with critique by Jendi Reiter
She would have sworn up and down
That there was nothing more common
Than the constant drip-dripping of the farm faucet.
The warm monotone of hot water against steel
Cancelled the emotion in the farmer's voice.
She didn't have a choice
But to sit there and wait
For one more syllable to explode.
And what a heavy load for such a young girl.
She'd been alive for eight years and still laughed like a child
But the scars on her thigh showed that she's battled the Wild.
Beneath the eyes of a woman, she wore a little girl's pout
As she lined her wall with shards of glass to keep the Wild out.
Scorpion corpses laced the side of the empty chalet.
Like trust, their bodies took an instant to break,
And an eternity to mend.
By then, the screamers from the barn
Refused to be reconciled with their laughing counterparts
By the simple reassurance of fun and games
Perhaps gone just a bit too far.
Her work was careful and clean. She didn't cut herself at all;
Couldn't afford to lose more blood after her terrible fall.
Hot, red innocence had flooded the land,
The day the Wild of home had knocked it out of her hand.
The sour aftertaste of fruits that don't belong in human mouths
Can only be rinsed out by the
Warm, warm water, so
The constant drip-dripping of the farm faucet
Remained more in demand than anything else.
It had taken eight years, but eventually,
She had learned to read
The cryptic braille of scabs that lined his forearm.
She could understand what he muttered
Under alcohol-stained breath,
And the worst part:
She would have sworn that there was nothing more common.
Copyright 2007 by Tabitha Wood
Critique by Jendi Reiter
I chose Tabitha Wood's "The Wild" as this month's critique poem to explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of multiple styles within a poem, and to illustrate how an author can create dramatic tension by withholding information. Fans of mystery and horror films know that the unseen menace is often the most frightening. The creaking door, the odd angle of light, put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist who gropes for clues to the identity of the threat. Our inability to piece the facts together mirrors her helplessness.
With cinematic pacing, Wood focuses first on the dripping faucet, leaving us to speculate what trauma could have turned this ordinary object so sinister. The entire experience of violation is contained within this image. It is an all-consuming wrongness that poisons the smallest, most prosaic details of the child's world. Wood understands that to describe the abuse with more specificity would be to step outside the perspective of the victim, who has no name for what has happened to her—it is simply "The Wild", the haunted forest of fairy-tales, from which the monsters of our collective unconscious emerge. The unspeakable is defined by a negative, "the sour aftertaste of fruits that don't belong in human mouths".
The imagery now takes a more fantastical, overtly violent turn: "As she lined her wall with shards of glass to keep the Wild out./Scorpion corpses laced the side of the empty chalet." Because she began with a realistic, emotionally understated setting, Wood can dial up the intensity without seeming melodramatic. The striking phrase "hot, red innocence" reverses the usual values we assign to these attributes.
The word "chalet" did confuse my mental picture of the scene, since this style of building is more common in alpine or beach resorts than on a farm. I also don't associate scorpions with any of these types of landscape, but rather with a desert environment. Perhaps we are not meant to read this passage literally; it has the feel of a child's embellished imaginings, where the farmhouse becomes a chalet (or castle) and dead grasshoppers could be dangerous stinging insects. This still doesn't fit with how I understood the poem's general structure, putting the real-life segments in free verse and the metaphorical interpretation in the italicized, rhymed couplets.
How wise of Wood to keep those "screamers from the barn" offstage, an obscene parody of the screams of delight from the child's "laughing counterparts" at play. As W.H. Auden said in his famous poem "Musée des Beaux Arts", About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters...That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree." The outside world going about its business, ignorantly and indifferently happy, reinforces the abused child's isolation.
The ending follows the same "less-is-more" logic of the earlier stanzas. The child learns to read the scars on her abuser's body (a parallel to those on her own thighs?) and understand his drunken mutterings, but we're not told outright what she learns. An empathy, perhaps, that would seem like cheap and sentimental moral equivalence if outsiders like us verbalized it. We get a subtle clue in the last line: "she would have sworn that there was nothing more common." The worst part, for her, is knowing that abuse is so common that her tormentor was once a victim himself, perpetuating the pattern. What happened to her, unfortunately, is not a rare exception.
It's risky to include different styles within a short poem, as Wood does here. Done right, multiple voices can add depth and tension as each provides a new interpretation of the same reality. However, it undercuts the writer's authority if she seems unable to decide on the right voice for her story.
I felt the technique was only a partial success in "The Wild" because the rhyming lines are not as tightly crafted or mature in their authorial voice as the free-verse section. Rhyming couplets with no evident meter are a common feature of beginning writers' work, and I find them less effective than true formal verse because they suggest a blinkered emphasis on end-rhyme to the exclusion of the other elements of a poetic line—a musical cadence, varied pacing and syntax, and diction that differs from prose. The line is not disciplined; as long as it ends with a rhyme, it can wander as long as it wishes (a bargain pushed to its absurd extreme by Ogden Nash's light verse). For instance, I felt "the day the Wild of home had knocked it out of her hand" was a mixed metaphor that Wood wouldn't have used unless forced to find a rhyme for "land". When she says "knocked it out of her hand" I picture a solid object being dropped, but the only possible referent for "it" is the "hot, red innocence," presumably a liquid, blood.
Would the poem work better without the italicized sections? I think Wood's intuition is correct that a more emotional interior voice is needed as a counterpart to the repression and confinement of the child's external situation. One reason these sections feel weaker to me may be that they over-explain, compared to the Hitchcock-like subtle terrors of the free verse segments. I would like to see more surrealism, more drama, more lines like "lined her wall with shards of glass" and "hot, red innocence". And perhaps no rhymes. In fact, try going further in the direction of psychological chaos with a fragmented and surreal style, as Belinda Smith used in the poem we critiqued in February, "The Telepathic Bruise", another narrative of abuse. "The Wild" is already a powerful poem, and will be even better when its parts cohere a little more harmoniously.
Where could a poem like "The Wild" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Texas poetry society offers $100 prizes in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature and novel excerpts
Brodine/Brodinsky Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Connecticut Poetry Society offers prizes up to $150 and anthology publication for unpublished poems; no simultaneous submissions
League of Minnesota Poets Annual Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Prizes up to $125 for poems on various themes or in traditional forms (18 categories in all); publication not included
Essex Poetry Festival Competition
Entries must be received by August 30
Prizes up to 500 pounds for unpublished poems; fees must be in pounds sterling; no simultaneous submissions
MARGIE "Editor's Prize" Best Poem Contest
Postmark Deadline: August 31
Competitive award of $1,000 for unpublished poems, from eclectic, socially conscious annual journal that seeks work with a "distinctive voice"
This poem and critique appeared in the July 2007 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.