Thursday, October 20, 2011

Janice Harrington's "The Divider"

Janice Harrington's "The Divider," poem of the day at Verse Daily, is an accessible, easy to follow poem about the clean-up process following the death of an elderly person (I assume) in a nursing person. It's not really about the clean-up process, but that's the content anyway, the literal subject matter. What I like about the piece is that it is relatively transparent yet not at the expense of craft. I think it would be an effective poem for a beginning poetry class in this regard.

The scene is this: we're in a nursing home, and it appears as though a person--an elderly person or someone resigned at an early age to such a place--has just died. We're bedside, removing "the cuff. . . .the gauze and alcohol. / . . . the stethoscope" and so on, item after item taken away, or cleaned and taken away, from the room. By the poem's end, we're still doing this, told to "Strip the mattress pad / and sheets. Sterilize the bed frame's metal / skeleton" and finally to "draw the divider, leave." The 16 line poem is rich with images, close-up details really, and although the language flirts with medical jargon, it remains common for the most part. The only oddball is "emesis" in line 6, and a quick search in my Oxford American Dictionary tells me that's the action or process of vomiting. Clear enough.

Most of these details are nursing home and caretaker related. They are rather impersonal (especially words like "emesis"), which is noteworthy since we're talking about a human being (and we're presumably being spoken to by a human being). Yet, few of the images bear a sense of the human. They don't personalize the poem's speaker nor its human subject. Only "the Christmas card" does this and briefly, hinting at human contact, yes, but also illustrating the lack of it. Where are the family photos? The other cards for birthdays and such, the items that would give to this person a sense of belonging, if not more specifically of family and friendship? Harrington goes on to write, "Later, take the personal belongings away or / give them to someone." But where are these personal items? Their absence in the poem, coupled with the litany of sterile image-laden commands, effectively removes the personal from the piece.

Harrington's use of an anonymous third-person speaker further illustrates this removal. Every sentence is an atonal command. Most are short: "Undo the cuff. Remove the gauze and alcohol." Those that do stretch across lines are lengthened only by more commands or by more images. There's nothing extra. No commentary. No existential blathering. No simile. No metaphor. Just a list of to-do items, as though the poem is being read from a manual--like one for how to put furniture together or, in this case, take it apart. There are no people in the poem, either. We have the speaker, and we have the deceased, but neither of them are mentioned. There are no names, and there are no personal pronouns. The personal, human element is gone.

This absence is superficial, of course. In fact, there's a great deal of humanity in the poem, and in some ways the poem's overt lack of it only draws a greater attention to what lies beneath, that we are dealing with people here, not just a body, not just a nurse or caretaker who turns impersonal in order to get the job done—removing the deceased, preparing the room for the next person for whom death is but a matter of time. So, the distance in the poem--this division between between feeling and unfeeling--comes into question, then. Does such a stance illustrate the speaker's habitual use of necessary distance? Is it strictly a defense mechanism? Is it simply part of the job? Or does it speak more specifically to human nature and one of the ways we instinctively deal with death?

To this end, Harrington closes the poem with "Do all this—but for now just close / its scrim around the bed, draw the divider, leave." But why must we leave? Are we—is the speaker—emotionally overwhelmed or risking it and, therefore, risking the ability to effectively get the ensuing job done? Is it because we're too busy with other jobs in the home to pay attention to the deceased even now? Is this—is the whole poem—an issue of neglect?

For such a seemingly easy poem, I appreciate the fact "The Divider" leaves me hanging. If the poem closed down, instead of opening up, I fear it would be less successful. Ending with ambivalence, however, offers the poem possibilities and reason for discussion—one of the reasons I think the piece apropos for a beginning poetry class. "The Divider" is not intimidating in any way, yet it's not as easy to grasp as it first appears. There's more to it, a multiplicity that is necessary for its success—arguably for any poem's success. The title itself—"The Divider"—illustrates this multiplicity. The divider can be the literal curtain referred to in the last line of the poem. It can be death. It can be the wall the speaker uses to separate herself from the situation. It can be any of these simultaneously, which is the poem's true power. In the physical world (although quantum physics may disagree with this . . . ), something cannot exist in two or more places at once. In artful poetry, this is the norm: an image, a word, a phrase, a line existing in multiple, valid layers of meaning simultaneously.

I have a good deal to say about Harrington's acoustic texture in "The Divider" as well. It's a percussive poem with what feels like a conscious attention to the noise it makes, another reason I think it useful to beginning poets. It is not musical per se, nor rhythmic, but nearly every line evokes a solid sense of sound via alliteration, consonance in particular, as well as via Harrington's repetitive use of short, imperative clauses. I can't help but wonder if Harrington's awareness of language is what helped her arrive at words like "emesis" and "Kleenex" a few lines latersaid awareness being what drove the arrival of the language here more than the poem's topical matter did. I'm conjecturing, of course.

And I'll leave others—perhaps in that intro course—to find further examples of assonance and consonance, slant rhyme and so on.