with critique by Jendi Reiter
I dreamed that the seventh house
On the left on my street
And every soul perished.
In my dream
Burnt flesh hung from
Silver poles, poked
Through holes of artless parchment
In the evening sky.
A cannon sat in the square
Across the street—
Pointing to the second story window
Where my father leaped—
His diabetic limbs akimbo
Dancing on a treadle to
The Galilean stair.
Soaked white linens he was wrapt in
Set the dream on fire, he was
Wailing as he sailed,
"Why did god the only one
Give me a nigger lover for a son?"
Body to the Anatomy Board
For the docks to skewer, disembowel;
I dumped you there myself, dad,
Though I seldom called you that. All
The soused ensemble was resplendent
In the fall's night air!
The racks are full of you now,
All that I can bear.
I think I'll just go in and browse.
Copyright 2005 by William J. Duvall
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Fire Sale" by William J. Duvall, uses the language of fantasy and nightmare to capture the essence of a son's love-hate relationship with his deceased father. Just as classic fairy tales provided a code language for societies to discuss taboo passions and conflicts within the family, the surreal world of a poem permits the narrator to express feelings he may be afraid to name. Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath are examples of poets who used this style to create cathartic, powerful poems about their own troubled relationships with their fathers. Finding images for the emotions that the situation generates, rather than simply describing the facts or stating your reaction to them, is a technique that brings the reader closer to seeing the scene through your eyes.
The opening lines of "Fire Sale" thrust us into a shadowy realm where everything we observe has ominous significance. The odd specificity of "the seventh house/On the left on my street" calls attention to itself, recalling the connection between "left" and "sinister" as well as the numerological belief that seven is an especially powerful number. "Every soul perished" tells us we are about to hear a story where redemption is urgently sought but may not be found.
The torn sky implies that the world we lived in is unreal, separated by a flimsy membrane from a mystery whose existence we never suspected. We have crossed over into the realm of the unknown, on the other side of death. The "artless parchment" is like a blank canvas, a Sistine Chapel with no God on its ceiling.
The cannon pointed at the father's window is most obviously a metaphor for death, but could also be viewed as a symbol of the son's disguised aggression. Like death, but also like a poem, it acts at a distance, in seeming anonymity. No one is visible behind the cannon to take responsibility for the judgment or threat that it levels at the father.
Then we receive this amazing vision of the father, transfigured yet still recognizably flawed by the illness, prejudice and bitterness that marked his life. The latter traits still haunt the son, who is repelled by his father's body and soul, as he half-taunts, half-confesses how he "dumped the body" at the Anatomy Board for medical students to dissect. He refuses to sentimentalize his father in death, but cannot avoid seeing that the man has passed, with all his faults, to a plane of existence that makes these resentments seem unworthy.
"All/The soused ensemble was resplendent/In the fall's night air!" Dazzling, enigmatic, this moment of revelation slips away from our understanding. "Soused" is a wonderfully earthy word that grounds us in ordinary, tragicomic existence even as we are given a glimpse of the "resplendent" beyond.
So who or what is the soused ensemble? My first impression was of a crowd of men, happily drunk, a little maudlin; perhaps the father's working-class buddies, giving him a good send-off at his funeral. The son, more cosmopolitan, estranged from that community (as we learn from the father's "nigger-lover" comment), uses the judgmental word "soused" but is also surprised to discover a nobility in the bond they shared.
An alternate reading of "ensemble" is a suit of clothing. This fits with the recurring imagery of fabric and sewing in the poem. A treadle is the foot-pedal that operates a sewing machine. The "soused ensemble" could refer to the "Soaked white linens he was wrapt in," a shroud or bedsheet wet with the fever-sweat of illness.
The last stanza, beginning "The racks are full of you now," also seems to use clothing as a symbol of the father. Perhaps he was in the garment trade — an immigrant Jewish merchant, not understanding why his baby-boomer son has joined the civil rights movement? The retail term "fire sale" then becomes a metaphor for disposing of the father's leftover clothing and possessions after his death.
I found the last line jarring ("I think I'll just go in and browse") because it seemed flippant, too casual, after the anguished spiritual journey that preceded it. A poem this weighty needs to end on a powerful chord. Is the son wryly imitating something his father's customers might have said at a literal fire sale? I wanted more context to make this line meaningful. Otherwise, I wouldn't change anything about this mature, well-written poem.
Where could this poem be submitted? These upcoming contests came to mind:
Postmark Deadline: October 31
$1,000 prizes for poetry and fiction that gives a fresh perspective to universal themes and shows mastery of the music of language
National Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Prestigious contest from a leading UK poetry organization offers 5,000 pounds top prize, other cash prizes
Briar Cliff Review Fiction, Poetry & Creative Nonfiction Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 1
High-quality journal offers $500 and publication for winners in each genre; read passionate and daring poems by past winners online
Sow's Ear Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 1
$1,000 prize, winners and runners-up published in this well-regarded magazine that favors concise free verse
Perigee Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 31
$400 prize from online journal of literature and art that "celebrates fresh language and unique ideas;" no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. 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.