with critique by Jendi Reiter
Gears shift, thin wheels sip asphalt
as I ride through soda-water
evening air. A flash of orange leaps out
at my periphery, a sizzling circle
wavering towards the dirt.
It takes my eyes, tricks them
with feverish brightness
like a sickness I somehow wish to catch
and suddenly the bicycle
is not merely going, but hunting,
its toothy metal is bored with
the blue glass twilight,
those abandoned barns which tilt
as arrogant antique lampshades
(the stuff which has already touched its frame:
stone, cool, clear, and moon).
It drinks the small streets of the Midwest suppertime
taut rubber whispery, clinging but smooth,
as the hot candy filters
quick through tree tops
and its elusive flavor
is close to dissolution.
But I find the spot
where it oozes completely; sagging,
so pregnant it could split,
its trembling vicious gas scrapes and shines
the dull rock of this town.
I think it is unfathomably huge
But the Universe is even much larger still.
Riding back there is fire
smeared like butter
on the pedals.
Copyright 2006 by Katherine Fleissner
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Katherine Fleissner's "The Popsicle Planet," dazzled me with its playful blurring of sensory boundaries. The 19th-century Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud once described his innovative poetic method as an "immense and rational derangement of all the senses," exemplified in poems like "Vowels" (Les Voyelles) where each vowel-sound is associated with a color. Similarly, Fleissner's unusual verb choices (a bicycle that drinks) and comparisons (fire "smeared like butter") merge seemingly incompatible physical states to produce a mystical vision, pregnant with meaning and intensity. The gentle surrealism of this poem also invites comparisons to the Beatles' famous psychedelic ballad "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".
The first line immediately signals that the author is taking us on a ride through a world that is more dynamic and unpredictable than what our ordinary vision perceives. The bicycle has become a living creature that "sips asphalt" as the normally solid surface of the road takes on a liquid quality. What does it mean for the air to be like soda-water? Perhaps it is sweet, or moist, or effervescent with energy. This intriguing image further blurs the lines between solid, liquid, and gas. Meanwhile, the delicacy of "sips" sets a benign mood. Although the barriers of perception are dissolving, there is still a feeling of safety and control. Soda-water suggests innocence, a drink for children instead of a liqueur.
The tension rises with the lines "a feverish brightness/like a sickness I somehow wish to catch", and the bicycle is now hunting like a "toothy" animal. Crossing over into this new realm of experience could be dangerous, but the alternative may be stagnation and a different form of unreality. In contrast to the hot colors of the "sizzling circle" and "feverish brightness", the world we leave behind is sunk in a cool "blue glass twilight", exhausted as a junked lampshade with no more lightbulb. This quiet, washed-out dimension has its own subtle beauty (as found in the totemic recitation of "stone, cool, clear, and moon"), but is incomplete without the energy that the bicycle's quest represents.
The journey culminates with an almost sexual bursting-forth of something from the earth—something that oozes and trembles, "shines/the dull rock of this town" into life. What does the "it" refer to in the phrase "the spot/where it oozes completely"? In the preceding sentence, "it" was the bicycle, so this line confused me momentarily. Here, the speaker is probably talking about the "hot candy" that drips and dissolves through the treetops in the previous stanza. What's great about this image is that the candy, or oozing substance, is not a metaphor for anything; it's not simply that the sunset clouds are like candy, for instance. Instead, it feels as if the speaker has stumbled upon the source of the undifferentiated proto-matter out of which all these other things are made—what Hinduism might call Brahman, or the underlying essence of the material universe.
I would cut the lines "I think it is unfathomably huge/But the Universe is even much larger still." In a poem that accomplishes its goals through sensation rather than analysis and comparison, this sentence seems out of place and redundant. It spells out a message that is already conveyed more effectively through images alone. Capitalizing "Universe" also shades into New Age sentimentality, that self-consciously prophetic tone that can ruin a poem about a profound subject.
The final lines are striking and memorable. The subject of "Riding back there" is ambiguous—is the fire riding, or is the speaker saying that riding her bicycle is like being on fire? The double meaning makes it more interesting. Starting the line with "Riding" plunges the reader into the experience right away, without the interference of a narrator, underscoring that the goal of this journey was to erase the boundary between the speaker and her surroundings. "Fire/smeared like butter/on the pedals" is wonderfully bizarre, yet entirely appropriate as an image of the richness and creative energy that now clings to her every movement.
Where could a poem like "The Popsicle Planet" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Greg Grummer Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: December 1
Competitive award from Phoebe, the literary journal of George Mason University, offers $1,000 for unpublished poems (1-4 poems, 10 pages total); brief, imagistic work does well here
Lyric Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: December 15
Members-only contest from the Poetry Society of America (we recommend joining) offers $500 for lyric poems up to 50 lines
Jack Wolford Memorial Prize
Entries must be received by December 31
Edgy Pittsburgh-based e-zine Hot Metal Press awards $500 for the best poem, story or essay accepted by the magazine during the current year (all genres compete together); no fee, enter online only
This poem and critique appeared in the November 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.