On the radio, Merce said, Do it backwards.
Jump first, then run,
even when it was just with his arms, when he got old,
even if some people hated it.
—Jean Valentine, from Break the Glass
Or closure, as it’s called among poets, but not a “we need closure on this” sort of thing, certainly not that cheap and cheesy “because we have to get on with our lives,” though at the end of all poems is the return to the day as it was, its noon light or later, supper and whatever madness long over, reading in bed those few minutes, next to the little table lamp. But to come out of the poem’s tunnel of words—the best way is to be blinking slightly, released from some dark, eyes adjusting, what was ordinary seen differently now. Or not. At times the shift from reading to not reading is so graceful it’s transparent, the poem itself Robert Frost’s “piece of glass” skimmed from winter’s icy drinking trough and held up to melt and melt the real world into real dream, then back, his moment of clarity unto mystery returned to clarity again. Of course, that actual gesture comes early in his “After Apple Picking,” a poem full of what might “trouble” his dreams in the wake of such hard work. Its last line is one low-key gulp, his “Or just some human sleep” itself following something about exhaustion more wistful and weird: “Were he not gone,/The woodchuck could say whether it was like his/Long sleep, as I describe its coming on…” As in—hey! Let’s ask this woodchuck here, shall we? And how absolutely odd and brilliant that we never see this move as comic, though it could be right out of Bugs Bunny or The Simpsons, depending on when you started to find things funny. But Frost isn’t funny, at least not in this poem, where sleep isn’t exactly sleep either.
Such sleight-of-hand only proves how tone can control things, and that success, if not triumph, in a poem is largely in the accumulation of word, syntax, cadence tangled and guided by two seemingly warring elements—a most particular fever and tact, right to the end. Plus how unexpectedly but inevitably any final moment emerges out of all that has gone before, the rise and fall, the order of those choices as they press a wayward, fierce descent down the page or in the air to make the poem mean. “Theme alone can steady us down.” Frost wrote that, too. And maybe it’s true, though we don’t much use that t-word anymore.
I love what Marianne Moore left behind in an essay: “I tend to like a poem which instead of culminating in a crescendo, merely comes to a close.” Note well her “merely”—one of the many things in Moore to put on pause and willfully distrust. But her remark suggests at least two kinds of ending: the grand orchestration vs. the simple okay—shrug—it’s over. Frost’s “Or just some human sleep” lies clearly in this second category, though something remains vulnerable and lasting in that sound. The choices here—the poet’s or, his just, his some—all together now: his “or just some human sleep”—conspire to a studied indifference, an almost indifference in spite of that wide-eyed “human” there. More, that “human” up against an animal’s apparent untroubled sleep makes sudden and eerie how unknowable we ourselves are. News flash: words mean things. And human here at the bottom of all that comes earlier, its underscored double beat cast among this small run of single stressed words is, no, not a crescendo. Moore would have approved, I think, if what anyone thinks might matter to her now that she’s past any ending, though of course one could argue she isn’t. Her poems, at least, are not. They keep ending. Which is yet another crucial thing about poetic closure.
Whatever Moore’s fondness for no trumpeting as a poem slips back into silence, her own endings carry a range of findings. I say “findings” since she refused to call them poems at all but “exercises in composition,” though that may be like saying good doctors only “practice” medicine when the patient, recovering against all odds, proves that something more serious is going on. Three findings then, although admittedly pulled out of context—which must be illegal, this marking the branch and not the whole tree.
First: from possibly her most anthologized poem, “The Fish,” the final two sentences threaded down through four uneven lines do what seems to have pleased this poet most, lay out a genuinely abstract statement—”Repeated/ evidence has proved that it can live/ on what can not revive/its youth…” (puzzling, that, as only Moore can puzzle)—followed by the visible, the charged. “The sea grows old in it,” she wrote, as if this were afterthought, a fresh discovery, and yet, Moore being Moore, bewildering too, despite the hard beauty of the ocean’s expanse.
That we reach the mind’s eye through sound makes the process here quite physical: rambling, then abrupt, a distant, busy, abstraction-laden sentence pulled up short by a final one of six single-stresses, three and three, perfectly balanced, relatively clear but baffling all the same, especially that final note: “…grows old in it”? You can feel the jolt in your body, so yes, it must be true! She’s that alert, even to the tiniest of words! In it. When has the word “in” ever had such power? You can mull and mull this a long time until the whole notion of fish, of time, of watery depths quite overwhelms. Then again, Moore’s obsession was both to stay and shift, to think and finally abandon that thinking, so, too bad, she might have said about any second-guessing, too bad. And then: I have other “exercises” to write.
