Poetry Issue 15

   Issue #16 : January-June 2012

Mabi David

      Lines of Resistance: Some Notes on the poetic Line

      My reaction to the idea of what is “poetic” is always immediately visceral. Too often the poetic is misunderstood as confined to a certain sound, a certain combination of certain words—poeticizing as opposed to poetic, or as some friends and I like to say it, O, gumo-gossamer ka na naman. It can be a prescription that if observed persistently and without study, precludes, for instance, the line “This life is a burden/” from EJ Galang’s poem Tortoise. Clipped and straightforward, the line drops the cloak of the figurative that the idea of “poetic” mantles itself with and delivers its awful message. Is it poetic? To me, it is.

      My antagonism can only mean I’ve fallen prey to poeticizing myself, wrote russet and chartreuse when red and yellow would have sufficed, gossamer when web would’ve been the more judicious choice. How else explain this surliness? It was like I stumbled into and slumbered in a pit made of the fleecy delicate down of euphemisms.

      Often, we disregard the peril of sacrificing precision for the slack and haze that poeticizing lends itself. (I must stress here though that poeticizing can be a crucial strategy in a poem. Contemporary poets after all must be inheritors of a vigorous and principled self-reflexivity.) I also realize that my antipathy towards it has to do with how the practice tends to cultivate in the writer a kind of content with its own allure or a kind of susceptibility to its own sleights, satisfied with how the proffered wisdom sounds wise, how a substance sounds like it’s substantial. Not unlike loving the sound of one’s voice.

      This brings us to what a poetic line means to me. So as not to sound too much of a curmudgeon, I want to share the pleasures I derive encountering the lines in the poems of Kristine Domingo and EJ Galang. We learn more from reading other people. As regards talking about my work, I can only talk of intention, but Carissa asked that I discuss how I view the poetic line in my works as well.

      So: briefly and generally: each poem from Unto Thee up to You Are Here is an effort to fix on the page the sound I hear in my head. The rhythm of the aggressive need for order is always one I feel physically and must hammer and nail to paper. I do not know how to begin otherwise. The poems in You Are Here had to correspond to this restless rhythm I felt looking for a language of loss, loneliness, and dissolution, and for a long form that strives to match the sensation of bristling against and wanting to slip from its built-in susceptibility to the epic and the monumental.

      And so, in response to your question, with me unfortunately it is not so much “how the cut lines contribute to the internal rhythm of the poem” as how to conform to the sound and the rhythm that generated it in the first place. I try to keep this in mind so that I can guard against my tendency to keep employing a certain kind of line, as if one kind can immediately and effectively deliver the same results each time. No size fits all. The poem must be ferried into being by the sound and sensation it seeks to match in every line.

      I believe that what’s crucial to successfully incorporating the poetic line in a poem is the understanding that each line must be a poetic line, and must in fact resist the narrow definition of incorporation. Never merely to include, as if a poetic line is something stitched on and made seamless with the “non-poetic” ones. Rather we must go back to its late Latin roots, in corporare, to form into a body, i.e., the poem and every line in it is the idea, the experience, the sensation embodied in language. The effort must be not to incorporate the poetic line in the work, but to incorporate, period.

      How I define the poetic line owes a debt of gratitude to James Longenbach’s books The Art of the Poetic Line and The Resistance to Poetry. His ideas inform these notes. I think the former especially addresses the second question posed to us today about how to incorporate the poetic line in one’s work. He writes, “[Line] cannot be understood by describing line alone: the music of a poem—no matter if metered, syllabic, or free—depends on what the syntax is doing when the line ends.” Also, “No particular line is valuable except inasmuch as it performs a dramatic function in relationship to other lines in a particular poem: one kind of line ending becomes powerful because of its relationship to other kinds of line endings.” What matters therefore, as I understand it, is relationship: of line to syntax, of the line to the sentence as it unfolds into the structure that is the poem on the page.

      Much pleasure may be derived from a form that proposes another set of ways by which we establish relationships between things, between matter and perception. Consider the riddle. The typical form of the riddle is well known: it consists of a question and an answer, so that while it traffics—revels even—in paradox, word play, contradiction, and ambiguity, its very essence is, ultimately, to reveal rather than to conceal.

      How then does a riddle profit from the idea of the line’s value as contingent on what it does to the poem’s syntax?

      In EJ Galang’s poem “Tortoise” from Riddle of Nowhere, published by High Chair in 2010, the persistent enjambment of all nine lines reinforces the slow pace that is the clue to the riddle. But knowing the answer here is only part of the fun. The answer is not always nor entirely the point, the poem tells us.

      This life is a burden

      I am willing to bear. Flesh

      does not move me.

      Not many things

      move me. In a kaleidoscope

      dome I keep

      my tenderness. My time,

      I take. Home is anywhere

      I take a break.


