Three Takes on the Line
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Three Takes on the Line Catherine Barnett glass half broken On my bookshelf I keep two broken glasses. Where they are broken they catch the light. That they are broken calls up the “what was,” a past wholeness. Perhaps because I came to poetry after writing and editing prose I am especially drawn to the break, the ways poetry is a “ruin” of prose, the way what is missing—even in the momentary missing that is the end of a line—is simultaneously present and absent. At the Louvre, the Winged Victory has no head, no arms—we go looking for them, then make them in our seeing. The viewer fills in her missing parts and is simultaneously moved by their absence. I love to fix; I didn’t know how much I loved to break until a teacher encouraged me to try writing a poem. I didn’t know exactly what line was, only that I could break it. And then fix it, affix it, by or to what follows. Or not. My experience tells me some things cannot be fixed. Charles Wright talks about the “making” of a line, preferring “making” to “breaking.” I think it’s a matter of temperament whether you want to break or make. There is an energy in breaking that is perhaps too often sworn or wooed or won out of women. I spend an awful lot of time trying to fix things, trying to make things. I am glad to be able to break. preserve your options Maybe it’s not so much that I like breaking the line as that I like the chance to keep beginning. I have never been good at endings, neither at making conclusions nor at following through. The promise of a break, the allure of breaking a line, lets me feel I never need to settle, or be certain, too fixed. My father taught us—I am not always happy to have learned this lesson—to “preserve your options.” Barnett | 49 Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo—and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it? Not long ago I overheard a conversation at my local diner between a woman and her boyfriend. He asked the woman please to be certain that the dash on his tombstone be very long. He wanted to show that a lot had been achieved between the beginning and the end: this could be how one conceives of line. Can I, through strategies of compression, shove so much into a line that my dash, though short, be long? The fact that a line ends calls to mind the less negotiable ending we have always to contend with. the after-silence Line makes language into material; it’s like Jean Valentine’s “red cloth . . . on the ground.” Line also makes its opposite—white space, the silence out of which the line arises, the silence into which it falls—more palpable. Coming to poetry from prose, I am still most excited by the “after-silence” that marks the end of every line, by the energy I get from discovering when and where this after-silence resides. How long does it last? Listen to Williams fighting “against time,” trying to speak to his wife, whom he’d betrayed: And so with fear in my heart I drag it out and keep on talking for I dare not stop. Listen while I talk on against time. It will not be for long. (311) 50 | Barnett These lines enact a continual confrontation with the after-silence that accompanies each urge to “keep on talking.” Some after-silences are louder than others, some more choked and deathinflected ; some are acts of great intimacy, others acts of aggression. How a poet manages his or her lines, with their necessary silences, guides our listening. As a poet and as a reader, I both crave and dread this after-silence, anticipating it even as I guard against it. “There’s Ransom in a Voice—,” writes Emily...