Poetry

“Radiance,” “Truant,” and “Marking Him,”
by Margaret Hasse

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Radiance” consists of eight regular quatrains of lines that tend to have either three or four beats in a rising (iambic) pattern, with the first-foot inversions typically seen in such meters. The meter is not strict, nor is the poem wholly meter-less free verse. There is no end rhyme or other fixed-form patterning, and diction is simple and vernacular. I would call “Radiance” a poem that pays attention to, without being strictly bound by, metrical form.

One literary device at work in the poem is sound repetition, not patterned as end rhyme but occurring more freely as internal repetitions as sound. By way of example, “snow” and “glow” rhyme across lines 2-3, then rhyme again with “know” and slant-rhyme with “through” in line 7, and the sound gets picked up again in line 12’s “snow.” “[C]onstellation of Orion” repeats a terminal nasal sound (“uhn”), heard again in “hunting” in the same line, and in line 14. There is also assonance, or repetition of vowel sounds, as in “gray” and “gaze” in line 20, extended as a slant rhyme five lines later in the word “years.” Consonance is present as well, for example in “December, dimming” in line 4 and “neurons and nerves” in line 28. These sound repetitions are subtle and occasional, but they help knit the poem into a sonic whole and contribute to the music we hear when it is read aloud.

Image is perhaps the most important literary device at work here, beginning with the very first line’s metaphor equating a “yard light” with a “Roman candle.” Metaphor, you will recall, is like simile but without the connective tissue (the words “like” or “as”), and it collapses the distance between its two terms: tenor (the yard light) and vehicle (a Roman candle). Image is commonly thought of as visual, like painting a picture with words, but an image can trigger any of the five senses. The next one in “Radiance” is communicated via a verb (“caramelizes”), and what an image it is! It imparts color (tan) triggering sight but also the texture or surface quality of that color (satin, not gloss or matte) triggering touch, along with a sense of something both sweet and burnt (a quality that contributes to the fire and burning imagery discussed below), triggering smell and taste. The next image, in line 3, uses personification to attribute human characteristics—specifically, the ability to commit a “trespass”—to something (a “glow”) not only not human but also utterly non-corporeal.

That’s just the first stanza, readers. Remarkable images like these abound in the poem. My favorites are the “little train of snow” that describes power wires laden with the white stuff, the “smudge” that describes our view on earth of any distant galaxy, and the “high voltage power box” of the boy’s chest, another metaphor that is so much more powerful than its simile equivalent (chest “like” a high power voltage box) could ever be.

In an example of extended metaphor, the poem uses images related to fire and electricity all the way through, from that first Roman candle reference to the “electric wires” in line 9, the “switch,” “bulb,” and “pole” in lines 13-14, the “blast of stars” in line 16, the “impulses” in line 27, and concluding with the high-power voltage box mentioned above. Another extended image is of light: the candle again, the yard light, the bulb and the pole, the references to constellations, and that glorious “galaxy . . . spangled with radiance,” that sends light “two / and a half million light years” to the boy’s eyes.

Besides being a powerful lyric that captures a moment in time—when we look at the night sky and see it not in two dimensions but three and the stars as portals to the galaxies beyond—the poem also has a narrative element. The story is of a boy who, glimpsing a winter constellation that is presumably the Southern Triangle, is hit with the sudden understanding of what he is actually looking at when he sees stars. He’s so taken, in fact, that he lets his jacket hang open in the cold. Knowing that the stars will be even brighter without the light pollution caused by a nearby security light, he takes the time to duck down a dark alley to switch off the power.

At this point, the poem really comes alive in the same (but opposite) way that a dark room comes alive when the lights are switched on. Here, darkness, paradoxically, creates light and “opens the dome / to a blast of stars in outer space” (line 16). Now, instead of an unidentified triangle seen through a “haze,” what the boy sees are more distant celestial objects like “the pinpoint of Jupiter” and specific named constellations like “Orion hunting / the Great Bear” that enable him to find the real prize—“a smudge of gray” that is probably the Andromeda galaxy (lines 16-20). How I love the idea of casting that “smudge” as a “peep hole” into distant solar systems and worlds!

“Another / galaxy also spangled with radiance” is gorgeous writing that represents the climax of the poem’s rising action and the point at which things begin to wind down. After this, the boy does not move; in fact, he seems transfixed, and the poem begins to narrow its frame of reference, from light traveling two and a half million miles to reach earth, to its reception in the rods and cones of this boy’s eyes, to the transmission of that image via nerves and neurons to his brain. And also to his heart, represented in the image that, unforgettably, completes the sequence of light and electricity images and then closes the poem:

He draws in a sharp breath,
the high voltage power box
of his chest hot and humming.

Another thing that makes this image so effective is the author’s manipulation of syntax so that stanzas 2-6, right up to the lines quoted above, consist of one long, running sentence mimetic of a stream of electric current.

Image is certainly one of this poet’s strong suits. Another poem from Earth’s Appetite shown above, “Truant,” also includes some remarkable examples. Again we see the poet making use of dynamic, vivid verbs to describe action rather than description to convey images, thereby “showing” instead of “telling” us about them. Thus the self-righteous principal “wags” his finger and the speaker and her boyfriend defiantly and joyously “roar” down the road on a motorcycle. Rather than just cutting class, they are “ditching” it, a word that is not only fresher and more vernacular, but also one that adds connotations of risk and danger deriving from its root (“ditch”), when we consider that motorcycle.

I love that the speaker hears a “meadowlark’s liquid song” and smells the “heart-break blossom of wild plum,” an example of synesthesia that mingles and tangles multiple senses. But my favorite is the tractor “unfurling its cape of blackbirds”—delightfully unexpected, and like the best images, totally spot-on. I also appreciate the irony that closes the poem, with the principal intending one (negative) meaning for “permanent record” and the speaker intending another, completely positive one—he means a bad mark or report marring the file that will follow the reader through her school days and she means a glorious memory that will always be part of the “permanent record” of her life—how marvelously subversive!

I’ll close today with a third poem by Margaret Hasse, this one from an earlier book, another impressive example of how to craft an effective image. In “Marking Him,” the main sense being triggered is smell; the word is mentioned three times, most notably in the last line, and the speaker recalls pressing her nose into her son’s hair (that “starry cheesiness”) and metaphorically against “the glass.” I also register strongly the sense of touch, especially in “I want to lick him all over / with a cow’s thick tongue” along with several equally powerful sensations: hunger, thirst, satiation, and the strong proprietary and protective feelings that arise from the maternal instinct. This poem, like the others we’ve looked at today, also manages to tell a story; in this case, the origin story of the speaker’s adopted son. And, like them, it tells its story by means of juicy, living images that, like the very best poems, carry within them an abundance of heart.

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