Thursday, March 3, 2011

Erika Meitner's "Instructions for Vigilant Girls"

Meitner's "Instructions for Vigilant Girls" can be found in her latest collection, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls.  I found it as the poem of the day at Verse Daily on 3/2/11.

I've never heard of or read Erika Meitner, but a perusal of the poems she lists on her website tells me there is a prevalence, if not a predominance, of clipped phrasing in her work: punchy language, shortish lines, clipped rhythm.  The effect in "Instructions" is that the content does feel, well, like instructions: first this, second that, third this, fourth that. Even the long, middle sentence of the poem, which cascades over 9 lines, has this instructive weight to it.  But I want to start at the beginning:
Be the sleeping sister who sees no one.
Stay stuck in.  Later, hand over

a list of suspects: the handyman,
the bachelor neighbor, the uncle

who was never really your uncle.

In the first couplet, there are four pauses, three created with punctuation and one with an implied endstopped line and stanza break.  This forces the reader to read one thing at a time without the ability to run rhythms together.  The music is short.  The content comes at us very much in the fashion of the first, second, third I've already mentioned.  This is emphasized further in the second stanza by that hard-stopping colon and the short list that follows: "the handyman, / the bachelor neighbor, the uncle."

Additionally, trochees are the dominant foot here, which constantly creates the sensation of arriving at the end of the phrase and its idea.  They also help Meitner give the poem its fast pace--as I read it.  Consider line 5, the last blockquoted up above: "who was never really your uncle."  The placement of the word "was" forces that line into trochaic quadrameter, and it has to be read quickly, I believe, to be read properly.  If I swap the "was" with "never," then the line becomes a mix of iambs and anapests, which changes everything: "who never was really your uncle."  The line suddenly feels musically metrical and is slow as a result.

But that doesn't fit Meitner's poem, which is sort of creepy and secretive.  The instructions are given quietly, as though spoken in quick whispers no one other than you, a vigilant girl, is meant to hear.  I imagine the speaker eyeballing some male creep from a distance--that handyman or that bachelor who "gently insists // you hunt for his puppy and means you / no harm through his pleated pockets"--with equally furtive glances.  Leaning briefly in, she tells you things like, "Wear the key in your hair. . . .Resist.  Try not to lick anything."  These are so odd, I think.  "Key" makes me think of a chastity belt, which I'm sure I arrive at due to the poem's sexual overtone--the disgusting, creepy overtone of kidnapping and sexual assault.  It's a gross feeling.  Commands like "Try not to lick anything" play into that, riffing both on the kidnapper who uses candy as his lure and on particular sexual acts he may demand.

The poem ends in a strange, somewhat scary moment, too: "you are found veiled in a strip mall basement, / throat unfurling with threats and questions."  No one wants to be found, which I read as end up, in a scene like this, which can only go from bad to worse. But this moment also makes the rest of the poem moot in a sense.  What good are all these instructions if, at the end of the day, I'm going to end up stolen, blindfolded, and in real trouble?  Alas.  Meitner's use of "unfurling" heightens the tension here, since to unfurl means to spread out in the wind, likely as screams in this case.

But themes other than kidnapping present themselves in Meitner's lyric.  There's a nod and perhaps a comment toward marriage here.  The word "bachelor" is in line 4 of the poem, which ends with "veiled," reminiscent of bridal veil, in its penultimate line.  That's an interesting pairing, kidnapping and marriage.  I don't know what it all means, but it gives the poem a nice contextual layering.  The "threats and questions" in the last line is also an interesting pairing.  Throughout "Instructions" there is an interplay of vulnerability and power.  That one word sentence and command near the end of the poem "Resist" is a great example of it.  If you have to resist, then you're in a predicament.  You're being tempted.  You're susceptible.  At the same time, if you do resist, then you're exhibiting strength at this compromising--or much worse--time.  I wonder how vulnerability and power relate to marriage.  Hmmm...  I feel threats and questions coming on.

Meitner's poem makes good use of sound throughout.  The stilted, somewhat atonal music is consistent, as is her use of a falling rhythm (although the poem's one long sentence is broken into lines that all end on upbeats--except the last--a nod toward Meitner's attention to craft).  And, there is plenty of mostly subtle rhyme and other sound devices.  Often the end words of a couplet rhyme internally with other words in the couplet, as in the opening stanza:
Be the sleeping SISTER who sees no ONE.
Stay stuck IN.  LATER, hand OVER

And, my favorite of the slant rhymes
with stars and balloons, real  PIECES
of the moon.  RESIST.  Try not to lick anything.

BallOONs and MOON is in there too.

So, I like this piece.  I don't find myself investing in it emotionally too much, maybe because I'm a man, but it is artful: it layers content and craft and gives me something to think about in both areas.  Well done.

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