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Saturday, April 6, 2013

"Wander" by Andrea Hollander -- Poetry Daily, 4/6/13

from Arts and Letters (Spring 2013)
poem found here
 

First lines:
What we don't know we don't know,
so accept it. If your mother wandered

 

poetic structure

— reformatted Mar. 8, 2015
 

To note, I originally posted this with Ms. Hollander's name as Adrian. My apologies for the mistake.

Let's explore the first four stanzas. First, let's write them out in sentence form:

What we don't know we don't know, so accept it.

If your mother wandered when your father was stationed in France during the war before you were born, before you were even conceived, so be it.

No matter what her sister told you years later, after your mother died, what does this matter now?

First, and quickly, notice how clumsy that third sentence is. (The same clumsiness exists in the poem, not just in sentence form: the line breaks do not save it.) Part of the reason is because the "what" is semantically irregular, perhaps even bordering on bad writing, even when you remove the middle "after" phrase:

No matter what her sister told you years later, what does this matter now?

The "what" issue, however, may be side effect of the greater issue: there's also a major problem with time, with a clash between "years later" and "now." The phrase "no matter what her syster told you" generally is read to be a lead-in to a comment about the time of whatever it is about which the sister is speaking. For example:

No matter what her sister told you, your mother did not shoot the sherriff.

For this you should also be able to see how the "years later" does not fit smoothly within even that sentence:

No matter what her sister told you years later, your mother did not shoot the sherriff.

Throwing in the middle "after" phrase just makes it all the weaker. It is a sloppy sentence, and I would not be surprised if when writing the poem, if the author had written it in sentence form, she would have seen it herself. It is very easy to hide clumsiness from yourself when writing sentences as poetic lines -- especially when you are arbitrarily breaking the lines (which means you are not paying much attention to the rhythms of the text). To me, it seems the author here is trying to do too much in one sentence, and it using the idea of 'poetry' to try to get away with it.

The issue is that the sentence has far too many times in it:

  1. the now of the poem
  2. the time of the mother's action
  3. the time of the mother's death
  4. the time the sister spoke about the mother's actions

That's a lot for one sentence. It needs to be broken up to fix the chaos. First: recognize how "years later" is superfluous. The context itself creates the idea. So let's just leave that out. Second: why say "no matter" twice? Doesn't the "what does this matter now" only repeat the first "no matter"? I broke it up, but killed the superfluous parts. So, in the end, there still need only be one sentence:

What does it matter now what her sister told you?

See how the "years later" is rather implied? Granted, it only works if the idea that it was, in fact, years later is not essential. If it is, we can bring that back in. But now we do need to break up the sentence:

It was years later her sister told you. What does it matter now?

Let's get wacky sophisticated and use a semi-colon:

It was years later her sister told you; what does it matter now?

So, how does this effect the poem?

What we don't know we don't know,
so accept it. If your mother wandered

when your father was stationed in France
during the war before you were born,

before you were even conceived, so be it.
It was years later her sister told you;

what does it matter now?

The "what does it matter now?" remains its own line, and we've removed a ton of clumsiness.

Let's move to the second sentence. I take issue with "during the war" and "stationed in France": I find them redundant. One or the other can readily be gotten rid of, when looking at just the sentence. (I'll add the missing comma.)

If your mother wandered when your father was stationed in France, before you were born, before you were even conceived, so be it.

Or,

If your mother wandered during the war, before you were born, before you were even conceived, so be it.

Much better sentence, that, and I do find this latter option the much more interesting because of what it does not take time to say. What with the later lines about the field hospital and the nurses, the poem does make it clear that it was the father who went to war, and the mother stayed home. (Remember: the assumption that everything in a poem must be wholly understood when it is first read, each line and stanza understood when it is first read, is wholly fallacious.)

So what do we have now?

What we don't know we don't know,
so accept it. If your mother wandered

during the war, before you were born,
before you were even conceived, so be it.

It was years later her sister told you;
what does it matter now?

Has the tone of the poem changed? It doesn't seem so to me. Just a bit more condensed. But, when you realize that that which was removed served no great positive purpose in the poem (and did insert no small negative), condensation is less condensation and more tidying up. So the next question: was anything lost in that tidying up. (Actually, a rather important question.) What the lost phrases did add was an extension of the rhythm of the stanzas.

Which is, actually, what first brought me to talk about this poem. There is in those first stanzas an aural effect of listing phrases:

If your mother wandered
   when your father was stationed in France
   during the war
   before you were born,
   before you were even conceived,
so be it.

My thought when reading it was, what if the structure of the poem recognized this? What if the structure of the poem both played on and emphasized the structure of the phrasing? (Of course, now we are rewriting – exploring different, new possibilities and potentialities – so it is not longer merely the same poem tweaked.)

What we don't know we don't know,
      so accept it.

If your mother wandered during the war,
   before you were born,
   even, before you were conceived,
      so be it.

(Years later her sister told you.
      What does it matter now?)

(I like the period over the semi-colon in that form.) Makes for an interesting idea, no? The rest of the poem would get thrythmically boring (if not flat out silly) if this was the only structural idea of the poem. Though, perhaps, the rest of the poem could be reworked in a way that flows out of this. Could be an interesting experiment (an experiment in a form other than that of arbitrary line breaks).

 

A note:

I decided not to put a comma in the first line, like this:

What we don't know, we don't know,

It's not necessary. I would argue (though without much force) that it is permitted since it does help with the reading. But, I actually think it changes the meaning of the sentence. With the comma in it, it becomes a list, as though this was the opening phrase of a sentence such as:

    What we don't know: the guy's name.

and you were repeating the first "what we don't know" for emphasis, as with this:

    What we don't know – we don't know –: the guy's name.

Obviously, as I wrote it it is something of a silly idea, so we read it the way it is intended, as statement and clarification. But, that 'list-ness' – to me at least – still lingers.

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