with critique by Jendi Reiter
He won't worry about how to help,
what tie to wear with which shirt color,
how center pieces fit with dishware,
if gifts might be necessary. She
doesn't care in which chair he may sit,
should a gravy spill blot his clothing,
if such worry's worth it. Thoughtlessly
guests resume games throughout the evening,
take dessert, crumbs dropping to carpet,
during her home vigil. Still she
did plan space for him in an event
knocks upon her door materialize,
should it freeze in hell. He looked a damn fool
lying in sand without a face, breath-
less, with arm and leg remaining, no,
not even requesting vacation,
leaving quite unannounced. What matters
to anybody; who now could care?
In spite, he should've shown! For she, sweet
hostess, shall greet no gentle-caller,
table-head, soldier, friend nor lover.
Copyright 2006 by Ron Dean
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Ron Dean's "No RSVP", subtly employs irony and misdirection to channel our outrage at the intrusion of violent death into our carefully constructed lives. By pretending that a dinner-party faux pas is the most important thing about this soldier's absence, the poem mocks the narcissism and misplaced priorities that permit war to continue.
"No RSVP" reminded me of a famous war poem, Arthur Rimbaud's "Le Dormeur du Val" (English translation). Both poems set a scene that initially appears benign, to heighten the reader's shock and sense of wrongness when death breaks in. We're tricked into complaining against the writer for ruining a pretty picture, only to realize that we may be perpetuating ugliness by refusing to see it.
Social conventions in "No RSVP" are untrustworthy, inadequate to bear direct conversation about the hostess' loss. At first, we think we're hearing about a well-adjusted couple who are above arguing about trivia such as place settings and gravy spills. How gracious they are to one another, we might say. But these opening lines were meant sarcastically, and like strangers at a party, we were not "insiders" enough to understand the story beneath the story. Of course they can't worry about these things—he is dead, and she will never see him at her table again. What seemed like evidence of their freedom is actually a sign of their powerlessness.
The poem mocks human attempts at graciousness and order, even going so far as to call the young man undignified in death ("He looked a damn fool/lying in sand without a face")—perhaps a dark pun on "loss of face" as a term for a social gaffe. Yet I never felt the author was being mean-spirited. Rather, he gives voice to our feelings of frustration, humiliation and helplessness before death's lack of care for what we treasure.
Whether or not the guests are truly thoughtless, the bereaved hostess cannot help resenting them for being absorbed in life's ordinary details, which the soldier's death has put into such stark perspective for her. She is angry at him, too, for dying without even a chance to say goodbye. As a description of this lack of closure, the ironic understatement of the phrase "no RSVP" harshly reminds us that we are not entitled to any advance notice from the Grim Reaper. On one level, we know it is absurd to be offended that death sets no value on our lives and loves, but on another level, we cannot shake the feeling that they nonetheless have infinite value. "What matters/to anybody; who now could care?//In spite, he should've shown!"
I liked the courtly, old-fashioned cadence and vocabulary of the last lines ("sweet hostess"... "gentle-caller"... "friend nor lover"). It was like an acknowledgment that the rituals of civilization, however insufficient to save our lives, are still worthwhile to help us make sense of our losses. The tenderness of these lines also softened what could otherwise have been too cynical a poem.
Where could a poem like "No RSVP" be submitted? These upcoming contests may be of interest:
Writers at Work Fellowship Competition
Postmark Deadline: March 1
High-profile award for authors with no published books offers $1,500 each for poetry, fiction and nonfiction
GSU Review Annual Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: March 4
Recommended contest from Georgia State University offers $1,000 each for poetry and fiction; prestigious judges. Email Jody Brooks for details
Campbell Corner Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: March 15
$3,000 award for poems that "treat larger themes with lyric intensity", sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College
Florida Review Editors' Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Prizes of $1,000 each for poetry, fiction and essays from a well-regarded journal; note new deadline (formerly February 15)
National Federation of State Poetry Societies Awards
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Prizes from $25 to $1,500 in 50 contest categories, including open-theme awards
Write It Now! Competition
Entries must be received by March 15
$500 grand prize across all genres, plus $100 in each genre, from unique contest that lets you revise your entries online until the deadline date
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. 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.