Hopkins, and Donne), and even the sonnet form itself (see, for example, Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns Fret Not”). The last two centuries saw the sonnet increasingly used as a vehicle for personal, interior, as well as political expression. Today’s sonnet takes on social justice issues of class differences (“white folks” and “high life”) and the deaths of refugees trying desperately to make it to our shores.

I see the refusal to work in received forms because they are products of white patriarchy as, well, shortsighted. Forms persist, not just by habit or tradition but also because they work. I am learning to knit just now, and those intricate charts and patterns are the foundation on which all my variations will be built. Received forms are like software or apps, shortcuts that allow us to do things more quickly and sometimes better than we could without them. Villanelles and sonnets have programmed into them a number of components that time has proven effective in poetry: repetition at regular intervals with enough variation to retain interest; the right amount of time to build up to and execute a turn; a closing rhyme that strengthens and adds conviction to a poem’s end. This is why new writers often exceed themselves writing in form. In the hands of writers who have the confidence to depart from the rules, poetic forms can marshal tremendous power. I like the idea of not throwing out the baby with the bath water, and yes, of using the master’s tools to dismantle his own house. Poems like today’s show us just how effectively this can be done.

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