For instance, take her poem “Propriety” and its ending, far more chatty, even arch, but it too keeps turning and comes to rest past wit, in an equally sobering and mysterious light—not to mention how along the way she reinvents the pansy as a side-note, taking everything cute and squishy out of it:
…Brahms and Bach,
no; Bach and Brahms. To thank Bach
for his song
first, is wrong.
both are the
uncursed by self-inspection; blackened
because born that way.
A final example is her “Nevertheless”; its last four lines pose a question, then a second one, which alchemizes to exclamation—”What is there/like fortitude?” Moore asks. “What sap/went through that little thread/ to make the cherry red!” Abstract statement—whose ante is upped to way-more-direct and welcoming by its syntactical delivery as question—becomes image again. It’s simile now, metaphorical, which makes it half and half, abstraction and the real thing, too—we’ve all seen a cherry, we know that sweet drill—but this poet’s observant fascination with the natural world is quirky, an imagining down to a near-molecular level.
Clearly Moore is one smart cookie, and the sound of thinking is a thing we might relish, closing our eyes to call her poems back in some dark room of remembering. It’s a double whammy; she thinks about her thinking—which almost overdoes its grown-up job as elevated assertion, though her whimsy is a counterforce, a kind of hesitation that keeps each poem considering its options even as it decidedly bows out.
I end, you end, we all end—sure, okay. And we mime that cruel or solacing fact in poems, hoping for something both sensible and strange, assuming that’s a preferred outcome. Take this, says the doctor, and his reckoning is drift or delusion through all hollows and impassible places, however they layer. The poem tangles or it weaves. Either way, careful. We make that.
One of the simple, great things about poems is that for the most part they are small inventions—a page, two pages. That is, we can be there with them; we can hover, literally over them, a few moments for the eye, an ear to them briefly, and how many breaths from first line to last? Not that many. Which is to say, in reading—as reader—the finished thing, or in its morphing into revision if we’re actually the writer-thereof, we can enter into it again and again until all becomes a kind of soothsaying in reverse, to stare at a poem (as reader) or its draft (as writer) and note how the ending in fact comes to be, came to be, or could come to be, bringing its most secret life as both earned thing—fashionable to say that now—and as deep surprise. (See Frost, via one of his old chestnuts, his “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” And who doesn’t love that easier-said-than-done rule?) But there must be a map somewhere, however dim, a trail that ends in the Minotaur’s cave. Perhaps reason, if not willful cause, can be gleaned, a trigger for the poem’s closure-to-be, if not a full body press running from start to finish.
So consider something as commonly shocking as a dissection lab, medical school, where what little backstory the students get on their cadavers includes gender (though it’s obvious) and age (not that clear) and cause of death (rarely immediately apparent). The body opens like a gift or like a shipwrecked trunk full of treasure, however waterlogged, splintered by rocks, locks busted, hinges sprung. So one peers into these fellow creatures for weeks, into a him, a her, whoever they were, they are. And one finds clues way back—that’s what the mind is programmed to do. One begins to notice what it was that led forward to this moment beyond death, to these shiny tables in this glaring light. It doesn’t take much of a prophet to say: lungs filled to the brim with bad yogurt-esque stuff equals pneumonia, or that plaque so thick in the aorta means the heart just stopped. More intricate and left unremarked might be those tiny pouches springing off the colon like so many puddle-colored Christmas tree lights—diverticulitis in the oldest cadaver, say (but she had years and years, so there!), or the liver in the big guy, ominously speckled. To those still breathing, to you or to me, such things suggest a future, be warned. To the dead: it’s the past—fable and illustration, at best a cautionary tale to those of us left behind. They’ve months ago boarded that boat to the afterlife by lantern light in some Doré-like etching and now we stand above them, to track and figure. With pattern comes clarity, the future by way of the past seems inevitable, bad news that pressed forward as an inescapable given though one hopes for amazement, which amounts, in fact, to a timeless staring into, however cut short by this once.
Is the poem a body? Underscore an honorable yes, and the poem keeps living. I swear it does, even after years on the page, sitting steely, all knowing enough, selected or collected, or anthologized, its maker decades under the sod. Miss Moore? Her rush to get to that blinding red cherry and its fortitude before checking out altogether in her poem “Nevertheless” is egged on and engineered by her sharp-eyed detail from the very start, the body of her poem taking up the natural world in such bursts of appreciative wonder that the tercets she makes barely do the trick of holding all in order as her semi-manic, stop/start enjambment pushes forward. How calmly she takes off, but how haywire things get. “Nevertheless” is, in fact, her title and first word, starting the piece in mid-argument; then she steps sideways. So—”nevertheless”
You’ve seen a strawberry
that’s had a struggle; yet
was, where the fragments met,
a hedgehog or a star-
fish for the multitude
of seeds ….
