Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lisa Williams' "Wing"

Lisa Williams' "Wing," originally published in The Cincinnati Review and which I found at Verse Daily, is a tight, little poem most anyone—if not everyone—can relate to. Although I read the title and thought, hmmm...about birds, 'tis not so.  "Wing" is about relationships, specifically that abrupt moment when the other person is out of love, and the lover has just become keenly aware of the fact.  And you—assuming that unfortunate role—know it. You look into the other's eyes and see the door is closed. Whatever rooms and halls previously open for you are no longer so. As Williams writes, you receive "A different glance" and a new "wing / we never noticed suddenly swing[s] / open." And, well, the relationship is over. Just like that. As Williams concludes, "Affection is grace, after all, / and we are at its mercy." Nice. Tragic.

But I didn't choose to write about "Wing" because of its content.  I chose to write about it because of a recent blip of a blog written by Cameron Scott at Cheekteeth, the blog for Trachodon Magazine. In his "Line Breaks and Broken Transmissions," Scott writes that "for the most part line breaks are arbitrary; if you are writing a poem you have to do it, and you don't have to think about it most of the time." This follows a sentence that briefly describes how lines and line breaks can be determined by breathing, which does comes naturally and does not require thought, but nevertheless—as a poet who cares a great deal more about his line breaks than his content, I couldn't help but think "arbitrary" a bit off. (for an interesting article on the relevance and irrelevance of line breaks, check this out: "The End of the Line for Modern Poetry")

Thus, "Wing," in which Williams appears to use line breaks for at least two distinct purposes—to ease readers through the familiar, to enjamb us into the uncomfortable—becomes a useful tool for demonstrating the purposeful use of line breaks.

In "Wing," Williams writes about two distinct types of experience.  The first is the reliable and familiar, the factual if you will; the second is the suddenly new and, therefore, unfamiliar.  For the former she uses an endstopped line, the latter an enjambed one. By line 2 of the poem, she's used both:
People can remove themselves from us.
I don't mean death. I mean another
undeniable turning, like a wing
we never noticed suddenly swinging
open, visible in ways only we see:

Although a bit enigmatic for me at first, line 1 is pretty straight forward: people can get up from the table, they can return to their cubicle, to their barstool.  They can move away, and they can die, which is what Williams writes in line 2, though her speaker (whom it's fair to say is the poet) says that isn't what she's talking about. She's talking about "another / undeniable turning."  That period at the end of line 1, and that after "death," kick off the poem with something readers can rely on, that they already know is true.  Thus, an endstopped line, which reads like a sentence and poses no threat to our eye nor to our mind: we're given single, easily digested thoughts that end with what we expect, a period: "People can remove themselves from us. / I don't mean death." Okay. No problem.

That first enjambment on "another," however, is not so digestible because it breaks the clause where we don't expect.  It wrecks the complete thought by breaking the clause—"I mean another / undeniable turning"—in half. She's talking about something else, and this else is not a comfortable other to consider, seeing as how the relationship has gone bust. Had the first two sentences not been consistent with their language and pattern, perhaps this enjambment wouldn't have such an effect, but they are consistent.

The language shift here reiterates this change and enforces the effect of the enjamment. The first two sentences are comprised of arrhythmic mono- and bi-syllabic words.  The sentences are short, over and done with in one line or less. The third sentence, in which that first enjambment occurs, stretches across four lines of the poem—five if we include what follows the colon. It quickly makes use of multi-syllabic words, "another" and "undeniable," and so its feel is different not only in the eye and brain but in the ear.  The pace is slowed and musical for a moment. This is echoed at the end of line 4 with "suddenly swinging," a nice rhyme with the internal "turning" and, to my mind, a clear signal about the prominence of this other type of removal a lover, swiftly removed, feels. So, Williams uses several tools to emphasize the fact that change is coming, line break being but one of them and the first to do so.

In the middle of the poem, Williams uses a trio of endstopped lines that coincide with what we, the lover, think we can count on as "once included ones":
the mute, familiar angles of a face,
its histories we thought transparent,
its banks of flesh. A different glance
charged with some fresh need or ancient

But as soon as the lover encounters the shift from loved to unloved—"A different glance"—we're back to enjambment. It's sort of a. . .classic case of form meeting content and vice versa.

In contemporary poetry, the uses of line breaks run the gamut, and poets use them at great length to achieve desired effects—or not.  The fact is that as long as poets are using lines, then line breaks are integral to the moves and meanings of their poems.  Even arbitrary line breaks have an effect, so it seems to me that, for a poet, an examined poem is the one worth writing.

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