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Comma Splice and Jump-Cut: On the Line Dana Roeser Recently, I had a dream in which I swallowed a pair of scissors. They lodged in my esophagus in the “wrong” position, that is, face (points) up. They were supposed to be inserted carefully face down, folded in the cylindrical compartment like a baby. Points up, the scissors would probably kill me. It happened by accident. They’d been on the brink, and I had dropped them. It is hard to find a container for consciousness. It has sharp points and could cut us to ribbons. My friend Mary Leader, an adept formalist, says that my poetic “form” is a Hellman’s jar, a democratic one-size-fits-all clear receptacle for my content. I like to think the helixes of the variously indented (usually short) lines of my couplets or tercets are more delicate, but I see her logic. To me, they are more like snakes, or the esophagus, compressing and equalizing the material that passes through. When I finally learned to tame the details of my “stories” and make them bend to prerogatives of a larger design, to be open to what Aristotle called “probable impossibilities” rather than to what “really happened,” there was room for other elements to come into play. I associated and jumped from strand to strand, story to story, element to element, and the form made sure that there were no topic sentences. There were side stories, back stories, in medias res characters who weren’t properly introduced, bits of dialogue, high diction, street talk, pop culture references , literary allusion, memories, dream, lyricism, flat-sounding journalese, one-word exclamations, pivots, high spirits, low spirits, bawdy humor, pathos, short sentences, long sentences, fragments, jagged enjambment, a full stop in the center of a line, a series not divided by commas; the poem devoid of commas altogether, the poem that takes or leaves periods, the temporary confusion of near-random association (within a line), pronoun ambiguity, tense 212 | Roeser inconsistency—many, many joys that riff off of those diagrammed sentences from ninth grade—and then I had to stick the landing. I enjoy working this way—I feel like a painter, which was what I aspired to be at first. The material rubs and chafes and sometimes gives way to something beautiful. The voice of the speaker keeps the flights and incongruities glued to some essential unity. The lines norm around a certain number of stresses or sometimes words. The sentence does one thing; the line another. In any line of mine there is always the pressure of where it came from and where it is going. Frank O’Hara, one of my beloved forebears, in his “Personism: A Manifesto” puts it this way: “I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’” (xiii). Later, though, he makes a persuasive pitch for precision: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” Speed and precision, then. Sequins, scissors, knife, river, wristwatch. Hum-colored cabs, dungarees, and snakespit. As my fourteen-year-old daughter Lucy would say, “Good luck with that!” works cited Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. Ed. Francis Fergusson. Trans. S. H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. 109–110. O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. xiii–xiv. ...


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