To go on by way of Moore’s raised, peculiar eye is to find some saving grace in rubber tree roots that “still grow/in frozen ground,” this “once where/there was a prickly-pear-/leaf clinging to barbed wire,” then those carrots stunted-grown big as a “mandrakes/or a ram’s horn root some-/times.” But it’s the grape tendril that incites real awe as it
ties a knot in knots till
knotted thirty times,—so
the bound twig that’s under-
gone and over-gone, can’t stir.
All these details loom up and recede like something out of dream as we fall from line to line, larger to smaller to larger again, as the poem makes the experience of looking at such things quite alive for us, the dreamer so meticulous in her mapping. If this poem were a body, we’d see a series of small wrong-ways, little crash-and-burns battled by muscle and vessel, foreshadowing a final resistance that no, won’t work forever—but what a fight! (The nerve of the real nerve, say, that takes over for a defunct nearby one in the leg, or the lung which works double-time when the other one deflates forever.) Partly it’s Moore’s shrewd, plain connectives that acknowledge defeat and buck up regardless: her “yet,” her “still,” her “once” that ache as each word quietly insists. Then it’s her blurting out “Victory won’t come/ to me unless I go to it.” Her qualifying unless reads as human hope, just a thread of it, before her musing on those hyperactive, resilient grape tendrils kicks in. The rhymes in the poem—her “til” and “tendril” and “where” and “there” earlier, her “yet” and “met”—could be other attempts to make it all all-right even as her emphatic, surprising enjambment stands apart, well, amused.
The body doesn’t work or it does, or it doesn’t, or it…Moore’s counterpoint is a kind of breathing—another one of Frost’s claims I can’t shake, that “there is no advance, only expansion and contraction.” Finally this poem is poised to end in the astonishment suggested all along by shifts of scale, then her line breaks’ fractured words and double-dealing, which, in turn, imply control, a certain distance. Distance enough, I think, to make her choice of near-aphorism credible again, for—and in spite of—how universally inward and thus inarguable it seems, her noting how “The weak overcomes/its menace, the strong over-/comes itself,” dipping into—God forbid—what we might cliché as “a teachable moment.” Yet not for long, because Moore really isn’t a moralist but loves the world instead—her real saving grace—finally ending in image and its flash of life. Besides, she’s way too weird. After what’s come before, this ending is loud, fully voiced—a question, an exclamation in motion as if we’re out of dream now, stunned into blinking realization: “What is there/like fortitude?” she nearly, then really, shouts: “What sap/went through that little thread/to make the cherry red!”
Happiness? So is this an ode of sorts, to that? But there’s dark in those knots, the “bound twig,” her smited-unto-epic carrots. Moore was a hardass, never Pollyanna. She makes trouble—not misery—with her twisted imagery and her enjambment off its pins, on edge.
It occurs to me to add that as I write this, I hear things. Downstairs, a new sound, really an old sound at the door, key in, a low pure pitch, no duration to speak of, then another sound as the key turns. I hear it, its teeth fit, or maybe I hear this since I know a key has teeth—or has been bitten itself to have them. I picture the small wheeze, the push to unlock. And the pleasure—he’s home, which is to say, we’re both home—at the hinge sound, the sound of the door-as-it-opens sound, a slight drag to it, its weight lifted, part of it doesn’t want to.
But that rush of air anyway, outside to inside, a stop, a giving up, to go on.
That stop—an unsettling, engaging impulse as poems zero down to meet their end. I thought this largely due to a hit of dissonance, a musical idea with a long history and still affecting what resolution—another loved term—means to composers, at least. And of course, there’s a heart-stopping angle in that major to minor key business, too. But dissonance: never the nice dinner party, always the unstable move. In music, it could mean one note set uncomfortably close to another and the ear resists, a seeming misstep, pain in that, though exciting in small doses until it’s all begging for consonance—a little room, please—a return to something balanced, bearable, the space between notes familiar, and if not particularly happy, that moment, at least gracefully unhappy. Consonance as “a point of arrival,” says Roger Kamein, reigning archduke of music theory, “of rest, of resolution.” This may be one of the simplest definitions of beauty: you build anyway—it could hurt—then you release.
