A Few Lines on the Line
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A Few Lines on the Line Evie Shockley (not all lines are straight.) I thought it would be useful to begin thinking about the aesthetics of the line by revisiting some of my favorite prose poems. I pulled C. S. Giscombe’s Inland and Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T off the shelf and considered. Despite differences in these poets’ rhythms and the logics by which they proceed, both of their books suggest links between the prose poem and impatience. No matter how radical, how wide, the imaginative leaps it makes within and between sentences (or sentence fragments), the prose poem keeps right on going. The reader may keep up or catch up—or so it might initially seem. The lineated poem, on the other hand, foregrounds its relationship to time, flags us down at every turn. Mullen’s poem, propelled by the multiplicity of meaning and juxtaposition, offers words and phrases with layered significance and runs with them in (at least) two directions at once. Her book opens, as it happens, with a meditation not unrelated to the subject at hand: “Lines assemble gutter and margin. Outside and in, they straighten a place. Organize a stand. Shelve space. Square footage. Align your list or listlessness.” She describes the structure of the supermarket fairly literally, even as she implicitly connects regularity and rigid linearity to issues of social control and containment through a quick series of puns. Alacrity and relentlessness characterize the progression of words and ideas in this work. (a line is the manifestation of a unit of time passing; a line-break is, too.) The lineated poem, by contrast, often uses line-breaks to create wordplay. It may invite the reader to linger on one understanding before turning to another: “Of 224 | Shockley course there was no mother / lode; of course it was unlikely,” Brenda Hillman writes in “The Shirley Poem,” a piece in her collection Cascadia, inspired by California geology (37). The pause accentuates the pleasure of the bait-andswitch . The line is crucial to this move, just as it would be an obstacle to the enjoyment of the rapid dance one is required to do in a prose poem like Mullen ’s. The lineated poem dances, too—but let’s say it does the tango, offering us a series of dramatic poses. (a line is the most direct route from point a to point b.) In Giscombe’s Inland, the prose paragraph suggests a single, long line, stretching out (but for the constraint of the page) across the flat expanse of the midwestern U.S. that his poem occupies. In what might also be read as a meta-commentary on this topic, he writes: Male, female. Black men say trim. An outline’s sameness is, finally, a reference . Towns, at a distance, are content and reference both—how they appear at first, a dim cluster, and then from five or six miles off; how they look when you’re only three miles away. In between sightings is the prairie itself to get across: trek, trace, the trick of landscape. (14) Placing the outline in relation to the line of sight, Giscombe’s poem, “Prairie Style (2),” emphasizes the way we visually anticipate what we cannot yet access, our eyes racing ahead of our brains. Yet, to do the poem justice, we must go back and slowly make the “trek” along the multi-sentence, wrap-around line of each prose paragraph, engaging the images and provocations we encounter, one by one, despite receiving no strong cues to pause. Giscombe’sstructureisappropriatetohistextuallandscape—astheirregularly indented, roughly enjambed lines of Hillman’s Cascadia are to the mountainous terrain they inhabit. The line-breaks, especially those that crack syntax midphrase , can be as grinding as movement along a faultline: The number of faults in middle California is staggering—that is, we stagger over them till it’s difficult to follow our own. Each tremor is the nephew of a laugh— Shockley | 225 sandstone, shale, chert from the Triassic near I-Forgetville. He lined them up, they made white sense, stretchmarks on her body like public transportation, very coastal . . . (12) Lines interrupt logic, even when making sense. Lines like these, from Hillman’s “A Geology,” encourage careful reading, rereading, with that jagged back and forth which inhibits running, which forces you to watch your footing. If the prose poem can be deceptively unobstructed, then the poetic line can be utilized to trip the reader up until she learns to take her time...