Saturday, October 18, 2008

>Spencer Reece's "Eclogue"


“Eclogue,” The New Yorker

            This piece by Reece grooves on sound.  This is not to say the narrative isn’t interesting, but really it’s the acoustic craft that, for me, makes the poem worthwhile.

            The story is this: Joseph Saul is an Alzheimer’s patient who hasn’t yet fully crossed over into the land of total detachment.  Laurie McGraw, “whom he met at the Alzheimer’s Support Group,” is his friend/lover of sorts.  Reece writes, “she had been a caregiver,” but it doesn’t appear she’s Saul’s caregiver, at least not occupationally.  Anyway, they’re at the park feeding ducks, having a good time by connecting and not connecting.  They have found a unique harmony in that they never quite seem connected to each other, but it’s precisely in this way that the two are bound.  They share a loneliness and futility.  And that’s basically that.  More or less, the poem is what the title claims it is, a contemporary eclogue.

            As for sound, Reece is fond of staccato-rhythms caused primarily by short words and hard consonants.  Assonance and consonance also work heavily toward this end.  Consider these lines from stanza three: “On her day off, she washed her blind dog / with soap . . . . The duck strutted in uniformed plume, / greasy black-green, speckled red-pate . . .”  The language oscillates—here and in other places—between sort of an iambic/anapestic lilt and the hard spondee of, in the above case, blind dog, duck strut(ted), black green, and red-pate.  It keeps the ear engaged and keeps the poem progressing nicely through moments of calm and moments of activity, perhaps akin to the poem’s characters.  Like them, the rhythm seems to find its harmony in disparity.

            The above passage also demonstrates Reece’s play with assonance and consonance, which furthers this homogenizing of sound.  In the first line, he repeats the O in On: “On her day off, she washed her blind dog” (italics mine).  The D in dog gets repeated throughout the stanza as does the P in plume, which occurs two lines later (a few Ps are actually placed in between these lines).  In fact, I would argue that this poem is primarily dominated by P and D sounds as early as the first stanza, as late as the last: “In Juno Beach, on Pelican Lake, / Joseph Saul ate potato chips off a paper plate / and fed the broken bits to a duck” and “the duck’s scufflings as Laurie made a note / to arrange another semidetached date.”

            Often Reece’s assonance is very close to rhyme, but the rhyme is usually internal and its placement shifting.  Consider a few lines spanning the second and third stanzas:

. . . she had been a caregiver, he had a diagnosis,

and together their eyes vacantly connected.

Laurie spelled her name with a large dot


or a star atop the “i.”  A born-again,

with two failed marriages so far,

she sent Joseph pamphlets in the mail . . .


The first internal rhyme here is caregiver and together; the next, dot and atop stretches across stanzas; then star and far, at the end of the line; and, failed and mail, also at the end of the line.  Notice, too, the Ds, Ps, and hard Cs (K) are ever-present, as is the poem’s roving spondee.

            All in all, these tools of our trade make Reece’s poem a fun read and, I think, a unique one among much of contemporary poetry, often devoid of high quality music because it’s either utterly prosaic (but ├╝ber-intelligent and thoughtful, I assure you) or too fragmented and airy to have its phrases be long enough to generate a music, sort of like a bad drum circle.  “Eclogue,” on the other hand, is all about its aural play; the rest of the poem, including content, is simply accoutrement.

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