About poetry, we don’t exactly say dissonance, though tension makes the point, or contrast—force stopped by a counterforce, a yes, a no, then perhaps beyond that somewhere. And required—here’s Frost again—his surprise as a key outcome to any twisting of thought into afterthought. For instance, there’s the long rambling soliloquy that makes up the bulk of the poem “Chinese Leftovers” by Mark Halliday, where the anxious, witty, by turns self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating speaker laments his life. In short, he’s lonely and alone (“Oh lord, once/on this sofa I wrote truly poignant lines about Cathy!”); he’s read himself into a stupor, great book after great book (“When I think of the hours/…lost dozing over Felix Holt“); he’s at odds with his old dad (“maybe you would be the right son for my father”). So he’s tipped back a couple of beers and actually written those words down—”two Budweisers at midnight”—as a thing to do, now that he’s done. Now what? What can happen out of a messy outburst this funny and whiny and earnest? The turn, sonnet-like, is quiet, almost sweetly to the point. “I’m sort of in trouble,” the speaker tells no one, the register suddenly lowered. It’s like something patched through on a bad radio. And in the treasured tradition of the lyric, as Auden saw it, we lean in to overhear this private realization, and sink with it, too. A couple of choices here, unto proverb: we can laugh or we can weep. And either could mean empathy. Still, how Halliday pulls away from all the earlier whirling that caused this more internal admission, is thrilling. And why not? I’m sort of in trouble. Partly—that’s all of us, right? Its dark lift, regardless, must be part chemical, natural opiates in the brain, I’m told, released whenever a thing clicks and resolves.
So many ways to do this—to write a poem’s last words. Options, then, even as endings must grow out of all that comes before. Most are self-inflicted; others just aren’t, at least not entirely. The fact is we hear poetic closure quite differently over time. It can depend on literary fashion, breathed in like air. We can’t help it. What’s cool or, more to the point, what’s not cool, could mean an ending, once okay enough, now seems tedious, so yesterday—the horror, the horror—melodrama slipping in and you read it over and over to diagnose: too willful or plain pretentious, too breathless, veering toward precious, too big bang beautiful for this ironic age, too something. Or the kind of closure we’ll even consider as we dream up and revise becomes a matter of where we are in our reading or writing lives, or that we’ve changed by way of a lived perspective—had children or car wrecks, watched too many die, got married or unmarried or hopelessly transfixed by a very pretty river. It could be simply how much patience we have, or what we want more of at the end: danger or safety, a new planet or a scene close to where we started, though there are other deeps to fathom, beyond such a dichotomy. We’re sometimes told there’s a greater plan. In my first time as a child, say, maybe ending rhyme was solace against all things unnerving, but only if I believe the classic assumptions, that to be a kid is to be adrift in strangeness. You need unconsciously to ground yourself, a kid does, and in its repeat repeat, rhyme does that handily. A reasonable theory, but honestly, I don’t recall that particular delight as rescue, a shading that strikes me now as rather adult, a gravity after the fact. Anyway, some kids, blessed with watchful, heart-in-the-mouth mothers, yearn and burn to be scared, to slip, to fly.
Still, the sonnet’s finale—at least Shakespeare’s two-tone click-shut version, that calm couplet sound earned by the usual knock-down drag-out of its twelve-line argument—did set a precedent in the sixteenth century for the poem as thought-device, poetry in motion, a finally-figuring-out to a last ta-da! or duh! or just a low-note yes, coming after. When it’s windy and really dark in the mind, not much can beat the charm of a couplet. “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings”—so ends Shakespeare’s famous #29 after much ado about envy and “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and other personal disasters. The ghost of the sonnet is all over free verse, too, including that two-step feel of closure, my epigraph above from Jean Valentine’s poem “I dropped a Plate,” for example, the complication and comfort in the couplet-like ring of her ending lines as she invites in Merce Cunningham at ninety, still dancing: ” … even when it was just his arms, when he got old/even if some people hated it.” And there, the singing same thing comes first in each line, her even, and her even again.
Shakespeare’s last twinning lines that rhyme their end-stop words—first “brings,” then “kings”—do mean in a large rhetorical way, his sonnet’s shining thread gone public in the ore. Two threads, though, two lines, add up to relief most emphatically, a sort of literary equivalent to what musicians call the “amen cadence” to finish off a piece, a “remote distance” kind of gathering-up we might remember from church, sung out—a-men—the “a” and “men” so much the same really, just a few notes’ difference and like siblings who look alike, born a couple of years apart, holding hands, jumping semi-triumphant off the roof together (though one hopes for a trampoline below). As that musical cadence descends—a slow dark in the falling a-men—we hold tight to the familiar sound still floating with us, and so come home with it, and to it.
