Poetry

“Switchblade” and “Imperatives from the Late 1940s,” by Anne Harding Woodworth

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Today’s poems are from Anne Harding Woodworth’s new book, The Eyes Have It, described by poet David Gewanter on the back cover as follows:

At first I thought . . . “clean lines and oddly pursued
speculative observations on Stevens.” But then the middle section
opened the eye to the I, autobiography, even as it in Octavio Paz
terms, saw the world and put its spell on it. The later poems, of
remembrance, loss, [and] transformation, are bold, strange, and
surprising.

The Eyes Have It is a thematically integrated collection that hangs together without feeling in lockstep and consists of spare, graceful, mostly-free-verse poems whose complexity derives from depth and range rather than from obscurity of expression. In this book’s three sections (“Looking Around,” “Looking Inside,” and  “Looking Outside”), Woodworth explores all kinds of seeing and all kinds of “eyes:” eyes of hurricanes, electric eyes, human eyes and their disorders like nystagmus. Erotic seeing. Inward seeing embodied as the poet’s reflection glimpsed in a wet sidewalk. Human comprehension as a kind of seeing. What is seen is the natural world and the people in it, including a woman whose parakeets get loose, a bitter tablemate at a reunion, and “Harry and Nellie” getting married in two separate states, along with trash pickers, temps, bark beetles, and birds. Margaret Mead and the Virgin Mary are here, and Phidias, the ancient sculptor who “saw” with his hands. There is also blind faith and a disturbingly azure evil eye attached to the back of a baby’s blouse. Diogenes and his lantern get a cameo, along with T.S. Eliot, Rainer Rilke, Walt Whitman, and Octavio Paz, whose quote “To see the world is to spell it” could serve as an epigram for this entire wonderful and whimsical collection.
Poems like  “Greek Urn on a Greek Urn” and “Born Again Again” are witty and perceptive, seeing the way our world infinitely replicates itself and able to see beyond the surface to deeper tensions and issues, such as what is engraved on the urn: the master “enslaved” by the system that gives rise to hierarchy, class distinctions, and slavery (a topic that recurs in the book). The poems are mostly free verse and accessible, but some are in form and some, like “Born Again Again,” use surrealism. I admire Woodworth’s ability to make fresh metaphors from homely things, asking for example, how we can draw on our own eyebrows when our vision fails. What do these things have in common? In the end, it is the vision of the maker that brings them together in these poems, Woodworth’s uncanny ability to find commonality among things that only appear to be disparate.
Let’s have a look at today’s poems. “Switchblade” is free verse organized into six variable-length stanzas, a narrative poem telling the story of an encounter with a former classmate at what might be a high school reunion. The poem opens in the scene of their reintroduction to one another when the speaker learns that the friend they had in common is the man’s ex-wife. About halfway through the poem, stanza 5 flashes back when the speaker and her tablemate were young and in school together. She recalls having carried a switchblade knife then, “for shock value,” and for “the way it made the boys laugh.” We smile at this and at the memory of boys planting cherry bombs in mailboxes, but these images also introduce an edge of violence that helps set up the darkness that closes the poem.
The third stanza uses anaphora, repeating the same word (“he’d”) at the beginning of each of its three lines, and uses parallel construction in its syntax. These devices force a focus on the verb tense used by the man, preparing for the next stanza’s single line: “There’s bitterness in the pluperfect.” I just plain love the word “pluperfect,” mostly from my mother’s deliberate and frequent misuse of it to describe anything wonderful, as in, “Becky, that necklace is just plu-perfect with that dress!” The word actually derives from the Latin phrase  plus quam perfectum, meaning “more than perfect,” and refers to action in the past that has been completed (in contrast with “imperfect” actions, which are uncompleted or continuing). In the context of the poem, it’s a witty, original, and effective way of saying that the marriage and everything having to do with Sally Curtiss is about as over as it could possibly be for this man, but that it was not always so. The tense conveys a sense of loss, and of bile. Woodworth uses it to make a grammatical pun that returns in the poem’s last two lines with “the future beyond the simple present / [that] held no laughter.” This is the kind of word play poets love and what often helps distinguish poetry from prose.
I always enjoy poems that play with language, but the other reason this poem spoke to me is that it all felt so authentic and even familiar. We’ve all met that guy, right? And we all have made faux pas like this at high school and other reunions. Moreover, the things this speaker remembers are things I did, or similar to things I did, in high school. Recognition is part of what makes any literature (arguably any art) enjoyable and resonant. My friend Mary used to insist that we read the libretto and listen to the music before attending any opera. She told me that recognizing something—anything—would bring me more joy during the performance, and she was right. Aristotle talks about recognition (anagnorisis) in his Poetics, noting that when used in conjunction with surprise and reversal it is an effective way to generate pity and fear in the reader—for him the primary goal of the written word.
The poem takes a dark turn at the end, probably another reason I like it. The phrase “blood / mixed with strokes along thighs” is disturbing, evoking the violence and physical damage that can accompany sex, and what comes next is a litany of not-so-funny things such as oaths taken and broken. It ends on a bleak note—the speaker and her tablemate are laughing now, in the “simple present,” but in the future, laughs will be fewer or will not exist at all. It’s another way of reminding us that all we are enjoying today will one day be lost, and what could have been a nostalgic, humorous, and ultimately forgettable poem about high school reunions winds up saying something deeper and truer about human experience.
“Imperatives in the Late 1940s” is a free-verse narrative poem with three stanzas organized into 9, 10, and 10 lines. The first stanza opens in a painterly scene of a woman disrobing, with her lover in the next room. Details about the discarded clothing—chignon, garters, and seamed stockings—root the scene in its era, the late 1940s. Even without the man lurking in the next, darkened room, there is something distinctly voyeuristic about the scene, and I thought immediately of Edward Hopper and his brooding interiors, especially the two shown below.
 

