with critique by Jendi Reiter
all the good air gone
with the ghosts
live wire and chatter
long for a face
a voice, a torso with arms,
legs, gone the
words, books, love
notes, business lies
scattered to the
tend flowers while
some mammals, wrapped in
aluminum, live without joy
on riches and letters of
the alphabet building
Copyright 2005 by Joan Blake
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Joan Blake's "The Third Millennium", is primarily concerned with constructing an atmosphere rather than a narrative or an argument. It appeals to our intuitive ability to perceive connections that we may not be able to explain analytically.
John Ashbery is one of the most well-known writers in this style, elements of which can also be found in Mark Strand's early collection Darker.
We're taught to decipher poems by looking for the "real" meanings that the surface images represent: the moon is like a woman's face, the fallen leaf is a metaphor for death. For Blake's poem, I think this technique would miss the point. Trying to match up the "aluminum" or "letters of/the alphabet" to literal features of 21st-century life would prematurely arrest the free association of images that these words are meant to provoke. I will share some of my impressions of the poem below, but these should not be considered an authoritative key to its meaning(s).
The overall mood that I got from the poem was one of unreality and isolation, worsened by technology. I was immediately grabbed by the opening lines, "all the good air gone/with the ghosts", with their strong repetition of "GO-" sounds. The words "gone" and "ghosts" cannot help but arouse feelings of loss. Even before we know where we are in this poem, we are already nostalgic for somewhere else. There was a time before this fog descended, but those better days have slipped away somehow.
"Live wire and chatter/long for a face" suggests that this is going to be a poem about how email, phones and other long-distance communication have replaced authentic relationships. The loss of "good air" reminds us of the pollution that often goes along with society's so-called progress.
But then we get images of scattering and dismemberment—"a torso with arms,/legs, gone the/words, books, love/notes, business lies/scattered to the/air"—that for me brought back those post-9/11 scenes of office debris littering the streets around the World Trade Center site. This allusion lends an additional dimension to the "ghosts" and the spoiling of the air.
In a few brief lines, this stanza manages to evoke several recognizable, interconnected ideas, but so fleetingly that we scarcely understand what memories are producing our emotional reaction. Moreover, the poem still works without any interpretive overlay, as a direct experience of disconnection, confusion and loss.
The second stanza paints a picture of the pleasant but meaningless fantasy-land into which "some mammals" have retreated, while the larger world deteriorates as we have already seen. "Wrapped in aluminum" reminded me of the stock figure of the crazy person who wears tinfoil to keep the aliens from hearing his thoughts. It's shiny, high-tech, but actually flimsy, not offering the protection that these characters seem to expect. Could there be a sadder indictment than saying that we "live without joy/on riches"? In the "letters of/the alphabet building/clouds floating", I saw language and symbols, the things that make us more than mere "mammals", becoming unmoored from meaning and productivity. This stanza had a more universal feeling; its mood comes across perfectly without the need for connections to specific events and problems.
It's hard to explain why I found the last lines, "around the/O-zone", to be a letdown. As readers of this column know, I demand a lot from last lines, but that's because they set the tone for how the reader will remember the poem. Did the journey end at a destination or just stop? Maybe the destruction of the ozone layer is an overly familiar concept, maybe the unusual capitalization and spelling hinted at a double meaning or pun that I didn't get, or maybe the final period made the poem less open-ended than I wanted. Whatever the reason, I didn't feel that "O-zone" had enough significance in this context to warrant the emphasis placed on it.
I would have preferred to continue the poem's dominant mood of floating disconnection and unresolved questions, rather than bringing it to a sudden stop that doesn't feel necessary. A change as simple as removing the final period and bringing "ozone" up to the previous line might suffice:
live without joy
on riches and letters of
the alphabet building
around the ozone
One could also experiment with various adjectives in front of "ozone" to create a more specific mental picture. Around the blue ozone? Around the thin ozone? Many options are possible, depending on the final impression that Blake wants to leave in the reader's mind. Overall, this was an intriguing poem that managed to do a lot in a small space.
Where could a poem like "The Third Millennium" be submitted?
These upcoming contests came to mind:
Poetry Society of America Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 23
Highly prestigious awards program for unpublished poems on various themes; poems like "The Third Millennium" might be a good fit for the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award for lyric poems on philosophical themes. You'll need to join PSA to enter the Hemley contest and some others, but it's a good deal.
Perigee Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 31
$400 prize plus publication in print and online editions of Perigee: Publication for the Arts, a good forum for emerging writers; no simultaneous submissions
Beullah Rose Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: January 15
$200 prize for work by women poets, from the literary journal Smartish Pace
Milford Fine Arts Council National Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: January 31
$100 prize for unpublished short poems (10-30 lines, maximum 40 characters/spaces per line); no simultaneous submissions
OnceWritten.com Winter Poetry Writing Contest
Entries must be received by January 31
Creative writers' website offers $500, several runner-up prizes of $100, and online publication
This poem and critique appeared in the December 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.