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Saturday, June 22, 2013

"We Come Elemental" by Tamiko Beyer -- Poetry Daily, 6/22/2013

from We Come Elemental
poem found here

first lines:

We step into the humid light.
It sticks to our skin


the good of sound and form; the bad of ideation

Here's a poem with a scientific slant -- and you would be surprised how hard it is to write a scientifically oriented poem without it becoming aurally clumsy or turning into Tom Lehrer's Elements song. (Here's a good animated youtube spot, because it's worth the click. Notice the dischord in the opening measures, and how it forwarns the unavoidable silliness of the effort.)

There's some good stuff here with sound and form. Form wise, the lines are created out of the wording; the stanzas created with the lines (and all vice versa), so that the stanzas and lines each have purpose and self-resonance. And then there is the use of the indent to mark a thought within a thought (that is, stanzas 3 and 6 are ideas within the ideas of stanzas 2 and 7, and 4 and 5 are within 3 and 6) -- something I like, though I wonder if the indentations might be too large, visually.

With sound, this poem is a live with rhyme and aural repetition. Let me see if I can chart out the play here, including rhymes, slant rhymes, and repetitions (whether I like the repetition or not). I'm doing this half to see if it will be an effective way to display this. Because of the narrow margins of the blog, I am going to shrink the indents. I'll only do about the first half of the poem.

We step into humid light.
It sticks to our skin
and microbes gorge
in greywater runoff pools.

The chlorophyll chorus sings
our collected chemical stew
nitrogen! nitrogen! nitrogen!

     Each molecule polished
     each o each pair of h a banquet of lust

           wet sludge::
           stream suds::
           oil slick rain::

           ::eat the bread of our body's slough
           ::eat our bread the crumbed down drain
           ::eat of our bread our rainbowed fuel

Not a bad graphical experiment, there. (If you knew how many times I styped "spam" instead of "span" you'd be laughing pretty hard.) I think it does successfully show just how much of the poem is in aural play -- which is a lot. (Well, it tapers off in the end -- which, actually, was noticeable to me without having to chart it out. So it prompts what is an interesting question as to whether it is a weakness of the poem that the first half is greatly in aural play, but the second not so much.)

But back to the poem: I am in the air as to the use of "::" as punctuation. I far more like the second use (in stanza 5) than I do the first use. I am pretty sure that what Beyer is doing is writing two stanzas and pairing up each line from the two stanzas. Though, I think the wording -- especially with the second lines, where "suds" does not pair up with "crumbed" -- betrays that usage. Though again, the third lines -- oil and rainbowed fuel -- is a pretty obvious link. It is a very interesting use of a punctuation. But is its purpose different enough from what you would get with an m-dash to sustain using a new punctuation? Does this not work as efficiently?

wet sludge
stream suds
oil slick rain

— eat the bread of our body's slough
— eat our bread the crumbed down drain
— eat of our bread our rainbowed fuel

Like I said, I'm up in the air on it myself. And it's a question that really would have to be answered by looking at how Beyer uses the punctuation within other poems. It is also only in looking across poems that we will be able to see to what degree the new punctuation actually serves a worthy purpose, and to what degree it is only visual gimmick.

I also want to point out the meld of hard science and poetry in line 9: "each o each pair of h." Something that is far more graceful than you might at first realize, and worthy of a tipped hat for the cleverness. It is no small thing that Beyer did not try to pluralize "h." The interesting question is why did she not capitalize the elements, and if it is detriment or supplement to the poem that she didn't? For example: it would be supplement if it brought something new to the poem with it; it would be detriment if it made it look to the reader like Beyer didn't know she was supposed to capitalize the letters. Keep in mind: in symbols, "o" and "O" are not interchangeable. I leave that for you do debate.

So, aurally and with the visual structure, I love the poem. Where I have problems with it is in is ideation and in the semantic structure.

To start, the poem is very wobbly on focus and subject. The first line is "We." But, by line three, the focus has moved from the "we" present-in-the-scene to "microbes" -- and from there on, until the end of the poem, the "we" is wholly absent. So I am immediately led to question if this is yet another poem that has been sabotaged by the urge to have a narrative "I" in the poem. Can not the "we" be taken out without any real change in ideation, other than eliminating the too-violent shifts in focus from the "we" to the events in the world around the "we"?