      “Tortoise” is a short poem that consists of six sentences, with five of the six ending mid-line, seemingly complete sentences unto themselves: “I am willing to bear.”, “I take.”, “move me.” They have left behind their source sentences—“I am willing to bear.” startles like an afterthought; “Move me.” is severed by a stanza break; and “I take” by a line end and a comma. They do not belong to the sentences that start immediately after the period either, although together, apprehended by the eye as a single line, they partly make sense: “I am willing to bear. Flesh”, “move me. In a kaleidoscope”, “I take. Home is anywhere.” No. Wait. Yes, the mind thinks as it encounters the poem’s deliberate effort to further stay the ending, where the answer may be found.

      I admire the work of enjambment in this poem. Enjambment is something I deployed in You Are Here to create a sense of motion, and frantic motion at that. Here, rather than propelling the lines onward, they seek to cultivate almost a sense of stasis by proceeding incrementally into each idea.

      “This life is a burden”, the poems seems to end almost as it begins, recalling the last sentence of Lying on a Hammock by James Wright (“I have wasted my life.”) and in Robert Hass’s The Feast (“She didn’t know what she wanted.”) Except the poem begins with this line, so that quiet forbearance is as much an option as bleak finality and resignation.
      The poem chooses the former, and in the next seven lines, the next three couplets, the poet leads us to a shift from the awful message that starts the poem to the final line, one that alleviates it as it ends. Even the quality of the line end in first line and in the last line transforms. This shift, to me, would not have been possible were the poem written the way a folk riddle would unfold, following either normative turns of syntax or as complete syntactical units. That version would have been stripped of the feeling of arrival. In its place would be a mildness that is fostered by its discursiveness and sensibility that finds content in its confinements, but which the final version of EJ’s poem resists.

      This life is a burden I am willing to bear.
      Flesh does not move me.
      Not many things move me.
      In a kaleidoscope dome I keep my tenderness.
      My time, I take.
      Home is anywhere I take a break.

      With EJ’s lineation, we derive much pleasure from the sense of inevitability, how the poem finally arrives at what it wants to say. And what it wants to say, as I mentioned earlier, is not merely the answer to the riddle. A greater satisfaction lies elsewhere: the poem itself as it enacts the wisdom it wants to offer.

      EJ’s enjambments progressively counter the awful message of the first line, doing so through its slow, deliberate unfolding. In the second line of the first stanza is a simple declarative, calm and decisive in light of the previous line. It tells us that it will bear. But how? This is the poem’s journey.

      Set in the middle, “I am willing to bear” successfully looks back at its object (life) in the first line and the object in front of it (flesh), and, in a move typical of riddles, the abstract transforms subtly to the more apprehendable. The next stanza, another couplet, when taken together rather than parts of two different sentences, as well turns the negative into a positive: Not many things does not move me. It is this tension characteristic of the riddle—that of reveal and conceal, hide and seek, one thing for another—that the poem is able to use to its advantage. The lines exist not as islands unto themselves, rather they reach out and cast a web of correspondences and conjunctions to other elements throughout the poem.

      The next stanza also reinforces the technique of repetition ushered in by the sounds of f and l in “life” and “flesh” and b and r in “burden” and “bear” in the first stanza. This time, repetition may be found in other forms, whether to strengthen the idea of nothing, or as words (“not”, “my”, “take”), or as sounds (the sibilant s, the hard k and p that shuts like a lid, whether in “kaleidoscope” or keep”, the long m when it follows a vowel in “ time” or “home”), all placed in the poem strategically to further cultivate slowness.

      For instance, the third stanza has two lines of dramatically different lengths, with the first one containing the imperative “move me.” that is soon followed by a long word that threatens to roll off the tongue in a smooth fluid motion to open up into the second line, except that here, as I mention earlier, the hard k and p sounds of “kaleidoscope” or keep”, placed at the end of both lines momentarily seal this stanza shut, safe for the time being from spillage.

      But, at the same time, the bright connotation of kaleidoscope prepares us for the change that awaits us in the final lines, where the burden has become a shelter, and relief lies as well, we are shown, in one’s own agency. The poem ends with a one-line stanza, a poignant abandonment of the formal efforts cherished in the previous four stanzas.

      Kristine Domingo’s untitled poem (“A woman runs her finger across“) ushers the reader into another terrain of knowing. What is it to know, how, and consequently, what prize knowledge if by our inquiry we mark the world within our measure?

      A woman runs her fingers across
      civilizations yet to exist, as if to read.
      Upon the cost of a map from
      an Age of Discovery,
      the keeper vanishes to the backroom.

      A mirror crops the world into
      a continent, a few islands indistinguishable,
      seas anonymous, marked by ideas
      taking the shape of hopes,
      then simply space as limits

      of water as passage of time.
      A price is declared into thin air
      upon a request forgotten.
      The woman does little to conclude.
      It is as if touch would suffice

      to hold on to all that could transpire even
      as her reflection betrayed,
      saw smaller. Would feel like
      the thought of a man aboard
      a sea unnavigable.

