Sunday, April 7, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 7 with Erica Dawson

In this Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 road trip of discovery, the Steiny Road Poet explores Erica Dawson’s “Chinquapin Leaves on the Riverbank.” In this excursion, Dear Reader, the Steiny Poet intends to talk about the process she used to appreciate this poem.

What drew the Steiny Poet to this poem was its epigraph by Shakespeare, “Every one can master a grief.” The critical word for the Steiny Poet is grief as it loosely follows thematically from the April 6 BPR Lit Trip post on Carrie Jerrell’s “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer” (the racehorse’s trainer is suffering grief) and more specifically from the April 1 BPR Lit Trip post on Jane Satterfield’s “Resurrection Spell.”

Without having entertained the idea of exploring who Erica Dawson is or realizing she had three other poems published in BPR 40, the Steiny Poet dove into the eight quatrains and surfaced with this information:

1.     The poem is an inexact pantoum. What the Steiny Poet means by this is that the poem follows the rules of a classic pantoum except in the first and last stanzas.

The classic Malay pantoum, a rhymed form (abab, bcbc, and so on) of unlimited quatrains that repeats the second and fourth line of each preceding verse as its first and third lines except in the last stanza. The last stanza repeats the first line of the first quatrain as its last line and uses the third line of the first stanza as the final quatrain’s second line. The line pattern is diagram in this way:

Stanza 1: ABCD
Stanza 2: BEDF
Stanza 3: EGFH
Stanza 4: GCHA

Modern day poets do not always follow the rules, but usually there is regularity in the way a modern pantoum is constructed. Dawson, except in the first quatrain, chooses not to use end rhyme. This is not an unusual choice for a current day pantoum, but she chooses to use lines two and three of the opening quatrain as lines one and three of the second quatrain. She also uses only line one of the first quatrain as a repeton in the last quatrain. In other words, instead of inverting stanza 1’s first and third lines in the last stanza as the final stanza’s second and fourth lines, she makes line two (last stanza) a brand new line. Here are stanzas 1, 2 and the final 8.

I’ve half a mind to want it badly
Enough to tear the skin off my back,
And cut Mt. Vernon down to a stack
Of cherry blossoms boughs turned switches.

Enough to tear the skin off my back,
The Potomac clinches, November cold
And cut Mt. Vernon down to a stack
Of Chinquapin leaves on the riverbank.

A statue. Of what? I was remains
And skull and slab, once. And I once
Descended, space hovering, slow.
I’ve half a mind to want it badly.

2.     The poem is about George Washington though his name never appears in the text. Words and phrases like Mt. Vernon (the first president’s home), cherry blossom (legend has it that Washington as a boy chopped down a cherry tree), and Potomac (Mt. Vernon is on the Potomac River) tip off the reader.

Less factually, the Steiny Poet ‘s immediate reaction to the poem was that it seems to reference slavery with such words and phrases as tear the skin off my back, switches, and brandished skin. Also the poem is concerned with death and monuments. There is a jump in time from stanza three to four where the living Washington crosses over to the dead memorialized figure. Cleverly in stanza 3 Dawson uses the pillars of Mt. Vernon “stand[ing] tall with the swell/ of Chinquapin [oak) leaves on the riverbank” as a transition to monuments in stanza 4: “And, its pillars stand tall with the swell/ Of every single monument.”

Two instances of homophonic word play occur in two different repetons. “Nightly, the district rights itself” becomes “Nightly, the district writes itself.” In the first version, the district righting itself plays against pillars that “stand tall with the swell/ of Chinquapin leaves.” In the second version, the district seems to prescribe, as maybe a doctor would write a prescription, by use of death and memorials a way to cleanse itself (achieving “Death and memorial clean slates”).

The other occurrence of homophonic word play reads, “Cold surfaces and stroke the plain” versus “Cold surfaces and stroke a plane.” If the Steiny Poet’s instinct is correct and this is poem that concerns slavery, then the first version might be in the voice of a slave (and George and Martha Washington had many slaves despite his political stance on liberty) saying that the slave wants to touch those monuments (cold marble surfaces where (s)he “once brandished skin.” The second version, which required some serious research, may very well refer to The “Statue of Freedom” which sits atop the Capitol building and which, needing repair after 130 years of exposure to the elements was removed in 1993 by helicopter (not a plane), restored, and then airlifted again and returned to its original perch. To better understand, here are the last two lines of the 7th stanza and the first line of the last stanza:

Cold surfaces and stroke a plane
Descended. Space, hovering slow:

A state. Of what? …

A back story on the original bronze casting is that the foreman in charge of casting the statue went on strike demanding higher wages and the job was turned over to a slave named Philip Reid. The other fact is that the statue is black.

Meanwhile, back to the epigraph. The full quotation is “Every one can master a grief but he that has it.” The Steiny Poet finds this epigraph hard to explain but offers this. This is not referring to George Washington but most likely to those people who were slaves and their descendants, possibly including Erica Dawson.

Because  “Chinquapin Leaves on the Riverbank” is language driven and impressionistic, other interpretations are certainly possible. Here is another poem like “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer” that requires the knowledge of a polymath or at least access to the Internet.

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