Then, once in the world, that shift in focus remains problematic, which should be immediately apparent with the "and" in line 3. The sentence is:

It sticks to our skin and microbes gorge in greywater runoff pools.

There is a complete shift in subject and location in mid sentence. There is a way to fix it with a change in punctuation:

We step into humid light:
it sticks to our skin.
And microbes gorge
in greywater runoff pools.

That way you have two grammatically seperate events -- "we step" and "microbes gorge" -- with the light sticking being a modification of the first. The jarring jump is greatly lessened -- but not eliminated as the "we" still disappears from the poem. "Light" continues through the poem, obviously; but, the location of the light radically shifts between lines 2 and 3 from the skin of the speaking group to runoff pools. If you read the first stanza as the syntax and semantics as written leads you, what the stanza is really doing is equating the speaker's sweat with microbe-filled runoff. I don't think that is what Beyer intended.

Again, another problem that would have been solved -- one that probably would never have occurred -- if the narrative "I" were eliminated from the start. And hopefully you can see by know the problem with that "we": the very fact that the poem has to make an immediate and radical shift in focus should have lead Beyer to note the "we" was causing far more problems than it was worth. Especially in that the last lines do not at all require the return of the "we" for their ideation. The presence of the lines in the poem would be enough to create that feel of summing statement. The "we" is irrelevant to the effort.

There's another shift: why is "each o and each pair of h" the banquet, when it is light -- not water -- that is the food for the microbes?

All that leads into what I think is the biggest problem of the poem: its use of the two opposing ideas of industry and nature. They are not controlled, and the poem has a hell of a time keeping track of what it is doing. Follow the ideation through the poem:

  • Lines 1-2: This is a positive idea of the experience of nature (one I would really like if there was a period after line 2)
  • Lines 3-4: The focus's radical shift from positive skin to negative greywater pools
  • Line 5: Positive image of photosynthesis
  • Line 6: Negative image of pollution
  • Line 9: Positive image of "banquet of lust" (well, assuming "lust" is supposed to be positive)
  • Lines 10-15: Negative results of negative causes, though caged in the positive of "mangia! mangia!" (which would be ok if the rest of the poem was stronger in its ideational control; but with weakness to either side, it picks up some of the wobbliness)
  • Lines 16-17: Positive result of the microbial banquet: clear pools flowing back to rivers . . . . BUT:
  • Line 18: The rivers are identified as "veins of industry"? SO,
  • Line 19: How do we get from "clear pools" to this positive idea of Nature (water and shells) if the water is passing through the "veins of industry," which is the cause of the pollution in the first place?

And that's a very cursory plotting, at that. The opposition of positive and negative is not controlled semantically, and as such the poem becomes difficult to read closely to any success.

Finally, there is that last stanza, and yet another radical shift in focus: not just from the world back to the we, but from the site of all the action in the middle of the poem -- i.e., water -- to a whole new, never before seen focus: leaves on a tree. And it is not that the focus shifts back to the general idea of "light." The wording is "green's good was light veined through leaves." There is no comma: the phrase is restricting the predicate from the general "light" to the specific "light veined through leaves." Even if it were non-restrictive, it is still turning the point of attention to a wholly new direction: the poem starts with light sticking on skin; then radically moves not to "light in the water" but to the microbes, and now shifts back to light, only now light "veined through leaves." Do you see that the site of photosynthesis has also now shifted, from the microbial water to the leaves?

I'll risk repetition and say it again: if there were no "we," the poem would never have been tempted to look beyond the water: which is where the body of the poem's ideation occurs. It's only the "we" that pulls it out into the sky.


A couple quick points. (1) It should be "is light veined," not "was" ("we learn again green's good is light veined"). (2) Should there be a "the" in "crumbed down drain"? (And, there's that small problem in that bread down a drain is not in the least "crumbed.") (3) This might seem small but I see the mistake made elsewhere: notice how it is important that there is no comma in "greywater runoff pools," so that "runoff pools" can be a two-word noun.

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