Some Notes on the Poetic Line in G. C. Waldrep and Lily Brown
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Some Notes on the Poetic Line in G. C. Waldrep and Lily Brown Joshua Marie Wilkinson Perhaps at least part of what the poetic line can do is debug normative syntax of its apparent seamlessness (like a paroxysm). Ten lines into the poem “Battery Alexander” by G. C. Waldrep, we encounter the following: Down a flight of stairs. A cellar, a catacomb, a landing. A door. A grille and beyond that grille a perfumed garden. A maze of pipes. Or, nothing at all. (58) Most obviously, the way these lines are arranged seems to mimic the content: the enjambed and variously indented lines can be read as a “flight of stairs” or going down into “A cellar, a catacomb” via the horizontally jutting lines like rungs or steps. Yet what’s visually pleasing here is the way Waldrep’s poem pulls us down, over, and then back (and repeat)—into this imagined terrain until we get to “A maze of pipes. Or, / nothing at all.” Waldrep produces this mastery with enjambed lines that invite us to fill in the gap of what might be next (“Or,” . . . ) and yet pushes us back out to “nothing at all.” There is a sense of having arrived at some paradise of “a perfumed garden” because the form invites this as a possible end, the furthest indented line, and then cuts back to the interior—“A maze of pipes”—pulling us quickly back into the cellar or catacomb, or even further beyond the garden. But, crucially, the form doesn’t merely mime the content. The lines’ arrangement starts to mimic Wilkinson | 249 it, but then thwarts that expectation—cinematically leaping back to “A maze of pipes. Or, / nothing at all.” And that hanging “Or” is the signal that the jig is up. This isn’t the end of the poem (in fact, it goes on for another three pages), but the cinema of the line is the way that the form—that is, the lines’ indentation , the lines’ unpredictable enjambment—metaphorizes, bodies forth, and then thwarts, even playfully refuses, the content. In this way, the lines carry over, shift, and lure us in and out of the content. It’s not that the form and content are inextricable, but that the form is always ahead of the content, oddly (the eye is drawn down, or over, before it can read the word). Waldrep’s lines are a cinema of discord—here dissonant, there harmonic—but lyrically, playfully so. In Lily Brown’s work, we find something quite different in lineation than we encounter in Waldrep’s work. Here is an excerpt from Brown’s poem “The Return to Radical Innocence”: In the book, the last sentence circles on siblings. Those who know in a singular knowledge. Like no one else. Like no one else with whom we trade words. (24) Brown’s first sentence (“In the book, the last sentence circles / on siblings”) is precise, and grammatically—in punctuation, syntax, etc.—a perfect line of prose, save the enjambment. So what does the line-break accomplish? Brown’s poem is distinct from Waldrep’s slippery rungs in that the break between “the last sentence circles” and “on siblings” brings out the peculiarity of the verb “circles” with regard to “the last sentence.” (Does “circle” mean to focus around? To approximate? To highlight? To hone or zero in “on siblings”? To note, record, mark, or capture? And couldn’t “circles” also gesture at something, but not overtly—like beating around the bush? Or, further, to circle around like vultures? That is, to hover in the space where something is about to happen?) Yet it’s the quietly awkward break which is precisely less cinematic—despite the leap to an image—and more about the disruption of that odd verb “circles” from the relation of the subject (“the last sentence”) to its object (“siblings”). The poems in Brown’s The Renaissance Sheet are often an exploration of “correct ” syntax, which is cut short or doubled by awkwardly unfitting locution to produce some new, discrepant—indeed, othering—sense. But it’s always measured, seemingly plainly “spoken,” and as often grammatically correct as it is truncated awkwardly like the following lines: “Those who know / in a 250 | Wilkinson singular knowledge. / Like no one else. Like no one else / with whom we trade words.” Brown’s lines are punctuated like a normal sentence, but they fragment from normal speech—inviting us to read in a sensible, sense-making way, only...


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