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Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Sister as Moving Object" by Jan Beatty -- Poetry Daily, 4/25/2013

from The Switching/Yard
poem found here


First lines:
my sister is moving in me again
with her long          arms and legs


some general, exploratory questions

— reformatted 9/30/15

I have a number of questions about this poem. My talking them here rather slants to the feel of critiques; but if I was in conversation, for some of them I would like to hear the poet speak her justifications: I am always wanting to have someone point out to me something I am missing. Hopefully, for you readers, I am prompting explorations, some things to ponder.


I don't see very much reasoning behind the fracturing of the lines, or much consistency in its use. In many places in the poem the fracturing gets in the way of reading, creating a choppiness rather than an intended breaking up. (At stanza 7, "she raised me up," it starts getting very bothersome – even annoying – for me.)

Directly related to this, the wording of the poem works counter to the fracturing in many places. If you are going to fracture the lines, why then have syntax that wants to join the fragments back together, as with the "like" in line 33:

I took to the heat          like a dog to an electric fence          don't go past

Simply leaving the "like" off would not change anything except to improve the sense of the structure.

Another example is the prepositional phrase in line 9:

Rocks the house          to 1965          wearing pink-pink-

Why not write it is a independent noun phrase (for example, something like a "1965 in a" phrase).

In the other direction, why say "moving to tell me" in line 3, when its wording is on its own fighting the upcoming gap. Why not, simply,

talking in moving          she's still here          don't go past

(By the by, "moving to tell me" is rather already stated in the title of the poem. No need to restate your premise: just demonstrate.)



To say, I have no issues with the splitting up of "pink-pink-" and "caked on lipstick." It works well, as does the "teased-up- / Ann-Margaret hair" line break across 10-11. Though, I see no sense in the hyphens after "up" or the second "pink": they seem gramattically incorrect and poetically unnecessary (if not detrimental). If they were on a single line, would you write "pink-pink-caked-on lipstick"? I read the first hyphen as creating an emphasis:

Mutt: "What kind of pink was it?"
Jeff: It was pink. It was pink-pink. It was PINK-pink.

In fact, I am going to try to remember that use of the hyphen. It works very well.) However, adding the hyphen after the second pink reduces the effectiveness of the first, because the words are now merely two in a chain of four. Plus, I have a feeling it is just enough outside the norms of grammar to cause a little stumble.


Sometimes the situation is reversed, and the breaks work against the syntax/semantics. For example, the natural reading of line 7

some days          an ocean liner          splitting

is that the oceanliner is cracking in two. The "splitting" should not be split from its necessary object, "the dark waters." Though, the problem here is not wholly the fault of the fracturing. It could easily be fixed merely by changnig "splitting" into something that can not point back to the ship: "slicing through" or what.



Some of the wording contradicts itself. Most glaringly, line 8 opens up the description of the sister with "my sister's particular beauty" – a phrase repeated down near the end of the poem – and yet, that description ends, at line 11, with "could've been anyone's / sister." One of them cannot be correct.

But, note that I am not talking about events like in line 29:

with everything coming          his thin teeshirt          i watched their mouths:

That is more the effect that the fracturing is supposed to create, to be able to put fragments of thought together to create a combined whole or continuous flow ideationally without doing so grammatically.



I see that the "I"s in lines 29 and 30 are not capitalized, while the "I"s in lines 31, 33, and elsewhere are. If intentional, it reads like an error, since there is no reason evident in the lines for the change to lower case.



Why have the comma in "she, later" – in the second to last stanza – and not have the complementing comma after "music"? Is the first one really necessary?



I can make no sense of the some of the moments in the poem. For example, there is "magnetic" in line 6 (how is a truck magnetic? what is created in calling a truck magnetic?). And then there is "from the guyot to the springboard" in line 17. "Springboard" is hanging in the air, with nothing else in the poem to connect it to anything. But, even at the simplest level, how does one connect a springboard to a guyot? (I am wondering if Ms. Beattty has a incorrect understanding of what a guyot is, since I see no way you can substntially connect the idea of swimming or diving to the idea of a oceanic guyot.)



This is by far the most interesting question/comment.

I'll bet you anything this poem would be greatly improved if it was rewritten without the woman being anybody's sister, with it being written simply a description of a fictional character. I say this often: most of the time the presence of an "I" weakens a poem, and weakens it in the writing of the poem. For whatever reason (I do have reasons, but I say "for whatever reason" because I don't here want to get into them), for whatever reason, people are sloppier, and put less effort into a poem when they are writing out of or through an "I." And this poem in particular screams out to me "GET RID of that damn 'I'! I could be so much more interesting without it!"

Now, many writers – I am not saying this poet in particular, here; I am talking about conversations in the past – will counter with something like "but I want it to be about my sister" or "but it is about my sister," both being an appeal to some necessity behind the presence of the "I." It is that very want, that very pull of "but this is what really happened," that leads to the weakening of the poem. (And look at me, I'm getting into reasons.) You have to get your head out of that mindset. Great, artistic portraits are not great because they are spitting images of the person who posed. (In fact, the oft repeated truism is that replication of reality is the lowest form of art, because it is nothing more than technique.) Great portraits are first and foremost about the painting. (Rembrandt's self-portraits are intended demonstrations over time to this point.) When you are more concerned with the "I," wth the reality than with the poem, you have established an obstacle to the success of the poem. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth talks about how a poet must remove themselves from the immediacy of the experience so that they may analyze the experience, and cleanly do the work of turning the results of that examination into poetry. There has to be a degree of removal, or the experience overwhelms the writing process, and the poem fails.

To me, this poem seems loose directly because of how often it needs to point out that it is about the speaker's sister. Very little of the poem is actually about the relationship between the speaker and the sister: most of the work to that end is done with explicit statements. Most of the metaphoric work is simply about the sister. Ergo, I say this as something to ponder: the poem is confused because the emotions that spawned the poem wants to constantly say "this is about my sister and our relationship," but those emotions and that resulting want gets in the way of the real energies of the poem, which are, simply, the description of a woman. So, then, why not simply write a poem that is the description of a woman?

Or, alternately, scrap the poem, get some distance, study and explore the relationship between the speaker and the sister, and write a poem about that. This one isn't quite working.



Finally, on a similar vein, but one much more exploratory, the title of the poem – "Sister as Moving Object" – is very much the kind of title one might see connected to a work out of the school of Futurism. (Here's a wikipedia link.) Mina Loy was possibly the only truly successful U.S. Futurist poet (not only in popularity, but in bringing the ideas of Futurism successfully into the medium). It would be an interesting thing to read up on Futurism, and rewrite this poem, or write a poem within the idea of "Sister as Moving Object" in a manner derived from out the school. That just to say, perhaps to prompt.


Just to say, if you do not have Mina Loy's collection, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, I strongly press it upon you. Not only is it very good, it has the potential to teach you a lot.

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