But cadence is a curious word, one that carries a slightly different sense in music, and not the poet’s meaning, which isn’t necessarily the end of anything but the rather freelance rush of part, not whole, of phrase on phrase to make line and sentence in any poem—the meter of that, how it sounds in the mouth and the air, all the teeth marks still on it to start and continue, winnowing pause by way of line break and comma and dash. It could end somewhere, whatever run, at any point in the poem. In music, it’s straight out darker, referring exclusively to how things close, the end of a phrase or of individual movements—or the end of the entire business, what poets call closure—but almost always a descent, the musical cadence taking its juice straightaway from Latin, keeping true to its originating caditia, “a falling from,” through Italian and into Middle English still falling, all that time. Further, whether song or symphony, it’s traditionally a progression of chords moving to a harmonic point of rest—the tonic—a place where things do resolve, a vivid, very physical way of expectation played out to its reward most literally. My cellist son, Will Dunlap, seemed puzzled at first by the poets’ looser understanding, then turned insistent, speaking up for musicians. It closes, Will told me, be it a riff or the whole piece: cadence, end of story, whether it’s large or small. And I guess that could translate into a dark life lesson: suck it up; live with it; bit by bit or finally all at once, we all go down. Musicians and poets include “modulation of voice” in their definitive-stands, voice being crucial to both, a purely human sound the body makes, its wily turns most certainly “modulations.”
Back to Mark Halliday: his tone changing makes his “I’m sort of in trouble” as much blood and bone as any bodily gesture when his poem checks out, a credible sound in the four single stresses—I’m/sort/of/in—which gather to stall movement. The repetition of those single beats, in turn, force something hypnotic and inner-worldly, “a voiced pause,” critic Harvey Gross might have said, given that he saw most repetition doing a silencing trick, a fiddling with the mute button. All this, before the last word—trouble—kicks in as a double syllable hit, the heaviest stress first, a pure trochaic reprieve which may not fix everything as the truly nice-dinner-party iambic could with its press on the last syllable, but it does ground us, taking any reader down and down, a shade ironic in the ending upbeat, releasing nonetheless. My son is right. And this particular cadence is rest—it closes—how that feels after the exhausting tirade before it, to fragment and never quite dissolve, though not much more can be said, at least out loud. That’s the private sound in this most private of genres, poetry, which mimes best our getting lost, being lost, and maybe, with luck, something after that. Though similar to the sonnet’s ending couplet in that both are pushed inevitably by the touch-and-go adding up of argument in earlier lines, Halliday’s closure is not as clearly intact or confident as what end rhyme—Shakespeare’s or anyone else’s—can imply. The good news? Trouble=broken=it keeps going, into aftersound.
Call it aftersound, then. What a flood of aftersound in any decent poem! Which must be like shadow, though it doesn’t walk after you but absorbs everything that went before. A living part of closure, then, not a mute postscript. Think first of the silence before anything as equally palpable—before the first notes of the oboe which lead into a rich welter of violins, the sound of our settling into seats, of stop-talking, of stop-thinking-those-other-thoughts. Like the sound of winter mornings, no birds but a crow or two. Or the silence of snow there, how that covers, not quite a shroud in bright air. Jump to the aftersound then—after the last crazed pooling of cymbal and French horn and clarinet have welled up and over; after what he said, what she said; after the cat’s wailing out there, the car roaring off, the pavement’s ice shining under the street lamp. Think actual light, the so-called “magic hour” that many filmmakers cherish, the sun gone down but you can still see everything, the intensity lost, the dark of trees abstracted, less contrast then, more merging so late in the day, more blue which is said to warm all color suddenly though it doesn’t have to be sudden, the word illumination.
For some poets this is poetry, a feel for the end of things from the start; some think almost entirely in this light. Jane Kenyon, for one, did that, her poems typically honed up around simple images of days lost to walking the dog, fixing supper, driving to town, common turns of a life lived. Beloved particulars—the images—do most of the work, as in her “Evening at a Country Inn” where the speaker worries mostly about the “you” in the poem who “laughed only once all day,” who might be “thinking of the accident—/of picking the slivered glass from his hair.” After closely watching, then spreading before us the details of the place and the testimony of her senses—savory smells from the kitchen, “red-faced skiers” stamping in with their “Homeric” hunger, the “you” who paces and smokes—the speaker turns elsewhere. The final four lines take us straight out to the road, the village store where a “truck loaded with hay” has stopped, its bales stacked and ordered, the work done and the world put right. “I wish you would look at the hay—/” Kenyon writes in the lowest key possible, “the beautiful, sane and solid bales of hay.”
