I sleep well. So, when I woke up in the middle of the night a week or so ago, it was somewhat odd, but it happens. Normally it presages one of two things. Either something large, at least to my small world, is about to happen, or it is a call to prayer I can’t refuse. Sometimes it is both. But that evening, I woke thinking about pair of poems. Actually I awoke thinking how simply unpoetic my name is – Mark Brown. Poetically it’s a spondee, a one footed projection of stress. And while I might be tempted to repent of pride and narcissism for thinking about the poetic nature of my own name, that really wasn’t it. One of the poets that I find constantly readable is Dana Gioia who early in his work was a leader in something called The New Formalism. All that really meant was that while the rest of the world was lost in formlessness, he went back and said something like “hey, these things called meter and verse and rhyme and formal images; they are actually very important things; we should stop forgetting them”. So, when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your name as a spondee, it’s not actually about me. I’m just scanning a verse poorly.
Enough about me, I’d like to actually give a deep read to the two poems running through my head that night. First is this one by Dana Gioia called Accomplice.
In dusty fields I harvested the vine
And sweated at the lever as the grapes were pressed.
My aching hands still clutched their vagrant wages,
Sleeping in the cold barracks of the dispossessed.
But now at dawn, beyond the reach of reason.
I wake in the chateau between your tangled sheets.
My sunburnt arm across your naked shoulder,
The mute accomplice of our mutual defeat.
My scansion or scanning of the meter is rough, and I think the poet is taking a few liberties, but the meter is iambic pentameter with several substituted feet and some compressions taking place. By compressions I mean things like reason in the first line of the second stanza normally has 2 syllables, but in the poem I think you read it like reas’n. Or like lever in the second line of the first stanza is probably lev’r. To me that sounds like my Midwestern tongue constantly running over second soft vowels and final sounds. The first line is the easiest setting the da-DUM pattern of iambic feet. And here is where my spondee enters. How my ear reads, wages is the only spondee (doubled stressed) part of the first stanza and defeat is the only spondee of the second stanza. While the poem might be called accomplice, the stressed words are wages and defeat. Any interpretation would need to wrestle with those words in the midst of the poem.
Why this poem captivated me is that I think it breaks all kinds of polite society rules. It is an incredibly subversive poem both within itself at a level 1 and level 2 (words and paragraphs) and I think at level 3 (bringing in other known facts from outside the formal work).
In stanza one the woman is working, harvesting the vine. She is the definition of fruitful. She has a vocation. Yes, that vocation brings aching hands and cold sleeping quarters and a place with the dispossessed. But, that vocation also brought wages. This woman has nothing of what our society would say is the good life. She sleeps cold in the barracks. Her bedroom is not the boudoir; her bed is not the heat of passion. She does not have privacy as she is in a barracks. Her work is not about self-fulfillment. It is about work, sweat and levers and pressing and aches. She doesn’t even have a home or a place. Her aching hands clutch vagrant wages. This woman has nothing of value in our society, but she is the one with wages. She is fruitful with just a hint of hidden power as her hands hold the level that presses the grapes.
But now, like the evangelist Matthew’s Look! Behold! This same woman is given everything. But unlike Matthew, it is a much different dawn she awakes to. She wakes in the chateau. The caesura or mid-point of the line is just after that, giving a little pause. No longer in barracks, that rough word replaced with the rich French loan. The privacy affords tangled sheets, and how they get tangled. But now that hint of hidden power is gone. Her sunburnt arm lies across the naked shoulder. Her dark against the naked light. The effects of living in the sun and working placed against the skin of one who follows self-fulfillment. And instead of clutching wages, she has nakedness. Instead of pressing the grapes, the arm lies still.
No longer ensconced in a solidarity, even if it is one of dispossession, the world is silent. Everything that once testified to worth, now mutely speaks defeat. Interestingly it is described as mutual defeat and accomplice. The last line leaves me with the question why is this a mutual defeat? Would not the world normally view such a scene as a conquest? It should be said here that I’ve assumed a gender that is nowhere supplied. It might be just as likely that the sunburnt arm is male and the naked shoulder female (or male?). How is this scene, where everything our world values is given, called a defeat? How have hard wages become a conspiracy of loss even in the midst of a chateau? It is beyond the reach of reason.
I think you can see how the poem is deeply subversive of the controlling cultural values just looking at the poem itself. Level 3 type readings are usually highly suspicious. We have enough trouble reading ourselves let alone inferring about others off scant evidence. So, I only mention this because I think it is supplementary to the work itself. Everything in the high sanctums of literature is about gender and inequality. This poem playfully plays with both. The main character, who I have taken as a female, isn’t actually specified. My reading would probably be deemed misogynist in the academy. That gives the final scene an unresolved question: is it a pale rich male taking advantage of a poor brown female or is it a strapping brown male used as stud by a bored pale female? Who is taking advantage of whom? Or when we do such things are me mutual accomplices? Likewise the modern academy would think the dawn of sex is an unadultered good thing as long as it is consensual. Yet this poem finds it barren, a defeat, the loss of the lever. On top of this I would add the insult that a GOP era NEA chair appropriates to himself the voice of a brown person. A former executive at a fortune 500 company, as the poet is, presents himself as the voice and experience of the dispossessed. You can hear heads exploding over the gall of the oppressor doing such things. Yet, the poet is also the son of a Mexican-American, which would normally grant one racial privileges. Yet if you look at his photo that doesn’t seem just. We are straying into the weeds of level 3 now, but I think it helps us see the point.
And that point is that the wages of the world, sex, money, finding yourself, are actually spiritual loss. It is the dispossessed, the person who loses themselves in their vocation, who find fruitfulness and wages. It is a mutual defeat because oppressed and oppressor need each other. They do it to each other trapped by the surroundings of the chateau which itself will fall into the wine presses. The poem begs us, lost in the status of the world, to look with fresh eyes on what is of true value.
Leaving Accomplice behind I wanted to turn to a second poem that struck me as asking some similar questions. Face Down by Mary Karr is not the subversive poem that Accomplice is, but it desperately begs us to look with fresh eyes upon the world for true value. Instead of slyly making comparisons of our false pieties, it flames at how we abuse each other. It replaces the mute accomplice with a haunting presence and a silent picture. What is that need that we all so desperately need like smack? That need we try and fill with everything the world will give us?
Face Down by Mary Karr
What are you doing on this side of the dark?
You chose that side, and those you left
feel your image across their sleeping lids
as a blinding atomic blast.
Last we knew,
you were suspended midair
like an angel for a pageant off the room
where your wife slept. She had
to cut you down who’d been (I heard)
so long holding you up. We all tried to,
faced with your need, which we somehow
understood and felt for and took
into our veins like smack. And you
must be lured by that old pain smoldering
like woodsmoke across the death boundary.
Prowl here, I guess, if you have to bother somebody.
Or, better yet, go bother God, who shaped
that form you despised from common clay.
That light you swam so hard away from
still burns, like a star over a desert or atop
a tree in a living room where a son’s photos
have been laid face down for the holiday.