This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.
I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”
Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.
But if one thinks of narrative as dealing with some external notion of time, rather than moving at the speed of thought, then Zucker’s work fits the bill. Reading her book was rather like looking at a painting by Seurat. Once I let go of trying to grasp each line’s – or even each poem’s – meaning, once I softened focus and allowed the poems to wash over me, patterns began to emerge. I’ve noticed that modern narrative often happens in a sequence of lyrical poems. This is the case in Zucker’s book. Taken as a whole and read through from start to finish, the book traces a path from marriage to pregnancy, parenthood, the death of a parent. It culminates in the masterful long poem “Here Happy is No Part of Love,” which depicts in vivid detail the birth of a second child. We tend to think of narrative as tracing a faithful line of chronology, and the order of the poems in this book fulfills that expectation. But taken individually, the poems often do mimic cognition – moving at the speed of thought – and fall into what Hoagland calls the associative mode. In “[Propriety][i]”, for example, associations ripple out from the title of the poem. It begins: “in French the word “propre”, then lists both meanings of the word: “cleanliness” and “ownership” But in between them, she writes and then crosses out “in a sense,” thus connecting the word to its English connotation. A proper woman is a clean woman, and preferably “owned” by a man. The next lines “some men like / some men like” contain within them many possible readings. Do men like proper women? Dirty women?
The white space, the cross-outs, and the empty brackets all evoke the sense of random association and fragmented thought that permeates the book, one that becomes more and more pronounced as the speaker’s pregnancy and new motherhood dissolve her sense of self (“I am the fish around / the hand around the fist of DNA”[ii] … “I spared nothing to make you / and have nothing left”[iii] … “one day I will be a cloth monkey”[iv] … “I am a thin stain”[v] … “and where is my lost wherewithal? / stubborn body”[vi]).
I haven’t often seen such extensive and effective use of white space and creative punctuation. As with CK Williams’s poems, the physical book’s dimensions must stretch to accommodate the text. The 8.5” x 8.5” square format provides an unusual reading experience, one that would be hard to emulate in electronic format. Poems with more traditional line breaks and stanzas nestle in the left and top, whereas many poems sprawl or dance across the page.
Zucker breaks the book into sections with almost-blank pages containing a progressing pattern of o’s, one with an elusive logic. Taken as a whole, they can be read both as small exclamations (“oh!”) or as a visual representation of cells dividing. Zucker’s book explores the messy relationship between mind and body, so both readings seem appropriate. The final poem “Here Happy is No Part of Love” uses both long, almost prose-like lines interspersed with single words and phrases splayed across the page to evoke the elastic nature of time during a high-stress event such as childbirth. This technique draws the reader right into the mind of the speaker as she gives birth. And staggered within both kinds of lines we find once again the small o’s that separate the other sections of the book, unifying the manuscript into a narrative whole.
When ordering the poems of my first chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore, I struggled with the question of whether to use chronology as the narrative thread that ties the poems together. Considering the poems in this manner helped me to tighten the focus of the book and unify the speaker’s voice in particular sections. It’s important however not to be enslaved by the literal course of events that gave rise to the poems, nor to the order in which the poems were written. There’s no way of knowing whether Zucker’s Last Clear Narrative actually follows the course of events in her life – or even that the speaker of the book is the poet herself. And even in the most confessional of poems, there is a difference between the constructed speaker in the poem and the flesh-and-blood poet. While it’s unlikely that my poetic style will come to resemble Zucker’s, it’s informative to see how she works with the question of narrative and chronology in the context of this book.
Zucker, Rachel. The Last Clear Narrative. Wesleyan University Press, 2004. Print.
Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Poetry Magazine. Academy of American Poets. Web. Published Mar 21, 2006. Accessed Feb. 20, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/68489
[i] Zucker, “[Propriety]” p. 14. See next page for full text of the poem.
[ii] Zucker, “Being Marked or Obvious (18 Weeks)” p. 31.
[iii] Zucker, “The Twenty-Seventh Week” p. 43.
[iv] Zucker, “Thistle, or Letter for my Husband (33 Weeks)” p. 44.
[v] Zucker, “The Window Is One-Sided It Does Not Admit.” p. 50.
[vi] Ibid, p. 51.