I have an advantage, living in the Midwest in a medium-sized town where driving through farmland to get anywhere bigger is always required. So I know what one sees through the windshield in that “magic hour” of the filmmaker or any other time of day in fall: timothy, alfalfa, red clover bound up large and compact, lying in the fields for later, winter into spring, for the livestock. Kenyon’s choice of “sane” strikes me as perfectly keyed, the opposite of tone-deaf, an absolute unflash in its single-stress reserve and reach. Her linking it to “beautiful” is a new way to understand that beaten-to-death word, this sanity that literally bales up against hunger to come and quiets fear. Repetition adds depth, and slows the urgency of “look at the hay,” the central image taken up again in the last line’s “sane and solid bales of hay,” thus doing that Harvey Gross thing, the repeat making a “voiced pause” to lengthen the moment.
The singular pressure on every word of that wish, “I wish you would …,” is a most interior ache in the speaker against her outward plea—look, she insists—and the human sweep coming next. All suggest real time and real landscape. Bales of hay—to name that is to see that, and just hearing the phrase floats a kind of pictograph aftersound that never quite stops. (I, for one, can’t drive by a field with such bales now without thinking sanity.) To say that hard image conveys this discovery best would be right, for Kenyon at least. Her careful build throughout the poem is how memory builds. She instructs our eye to the weight of things; a spare use of adjective and changed perspective shades and shows her own troubled mind until we’re down to only a “wish” and those bales. Their beauty. Their solace. The fact is, it takes years to let one’s images just be without editorial intrusion—keep your mitts off—leaving them to their silence arid pull, particularly at closure. Another equation then: confidence=humility=a trust generous enough to allow the world its way.
Jane Kenyon has company in this solitary passage filled with sepia light where image and even bits of story assume a fitful depth, enough to usher us out of the poem, directly into trance. There’s George Oppen and Larry Levis. There’s Jean Valentine. And Tom Andrews is a poet who barely survives his own poems, so many cut to the edge. Their aftersound—what he erases and can’t quite say—is immense. Here’s the damning and mysterious “Ars Poetica” from his second book, The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle:
The dead drag a grappling hook for the living.
The hook is enormous. Suddenly it is tiny.
Suddenly one’s voice is a small body falling
through silt and weeds, reaching wildly …
Many things here: first, the poem ends by not ending, trailing off in an ellipsis. But go back to its verbs—the drag, the is and is, and that is again, equally emphatic, set to lead naturally to that ellipsis, whose earliest use, an implied verbal omission if not our typographical dotted version, is credited to Old Norse speakers dropping the verb “to be” as a kind of shorthand, and thereby to keep it nevertheless, that raw fact of being itself that any five-year-old knows, her look at me, look at me to her parents, maybe the first thing we don’t want to hide completely. And there’s an intriguing use of the ellipsis in the computer language Perl, too, as “true while x but not yet y,” which gets at the ghostly suspension implied by its use. Our glowing mothership, though, the Oxford English Dictionary, gives its original meaning as “to leave,” but yes, there’s also a falling in there somewhere. Tom Andrews sends his poem out by way of the ellipsis, a dreaming off or a dreaming on, an assertion he makes as if too scared to continue, or simply speechless-with-knowing. His terminal ellipse is obsessive, triggering, buoying up a haunted aftersound. It’s here and though we are leaving the poem—my God, look back!—all this is coming with us. And face it: we knew it all along.
Proof is, first line, the dead themselves in a workaday posture, eturned and armed with “a grappling hook for the living,” done up to full authority by way of the end-stop, a complete and unequivocal sentence. Two fully intact sentences, also end-stopped, make a second line. And a quick reversal. The hook is, but it grows “enormous.” It is, but it shrinks to “tiny.” And “one’s voice”—one’s voice, surely that’s a stand-in for the most intimate first person, singular and plural—is “small,” is “a small body falling” into bad dream, into “silt and weeds” and every mad gesture. We’ve passed through a life, haven’t we? Something is cycling, and won’t ever quit.
It may be that all poems, given Tom Andrews’s title, are secret Möbius strips that eventually scroll from dark to darker. But this one—we’re definitely back at the start with that closure, the dead dragging a hook for us. We’re wild for it by the final line, caught in an endless looping—the dead, the living, no, the dead who re-up in this awful half-light, again and again and again.
And can we stand it, how haunted poems can be? Or need to be? To end, then, may involve, as in Halliday’s case, a looking back, startled; or as in Kenyon’s, a near-hypnotic sense of image that goes beyond wonder; or that hook—don’t even think about that hook. Or it might get trickier, a seeming closure, but some other way to keep mulling and coming up for air. There’s a simple reason for such trickery. Here’s Roger Kamein again, his say on the subject: “When a resolution is delayed…when the composer plays on our sense of expectation…drama or suspense is created.” Or—in the case of Beethoven and Brigit Pegeen Kelly—a thing unbearable, now looming vast.