“Summer Interior” by Edward Hopper

 

“Hotel Room” by Edward Hopper

 
The word “stanza” derives from the Italian word for room, and we do find ourselves in a different room in stanza 2. Talk about starting in medias res! We enter the delivery room at the moment that the baby’s head is about to “crown,” or clear the birth canal. In some ways this scene is the logical result of the first one: sex produces pregnancies which lead to births. As in the first scene, the man is apart, literally down the hall and smoking a cigar, indulging in a bit of pleasure that contrasts dramatically with what the woman is enduring just paces away. That juxtaposition introduces an element of irony, deepened in “Sodium pentothal keeps her [the woman] out of the room, too.” Because this is the 1940s, the woman is sedated during childbirth (my mother called it “twilight sleep”) and the doctor is a man (“his large hands”). The last few lines of stanza 2 do what poetry does best: makes us look at something we take for granted and see it in a new light. Sodium pentothal was great for controlling pain, but it prevented new mothers from being emotionally present for the births of their children and, more gravely, posed the risk of mother and child not waking up at all. What looks like or looked then like a routine procedure takes on ominous patriarchal overtones in these lines, “pulls an inert human being / from an inert female body.”
Stanza 3 turns away from the man and the women in these two scenes of sex and its fruition and focuses on passages relating to new mothers found in the Book of Common Prayer. In this context, once again something accepted at face value becomes suspect. “Being churched” sounds kind of creepy and cultish, right? At the very least it removes agency from these new mothers and imposes action on them, action that does not sound like a whole lot of fun. In light of the louche scene that opened the poem, that “ritual from a virgin’s immaculate universe” fairly bristles with irony and exposed hypocrisy. We sense the speaker’s condemnation of a book that prescribes love “only” for God, especially given that a very human, carnal love is what produced the child and very reason for the ritual. Next, the speaker reads “the imperatives,” the rules for new mothers returning to church, and zeros in on the one telling them to be “decently appareled.” The speaker fairly scoffs at this—as if!—and follows with two images that close the poem. The first is of a woman—horrors!—entering church in pedal pushers (a casual garment popular in the Forties); what is being scoffed at here is the notion that anyone would have done that in the 1940s and how silly that all seems now. The last image, though, is what allows the poem to flirt with nostalgia without falling in, transforming an interesting account of 1940s patriarchy into a more timeless and universal exposure of religious hypocrisy. Just as no self-respecting woman in the Forties would attend church in pedal pushers, the poem tells us, neither would she enter a church “veiled and ambling in on a she-ass.” As, of course, did who but the Virgin Mary.
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