with critique by Jendi Reiter
I went to Bluebeard's closet
Because he left the key
And there were five little doll heads
Staring dead at me.
Five nameless, sparkless ladies
Cracked face and broken limb
All meanly slashed to pieces
Washed sick with pea green skin.
Now I know it was a ruse,
and he will be back soon.
So I closed shut Bluebeard's closet
Stuffed full of tattered dolls
Cold, cruel, cramped and ugly
Splashed blood-brown on the walls.
And crouched among the women
My face bleached white as chalk
Waiting for the terminus:
Keys turning in a lock.
Copyright 2004 by Monica Jenny Sharma
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Bluebeard's Closet" by Monica Jenny Sharma, is a descendant of the 19th-century Romantic tradition. Both the Gothic subject matter and the tight formal structure, broken only by a misfit central couplet, echo the haunting poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Gordon, Lord Byron. In its creepy melange of murder, sexuality, and lost innocence, one can hear the voices of Victorian writers who used the horror genre for coded exposÚs of their culture's repressed emotions and unacknowledged injustices. (For an example, read the classic 1899 feminist horror story "The Yellow Wallpaper".)
The pattern of rhyme and meter that Sharma has chosen for this poem would have been familiar to Byron and Emily Dickinson. The regular marching beat, reminiscent of hymn tunes, takes on a sinister urgency in "Bluebeard's Closet", like footsteps that rush forward, hesitate, then scurry ahead again. This is accomplished by having the first and third lines of each stanza end on an unstressed syllable, while the second and fourth end on a stressed syllable.
The middle stanza's departure from this pattern feels like a jarring intrusion. While the author may have intended an unsettling mood shift for plot reasons, the effect is not successful because the lines themselves lack a compelling rhythm or interesting images. Their everyday sound breaks the illusion of the finely crafted verses that preceded them. It's like hearing, in the middle of a gripping horror movie, a director's shouted instructions that someone forgot to edit out. Since the information in the stanza is necessary as a plot transition, Sharma should not simply cut it, but replace it with a four-line stanza in the same pattern as the others.
Though the Bluebeard story is familiar, this retelling is powerful because it never wavers from the perspective of the victim-protagonist. We are trapped with her in the closet, making the dreadful discoveries as she witnesses them. Sharma resists the temptation to embellish the tale by making its complex psychological meanings explicit; far better to let the reader experience them firsthand.
I felt a chill as soon as I read the words "five little doll heads/staring dead at me." Sharma accomplishes several things with the little phrase "staring dead": the double meaning of literal death and "dead ahead" (the woman is transfixed by the dolls' direct gaze), plus a jolt to the reader who was expecting "staring back."
The author also makes good use of alliteration and assonance to add texture to the poem. Examples include the recurring hard "K" and hissing "S" sounds in the second stanza, the "L" sounds in the fourth stanza, and the similar sounds of "terminus" and "turning" in the final stanza. "Sparkless" is a wonderful word, suggesting "sparkles" to the careless eye while meaning its opposite.
Where could a poem like "Bluebeard's Closet" be submitted? Most mainstream US literary journals, unfortunately, would probably consider its theme and style too old-school for their modernist sensibilities. Such is literary fashion! Here are some journals and contests that might appreciate it:
Multiple deadlines throughout the year
British literary magazine with a traditional sensibility; sign up for their e-newsletter to learn the themes of their upcoming contests
Entries must be received by June 15
For a poem in the Romantic tradition; see website for annual themes
MARGIN Annual Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Journal devoted to "modern magical realism"
New England Poetry Club Contests
Postmark Deadline: June 30
See website for categories and eligibility
Morton Marr Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: November 30 (changed to September 30 in 2006)
Highly competitive contest for formal poetry, from Southwest Review
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.