And no, it isn’t off the mark to mention these two names in the same breath. It only takes a second breath to add Kamein’s idea to connect them, one that fascinates as trapdoors fascinate, or the sudden press of truth when someone apologizes, after claiming to misspeak. I mean the so-called deceptive cadence. This must be as familiar as breathing to serious players of any instrument, and certainly it was to Beethoven, who used it on more than one occasion, famously in what was nicknamed the “Emperor,” his fifth Piano Concerto, Opus 73. A “deceptive” cadence, then, because the piece appears to be coming to a close; you even want it to, the nice dinner party that fills us up and calms us down and yes, we’re ready to go home now, thank you. Or it can seem like one end of a phone call that’s not yours but which you overhear. Frost mentioned this, too, when he wrote of his beloved “sentence sounds,” his “sound of sense” a reference not to the exact meaning of words, but instead to the rush of them through a closed door as a purely sonic, emotive read. So pretend you are a third party, listening from another room as someone speaks into a kitchen phone. The one side you hear fractures to bare monosyllables, a familiar yes, uh-huh, sure, sure, okay then—a genuine musical cadence, a descent, as the call winds down. Or not. Most surprisingly, definitely not. It isn’t over; they’re not finished. Oh, no kidding! the voice you can understand picks up again. So there a way back after all, much more to do before resolution or closure—whatever you want to call the well-earned end of conversation, poem, concerto.
To hear distinctly how Beethoven’s version of a “deceptive cadence” actually sounds, there’s Glenn Gould playing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and you can tune it in on YouTube anytime you can’t sleep and see Gould hover, glide, and nearly levitate over the piano as he—no other way to say it—impersonates these sounds. Well into the second movement, the shift comes in late, and if you’re alert, you might agree with my son’s urgent e-mail calling attention to the music’s effect: “Listen to how the phrase wants to resolve to the tonic, hit the ground. Instead, it remains aloft. And continues.”
My son’s wording suggests a full narrative: wants to until instead, then remains aloft. The sound sweeps on anyway, for several tries really, out of this almost-ending. So—no, the music isn’t stopping at all but welling big, and sometimes very trickily down and dark via a sudden minor key change, wherever that leads on its wayward way out. About his concerto, Beethoven said this: zero, nothing at all. But I wonder simply and dumbly long after the fact how it came about, this idea of a second chance at closure. Was it always in the cards? Or revised into, to mime a discovery actually lived by this composer who was notorious for working and furious reworking, rarely blessed with the apparent “first thought, best thought” of a Mozart. Beethoven wasn’t completely deaf—not yet—when he wrote this concerto in 1809, after the French had bombarded the daylights out of Vienna, which could not have helped his ears very much. But lying in a cellar for most of that time, in wait, must have resembled the lowest passage in any music, and it may have forced a second listening and considering, his hunkering down to hear a future beyond what’s broken but stunned by that long enough almost to end. He did write some words about those days in the cellar: “What a destructive, barren existence all round me, nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every kind.” And later: “I worked then for weeks in succession, but it seemed to me more for death than immortality.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song”—maybe the most narrative poem of this profoundly lyric writer—gives its title to her second collection, to begin that book focused on a more recent instance of human misery. What matters in this poem is too far-reaching and has too many dimensions to get right in one sitting. I can start a list for later: her use of Frost’s “sentence sounds,” the long and short of that telling; her metaphor that opens inward; the presence of prosaic and lyric elements so gracefully merged you hardly know this is, at heart, a kind of documentary, a report of real foul play no matter how surreal the story of a girl’s pet goat stolen and bloodied and killed, hung from a tree limb. A decapitated goat, in fact, and no, only the head in that tree, the body elsewhere, at a distance, where it “lay by the tracks.” More—”they missed each other,” the body calling to the head, the head to the body, and in that we get a tender, gruesome echo from the twelfth century, St. Catherine’s heart in Rome since then, her head, resting miles away in Siena—which I saw once, blackened, misshapen in a glass case, and wondered what first, last things head and heart might say to one another.
Inside such mythic dreaming, there is a fiction writer’s harder impulse to this very large poem, backstory involving how the girl cared for the goat, the “warm milk” she gave to it, the daily brushing, the girl’s dream of his growing “bigger, and he did.” Still, Brigit Kelly’s lyric energy is heart-shattering, and fearless. At the killing, at the goat’s “torn neck” on which flies are “already filling their soft bottles,” this poet does not flinch. And the lyric flares of detail continue: wind, stones, a train’s horn in faint earshot, eyes of the goat “like wild fruit”—too many riches to recount. Meanwhile—such meanwhile!—the narrative itself is paced as commonplace, deliberate, involving repetition enough to ground and then to hypnotize: “they hurried” and then “they hurried” and the girl “walked and walked,” she “called and called” and “somebody found the head” and “somebody found the goat’s body”—and so on. The stripped-down repeated word choice and syntax mime a deep aching, the monotone in that; we’re stained and simplified ourselves, just in the act of listening.