      The poem means to privilege a way of knowing that sets itself against the kind that is delimiting, the motion of knowledge to begin with: “A mirror crops the world into / a continent”, “seas anonymous, marked by ideas / taking the shape of hopes, / then simply space as limits /”, “her reflection betrayed, / saw smaller.” Subtly set against this is an undercurrent of mystery and conjuring—“the keeper vanishes to the backroom”, “A price is declared into thin air”—and a tension exists between the more dominant progressive course of discovery, enlightenment, and acquisition that is associated with cartography and the shadow aspect of the unknown or the negative: “yet to exist”, “indistinguishable”, “anonymous”, “forgotten”, and “unnavigable”; a tension between the human acquisitive impulse and that which resists our purchase.

      The poem begins by assigning palpability if not materiality to that which has yet to materialize, with the strange hyberbolic claim of running one’s “finger across / civilizations” making the gesture more substantial via the exaggeration fulfilled by this figure of speech. “[A]s if to read” makes present an absent intention, and the sentence introduces in the action of reading with one’s fingertips not simply the idea of blindness but rather the alternative possibility of coming upon knowledge as we deny ourselves our normative means. The next time “as if” appears (at the end of the third stanza: “It is as if touch would suffice”) the urgency of the action is made more manifest and material in light of the attenuating and devitalizing motion in the second stanza, when one reaches after knowledge of the world too rationally and in mercenary fashion.

      I especially love the phrase “seas anonymous”, an unexpected tandem that calls attention to the absurdity, and then immediately holds up a mirror to our avid practice. The world may be had for a price but the instances of transaction are transformed by the word “upon”. Rather than use “on” and “at”, Domingo uses the more formal “upon” and by changing the register, the transaction becomes ceremonious as if to say, this doesn’t come cheap, there is a price to pay. “Upon” also removes the sensation of a contact (which “on” and “at” as prepositions of place achieve so affably) and rightly so given the nature of what’s taking place.

      The lines in Kristine’s poem fulfill a crucial dramatic function given the tug of war taking place between, in Longenbach’s term, “revelation and occlusion.” In the poem, it is important for the lines to show how to put up a resistance to easy availability by making patterns and then disrupting them.

      Throughout, the poem proceeds like a tango of approach and retreat, as the lines alternate between enjambed lines (“A woman runs her fingers across”, “Upon the cost of a map from”) that move the poem forward then simple noun clusters that stay the poem momentarily (“an Age of Discovery”, “a continent, a few islands indistinguishable”, “a sea unnavigable”), and then noun-verb clusters accommodating change and consequence and moving it forward again (“seas anonymous, marked by ideas / taking the shape of hopes, / then simply spaces as limits // of water as passage of time.” ) then complete sentences or complete syntactical units (“the keeper vanishes to the backroom”, “A price is declared into thin air” “The woman does little to conclude”), which is, finally, the sensibility privileged in the world and the particular event that is captured in the poem.

      All this is marked by quiet decorum facilitated by predominance of the long hissing sound and polysyllabic words (“civilizations”, “Discovery”, “unnavigable”, “continent… indistinguishable”), which effectively neutralizes the momentum of words. There is an expert refusal to call attention to the nerve and bravura that sometimes enjambments can easily fall prey to.

      The poem ends with the image of a man and the woman face-to-face with the consequence of the acquisitive impulse. The poem takes place after all that is unknown has been named, and there are maps of and to them that we can own. It is wry, bitter pill of an ending. Still the poem offers a resistance by ending with two sentences in the conditional mood, although tempered by evidence of the maps, the civilizations that now exist, and the purchase being made—but momentarily forgotten. The refusal to conclude the transaction is fully embodied as it is set not at the end of the poem but within it, giving rise afterwards to the imagined space where human beings must learn how to come to terms with their narrow impulses vis-à-vis a greater, largely incomprehensible world. Out of this awareness we might be able to negotiate the means by which we can know the world more meaningfully without forfeiting its power.

      Ultimately, what I admire about these two poems by EJ Galang and Kristine Domingo, which is the reason why I choose to talk about them today, is how they skillfully demonstrate how the lines function organically within the poem, teaching us that a poetic line is not an end unto itself. That each line belongs to a larger network that is the poem, and where they must establish a slew of relationships that demonstrate deliberation and study in the poet, while at the same time resisting an all-too-aggressive display through disjunction, disruption, and even obfuscation of the very terms they laid out for themselves. Resisting definitions and manners that previously worked for the discovery of another, potentially more dynamic force. Resisting certainty and inevitability while at the same time moving towards them in the poems. This impulse to resist its own self, to persist in questioning one’s stable beliefs that poetry cultivates in the reader is an impulse that liberates.