Captivated by Syllabics
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Captivated by Syllabics Robyn Schiff My favorite line of poetry is the twentieth line of Marianne Moore’s poem “The Jerboa.” It goes like this: “hippopotami.” It may not seem like much when it’s quarantined—but the line in poetry is funny, simultaneously demanding solitary confinement and full integration. All lines flicker between two lives; now an isolated unit, now a contiguous part of a sentence and stanza and poem. Lines move like time moves, both in contained moments, and boundlessly toward eternity. Maybe writing in lines fulfills our deepest and terribly contrary wish both to stop and to keep going at the same time. To hold captive, to be captivated, and also to let go and to be released. I digress to recall a stanza of Dickinson from poem #613: They shut me up in Prose— As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet— Because they liked me “still”— (302) The word “still” so beautifully expresses the longing for stasis and the longing for endurance at the same time. Don’t we put people in closets (tombs) because we still like them? But we lock the tomb door because of some deep-seated fear of unholy movement even after death; we prefer our dearly departed to remain still and refrain from wandering the cemetery, the countryside, the house. Every line-break is such a barricade for the body. Every line-break is also such a door for the soul. Because she is a syllable counter, Moore’s lines heighten the tension between the body and the soul of each word. I think of the body because words are chosen and placed according to their physical proportions, which lie somewhere between the pure textuality of their letters and the pronounced utterance of 216 | Schiff those letters literally sounded out and counted. I say soul because there’s so much more to words than their physical attributes—the unaccountable part. As diverse as syllabic poems are in the history of English-language poetry, they do all seem to share an obsession with the crossroads of the material and the spiritual. Counting syllables brings to the fore the reckoning of sums, which puts us in the territory of summarizing and then reminds us quickly of all that can never be accounted for and what cannot be recounted. “Hippopatami” is isolated on a line of its own in the menagerie of “The Jerboa” because it is a five-syllable word, and the second lines of all the stanzas happen to be five syllables long. So be it. The confinement of “hippopotami” is the result of the ancient procedure’s arbitrary accounting that puts everything in its strange place, and “hippopotami” is literally penned in its position. In this poem about empire, the crucial confinement of “hippopotami” is a display of power and wealth, enacted through the arrangement of line. Furthermore, “hippopotami” rhymes in a closed asymmetrical couplet with “tie” that gives me the sensation of a gate locking shut. The rhyme tethers, the syllabics pen, and the syntactical closing couplet turns the key. But it’s like fencing a monster, and those slats can look meager and pathetic, bound to break. Power like the one in this poem is tenuous at best; indeed, the poem is written in the past tense about a former superpower. Here’s the whole sentence, followed by the rest of the stanza: They had their men tie hippopotami and bring out dappled dogcats to course antelopes, dikdik, and ibex; or used small eagles. They looked on as theirs, impalas and onigers . . . (10) Like so many displays of power, the confinement of the hippopotami, and likewise the very word “hippopotami,” is a grandiose gesture of control. But in this poem which amounts to an inventory of a troubled royal court, the humble jerboa, after being identified in the title, doesn’t appear until the ninety-sixth line, and when it does, it makes its home in the “boundless” sand, the very picture of freedom— not a piece of merchandise that can be sorted, but a living thing. “The Jerboa,” like so many of Moore’s poems, meditates on containment and freedom. I think her poem “What Are Years?” written, incidentally, in the summer that the Nazis finally invaded France, expresses this eternal struggle best: Schiff | 217 in misfortune, even death, encourages others and in its defeat, stirs the soul to be strong? He sees deep and is glad, who accedes to mortality and in his...