Which is how this poem starts in the first place—”Listen,” says the poet, with no underscoring of italics, no fanfare of exclamation. Some fifty lines later, we’re alerted in a different way: it’s “nothing but a joke” she tells us. And a lot of us, were this our poem—dream on, MacDuff!—might have stopped right there, or after a bit of embellishment to show the boys as callous and despicable, keeping her bit about how they whistle and the iconic, allusion-loaded washing of their “large” hands, for sure, a moral tale neatly clicking shut. That is, if only narrative demands guided the shape of this piece, given—as Russell Edson pointed out in an extraordinary essay that keeps coming back to me—how prose, as opposed to poetry, is finite, since it “flows through time,” and given that things “disappear…into the end of the plot,” prose so plainly “tragic”: you can’t go back, you know too much. The end now, end of story—in the parlance of our day. But it’s ancient too, the singing in this poem weighted from the start, the word tragedy coming out of Greek, a combination of tragos for “goat” and ode for “song”—the goat, after all, the usual choice for ritual sacrifice—expressing the darkest vision imaginable, finally understood.
Or never to be understood. Because there’s a crucial unknowing at work here—isn’t that the basic lyric instinct? It’s that time moves around poetry, Edson reminds us too, its sense is “of the permanent, of time held.” Thus perhaps Tom Andrews’s dead can’t let go of their grappling hooks, can’t, over and over, while Kenyon’s bales of hay will never stop comforting. And so it might be that Beethoven rethinks, no, unthinks his first closure back to an almost-closure in his fifth Concerto. His genius, then, is part refusal, part giving up, but in either case succeeds in opening a lyric space to find one more thing, just as Brigit Kelly’s does in this poem. “Listen,” she insists again, and “here is the point…/…It was harder work than they/imagined, this silly sacrifice…” She gathers up the urgent visible details that follow as straightforward narrative to finish off the story but like Beethoven’s almost ending, this too is deceptive. She isn’t done with the understory, and moves into an aftersound impossibly inside the poem now as if we were the ones sleepwalking, half out of, then again and again back into this dream. From straightforward narrative cut rhetorical and surreal, she brings up the otherworldly singing of the goat again, a sound that shadowed the poem earlier at least four times. (You can tell it’s near the end, my cellist son tells me, when a theme from the start of a piece comes back.) “What they didn’t know/” she writes, “Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them…” Which does pick up the bad news stitched first into the two opening lines, where “a goat’s head,” she tells us, “…hung there and sang…”
Here’s my point, though: how rare and astonishing to keep going past such temptations of closure, the sound of ending ready and willing already inside them. This poet tells us a huge additional thing these boys “didn’t know” and would never guess. Therein lies the power, the suggestion of a future beyond the story as is, not pinned to its narrative grid of girl and goat and boys as given, most dark and public fact. All of that is suddenly backdrop. The poem opens to a complexity, an understanding unthinkable earlier when our hearts went straight for the girl and her loss. How something can be both solace and punishment, ruthlessly particular and calmly heroic, is a mystery so wrong that it’s right, a hopeless mix. And those boys, the future will find them—like the rest of us now—haunted to the core because “they would learn to listen,” and to
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees.
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low sound a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
As for poetry, then—is closure even in its lexicon? Here, now: yet another very deceptive cadence is in the making. I mean, to think past ending, about ending, as if that could end anything. Sure, go at it. I dare you. Good luck.
But some poems we never get out of.
Andrews, Tom. The Collected Poems of Tom Andrews. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2002.
Beethoven, Ludwig van. Piano Concerto #5, op. 73. Glenn Gould with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Available online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=419h93TiCFg.)
Edson, Russell. “The Prose Poem in America.” Parnassus 5:1, 1976.
Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
—. The Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Edited by Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Random House, 1979.
Halliday, Mark. “Chinese Leftovers.” Denver Quarterly, Summer 1988.
Gross, Harvey. Sound and Form in Modern Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1968.
Kamien, Roger. Understanding Music: An Appreciation. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Kelly, Brigit Pegeen. Song. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1995.
Kenyon, Jane. The Book of Quiet Hours. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1986.
Lockwood, Lewis. Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: Norton, 2003.
Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: Macmillan/Viking, 1981.
—- The Complete Prose. New York: Viking, 1967.
Valentine, Jean. Break the Glass. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010.
This essay originally appeared in NER 33.2 and was republished on the web site Poetry Daily.