with critique by Jendi Reiter
We are held air in iron-banded lungs
we sear in our own fires,
inside flesh falls off like fat off a roast
we are oven we burn or
burst like weeds, swell like a malignant lump
in some breast, becoming bloated
bogs in our own shadows inside
where people like me can forget
what sunlight feels out of glass.
We die before we die
consumed by our fusion reactions
swallowed by our inside shadows
until we are nothing more than
eggshells, with the white and yolk
Our garden is rock.
Shale and granite and limestone
road rock is our garden
and any blossom, any green, any growth,
is pulled burned and poisoned
as a weed.
People like me haunt doorways
never completely in, never completely out,
never to be here or there, we are nowhere,
doorways and cracks and in between spaces, lost places
lost people like lost keys lost in between
and we can be found on the bottom of dry riverbeds,
see us walking there, people like me,
we who walk through the silt and dust
of desert canals, we
don't live long, people like me.
How long can a person live
with gasoline for blood
we are raped by our intensity
wasted, wraithed by it, we don't
live long, we weren't meant to.
Copyright 2006 by J. Malcolm Browne
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, J. Malcolm Browne's "People Like Me", takes us inside the psyche of someone who is battered and shipwrecked by his own emotional storms. Wisely, the author does not "diagnose" the condition in clinical terms that would permit us to label and distance ourselves from the speaker. We are left to speculate about the reasons why he might experience life as alienation and nightmare: hallucinatory drugs, mental illness, the aftermath of a tragedy, or the morbid romantic temperament of the artistic genius. By speaking not only for himself but for a shadowy cohort of "people like me", the narrator makes an almost political demand for empathy and recognition. (I was reminded of the line "Attention must be paid" from Death of a Salesman, whose theme of invisible desperation finds its echo in Browne's poem.) The poem makes us feel these sufferings as our own, thereby revealing our common humanity with the self-destructive or delusional characters we might otherwise stereotype.
What impressed me about this poem's technique was how the author provides just the right amount and type of information to avoid being either too prosaic or too maudlin and gothic. Both of these pitfalls are common when writing about depression and emotional disorders, and both stem from an excess of self-consciousness. The prosaic poem uses the vocabulary of the medical or journalistic observer to define the condition from outside, never allowing us to see the sufferer as more than a statistic. At the other extreme, the poet is too aware of talking about his own feelings, and over-adorns the poem with blood and devils, like a bad action-movie director throwing in more and more explosions to add punch to a dull plot.
By contrast, Browne takes us directly inside the surreal realm that his characters inhabit, reporting their experiences through images of ordinary objects (an oven, an egg, a garden) gone terribly wrong. In this, the poem resembles Anne Sexton's masterful, disturbing "Angels of the Love Affair" series from The Book of Folly. Some of the most affecting images for me were "inside flesh falls off like fat off a roast" (you can just see that, however much you don't want to); "eggshells, with the white and yolk/blown free"; and "gasoline for blood".
The jagged rhythm and headlong rush of Browne's run-on phrases ("we are oven we burn"; "lost people like lost keys lost in between") convey that the speaker is being driven wild by his own emotions, his agitation mounting as he strives to make others hear his plea for understanding. The abrupt, broken-up lines of the ending are just right, a final failure of breath. I loved the disjointed repetition of "people like me" in the penultimate stanza, breaking up the grammar of his sentences like a madman's interior monologue that is bleeding through into his conversation.
Browne's incantatory use of repetition is another thing that gives the diction of "People Like Me" its poetic quality. "Free" verse is something of a misnomer, because good poetry always requires structure, only here it is the hidden musical structure of language rather than an obvious pattern. I personally feel that poetic speech needs to sound different from ordinary dialogue and description: more intense, compressed, almost prophetic. Paradoxically, sometimes this means using more words than are necessary simply to convey the plot. Lines like "consumed by our fusion reactions/swallowed by our inside shadows" and "any blossom, any green, any growth" reveal the same thought from multiple angles, in the tradition of the two-line verses of Psalms and Proverbs. Such repetition, if not done to excess, can add emotional intensity and increase the musicality of the poem. Preachers and politicians know that catchy rhymes, alliteration and grammatical parallelism help the message stick in the minds of the audience. Good free verse takes advantage of this fact in a more subtle way.
In the spirit of self-examination that I urged on readers at the beginning of this critique, Browne's poem got me thinking about the darkness of modern poetry. Why does it seem that the majority of good poems are depressing, or at least contain significant suffering and gravity? The connection between creativity and bipolar disorder continues to be debated, but if that were the whole story, one might expect to see more happy poems from the manic phase. Perhaps happiness makes us more completely absorbed in the moment, to the point that we would break the spell if we stepped outside to describe it, while in sadness we look for an imaginary world in which to rewrite or escape the present. Are we more likely to reach out for companionship from our readers when we feel insufficiently loved and understood in our personal lives?
For myself, the impetus to write has often been a problem that I needed to work out, struggling to reconcile my duties and desires, or what lesson to draw from a mistake I made. Happiness seldom needs to be "solved" in this way. There's a reason theologians talk about the "problem of evil" and not the "problem of good". Maybe we poets really are optimists, or at least idealists, believing that suffering, however widespread, is an aberration whose causes we need to discover so that Browne's "people like me" can live a little longer.
I invite our readers to send me their thoughts on this topic, in poetry or prose. For extra credit, tell me about a well-written classic or contemporary poem (think Wordsworth's "daffodils" poem, not greeting-card verse) that you consider uplifting, joyful or optimistic. The poem should not only have a positive intention, but succeed in making you, the reader, experience that mood. We may publish some of your responses in our July newsletter.
Where could a poem like "People Like Me" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Boulevard Emerging Poets Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Prestigious journal Boulevard offers $1,000 for poems by authors with no published books
Five Fingers Review Awards
Postmark Deadline: June 1
$500 each for poetry and fiction from journal with a preference for experimental work; 2006 theme is "foreign lands and alternate universes"
Entries must be received by June 30
High-profile award offers 5,000 pounds each for unpublished poems up to 42 lines and fiction up to 5,000 words
Bellevue Literary Review Prizes
Postmark Deadline: August 1
$1,000 apiece for poetry, fiction and essays about themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2006 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.