Friday, August 12, 2011

Chris Abani's "In the Middle of Dinner"

I must admit--what first struck me about Chris Abani's poem "In the Middle of Dinner," recently poem of the day at the Poetry Foundation, was its resemblance to my own poem "Houseguest," first published in the North American Review and included in my first book, Exchanging Lives. Both pieces utilize the family dinner and its images, such as knife and fork, and both sort of leave their characters--and readers--hanging. Whatever conflict arises remains so, seemingly only partially resolved.

And I think that works well for Abani's "In the Middle of Dinner" (I'll let others make their own decisions about my piece...). The poem's loose ends don't make it feel incomplete but mysterious, and there's plenty of info in the piece for readers to make an educated conjecture about what just happened. We don't need to know the whole story to know what's going on.

The narrative to the poem is this: the speaker and his mother are in the middle of dinner--prime rib--when she stops eating, moves her wedding band from ring to middle finger, says a few words regarding her absent husband (absent at least five years), then returns to matters at hand--the prime rib. The moment is over and done with in less time than it takes to chew a piece of meat. The mother's comment about her husband, which is set-up to be important, becomes nearly off-hand. Thus, the poem ends a bit confusingly: say what? What?

Structurally, though, Abani does a few things to help us keep hold of the poem, which is cool: we're grasping for meaning through how the poem is made, not (solely) by what it says. For starters, he uses dinner imagery to encapsulate the poem's moment spatially as well as temporally. He opens  with the title, which acts as the first line--"In the Middle of Dinner"--then, "my mother put down her knife and fork." And, he ends with "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it? she asked." These are the only lines that have anything to do with eating dinner, with the literal physical space of the narrative. Because they are bookends, they work well as signals into the poem and out, effectively containing the poem's true meat and potatoes within a nice, little box. Readers more or less finish where they started although a great deal has changed.

As well, though the action between that opening and ending line--literally in the middle of dinner--seems relatively quick, time in the poem slows down there. The action, wrapped up with the mother's revelation, becomes gradual, drawn-out. Those dinner-imagery bookends, however, keep the poem in place and ultimately at normal speed. They don't necessarily do this by increasing the pace but by acting as cues to readers that we are back from wherever we went with mother and son, with absent husband. It's as though we've stepped out of time and place and have returned. I like this because--to me--this is the experience of poetry at large. To write a poem is to definitely step outside time and place. I say this because I've lost track of both when engaged by the muse and know what it's like--as I'm certain many if not most poets do--to be someplace else even though I'm at the desk. My wife calls this being in my head. But, to be frank--I'm hardly there.

Reading a poem is not all that different. Often to enjoy a piece one has to enter the poem's time and place. That is part of the reading-poetry experience, and though it is not always required by a poem, I find most poems are better enjoyed when I can do this. They are microcosms with their own weather patterns. I won't experience their rain and snow and sunshine if I don't go there, so to speak. You won't either. In fact--I'd be willing to bet most people at large have no idea about this. Thus, they opt for pulp instead of poetry and have disdain for poems because they don't "understand" them.

But that's another blog probably, so--

What I was saying was--I like how Abani encapsulate's the poem with dinner imagery, the last line working as an echo of the first, thereby focusing reader attention in that moment that matters most. He uses repetition/echo in a few other places, too. In the very middle line--line 6 of 11--he writes of the mother, "Five years, she said, five years, once a week," explaining how often and for how long she wrote to her absent husband. This is echoed in the antepenultimate line with "Not one letter back, not a single note." I liken these lines to call and response although they are not so cut and dried as that. They help fill in the narrative---the backstory--and give readers the chance to think back in the poem. That's one of the effects of repetition is that it makes us think of what we've already read, of what's being repeated, in this case by the syntactic repetition of the lines--not their words or images per se.

The other repetition of note is the word tender, located in line 5 to describe the way the mother moves her wedding band from ring finger to middle finger--an interesting act in and of itself. Abani writes, "So natural was the move, / so tender, I almost didn't notice." In the last line he again uses tender. The mother says, "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it?" Obviously tender is being used in two very different contexts here, but I can't help but sense the connection. Words are too precious to waste for most poets, so a repetition like this within such a small, short space has got to be for something. It could be repetition used to kick readers back into the poem, similar to how I discussed the earlier example, but I doubt it because that is the nature of repetition anyway. Abani wouldn't be getting much work out of the one word tender if that's the sole case here. I think he does it for two other reasons.

First, it helps demonstrate the mother's change, her epiphany or whatever she's had, through the ritual of moving the ring from finger to finger. There is something very tender about that moment, that exchange between mother and son, about the revelation of her feelings to him (and to herself), but there is nothing tender in that last line except the word itself. A simple comparison of rhythm and pace demonstrates this. You can't read "So natural was the move, / so tender, I almost didn't notice" glibly in the poem; and, you can't read "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it?" with terrific ardor. It just ain't right that way. The effect is that the mother is now seen in a new light--and in fact she may be living in a new light, having passed through the loss of her husband, having more fully processed her grief--signified by that ring ritual--than she had done so before.

Second, and related to the above, that prime rib tender helps snap the poem out of the timeless space in the middle of dinner. We went on this brief sojourn with the mother, but--we're back, so to speak. That second use of tender does kick readers back up into the earlier language of the poem, but it doesn't kick us into that earlier portion's time and space. Instead, distance is created here. If the earlier repetition--that of the syntactic structure of those two lines--is used to tie together, this instance is used to separate.

Other aspects of Abani's piece? I like the image the mother uses to explain her lingering hope of her husband's return, that she "waited / until time was like ash on my tongue." It's a strange but effective image in that ash is the end of things--ashes to ashes, and so on--but, therefore, also the beginning. As a literal image, it would certainly provide a foul taste and texture, so it's apropos for the mother who seems to have waited and waited until she was sick of waiting, until it--perhaps finally--left a bad taste in her mouth. And, because the tongue is involved, it's an echo of eating. Consequently, it continues to pull the poem together and to allow other connections to be made between lines, between the poem's times and places that seem to be disparate and homogeneous simultaneously. Ash, too, may give readers a clue as to the husband's whereabouts. Perhaps he's passed on? Maybe he's just finally dead to me now, in the voice of the mother, but that seems far too trite a read.

Lastly, the poem sort of wears the guise of a sonnet. It's more or less a box of uniform lines--roughly 4 non-metrical beats per line for 11 lines--opens with an early end rhyme that made me think of a possible Shakespearean sonnet twist, and it is a love poem of sorts. Although I would not call "In the Middle of Dinner" a sonnet, I think considering the piece in the light of one does provide a worthwhile entry into it. This is a poem where the facts are open to possibility, and I think that's the case not just in terms of the narrative but in the poetry used to tell it.

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