with critique by Jendi Reiter
Look into a mirror what do you see
Do you see gazelles pronking up and down like snow flakes falling to the ground
Or do you see the ocean dark and blue
Do you see me on a crystal wave floating out to sea
Or does the tide roll your heart along the ocean floor
My tears for you will never lie
Even though your eyes could never see the tears you had inside for me
You told me life was a balancing game and that we hold the balance
You rode your stallion in the rain
You rode him all through the night
You rode him never letting go for that stallion loved you so
Do you see the meadow in the morning sun
Golden leaves lying on the ground parting left and right like waves rolling out to sea
A faded shadow in a gilded frame trotting faster than before
Towards the scent he knows so well
The reins that hold him tight are now in his sight
Her hand lifting into the air
Golden honey dripping on her finger tips
Dancing drops of golden rain so sweet surround his tongue again
This the angels from above only give for two to share
For love and trust are just skin deep this moment for mortals not to keep
Black stallion's mane waving in the breeze balancing on his knees
Her hand once by her side striking at the fore
Spooked forever more
Galloping into the night
Following shadows cast by stars above forever now in search of love
Never to return again
But you'll hear him in the wind and taste him in the rain
And in the dark of every night you'll see the stars that are his tears
For he will love you for a thousand years
Copyright 2008 by Neville Klaric
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Neville Klaric's "The Mirror", uses a free-flowing modern verse form to freshen its traditional romantic sentiments and imagery. Energetic as the dream-stallion who embodies the passion of the protagonists, the poem's momentum is driven by internal rhymes and the syncopation of longer and shorter lines. However, inconsistent use of pronouns caused the occasional stumble for this reader, as the poem appears to shift from an "I/You" to a "He/She" perspective without making it clear whether these are the same characters.
The unrequited love of the original speaker is enigmatically interwoven with another story of a woman and a creature who appears to be a stallion, but actually represents Romantic Love itself—fleeting, ecstatic, wounded yet made sublime by loss. ("For love and trust are just skin deep this moment for mortals not to keep.") The beloved must disappear as a mortal individual in order to be transfigured into an immortal ideal, as described in the last four lines of the poem.
This understanding of romance harks back to the medieval tradition of courtly love, in which unconsummated passion for an unattainable Lady was sublimated into artistic expressions of devotion. This state of refined frustration was considered nobler than an ordinary coupling between two individuals. (Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World is in my view a matchless history of this idea as well as a critique of its impact on our present culture. For a good summary of the book, click here.)
At first I wondered whether this poem should be called "The Mirror", as this initial image was not always well-integrated into the poem's storyline. However, the title points to the shadow side of romantic love, which is its narcissism. One could argue that the courtly lover actually worships a construction of his own mind, to the point where genuine intimacy with the other person becomes an impediment to the fantasy. W.H. Auden explored this dilemma in his poem "Alone", which begins:
Each lover has a theory of his own
With this in mind, we can see why the speaker of the poem invites his lover to "look into the mirror" as the first step toward rekindling their romance. He seems to be inviting her to know herself, yet he begins with images that are not really "about" her at all, the gazelles and the ocean. Perhaps he is saying that our heart's deep response to natural beauty is akin to the impulse behind romantic love, and that reawakening the former passion can revive the latter as well.
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone:
Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.
This argument culminates in the fusion of nature, art and the erotic in the figure of the stallion, who appears to move seamlessly between the realms of imagination and reality. Coming in the middle of the breathless description of the woman and her stallion-lover galloping through golden leaves, the line "A faded shadow in a gilded frame trotting faster than before" adds a surprising twist. This creature, so physically present a moment ago, is seen from another perspective as a distant ideal, a figure in a painting come magically to life, or passing like Alice "through the looking-glass" from one world into another. Again, this subtly raises the question of whether romantic love is more like looking in the mirror than looking outward at the beloved.
About halfway through, the poem undergoes a pronoun-shift that I find confusing, starting with the lines "Her hand lifting into the air/Golden honey dripping on her finger tips/Dancing drops of golden rain so sweet surround his tongue again". From the context, it seems likely that we are still talking about the woman who loves the stallion, but since she is also the narrator's beloved, it's not clear whether the "he" in this episode is the narrator or the horse.
The line "Black stallion's mane waving in the breeze balancing on his knees" further complicates the picture. "Waving in the breeze" suggests that the horse is galloping, so he could not be balancing on his (the horse's) knees. Is it then the narrator who is balancing, as a rider? The position sounds physically awkward even so. I suspect that the phrase about "knees" was put in for the sake of the rhyme, and should either be taken out or set off from the preceding phrase with some connecting words to show that these are two different moments and/or characters.
At the end, the speaker goes back to addressing the woman as "you", which perhaps the author meant to do all along. I would recommend making the usage consistent throughout: "Your hand lifting into the air" and so on. At this point I had to wonder whether the narrator himself was even necessary to the story, because he never reappears after the line "You told me life was a balancing game". After that, it becomes solely the love story of the woman and the stallion. Ultimately I decided that I liked the back-story of the speaker's own lost love because it gives the reader a personal, emotional entry point into the other story—a reason to care about the woman, and to believe she is a real person rather than a stock character in a romantic poem.
However, this frame is still missing one of its sides, in my opinion. I wouldn't want to dilute the power of the ending by adding new lines there; the poem should end on its main theme, not its subplot. A good transition point to add new material would be after "...for mortals not to keep". Here, a line or two could be inserted to complete the speaker's own story. What is he trying to tell her about their relationship by reminding her of this other love in her life? What insight into his situation does he take away from the stallion's story of loss and transformation? "The Mirror" needs one more step in its argument to reach a unified resolution for the profound themes its beautiful imagery sets in motion.
Where could a poem like "The Mirror" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Writers' Forum Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by the 15th of each month
Monthly award from British magazine for emerging writers offers prizes up to 100 pounds for unpublished short poems
The Shine Journal Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by April 15
Small online journal of flash literature and art offers free contest with prizes up to $100; enter via online form
Heart Poetry Award
Postmark Deadlines: April 30, June 30
Nostalgia Press offers $500 prize for "insightful, immersing" free verse
Dancing Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Artists Embassy International offers prizes up to $100 plus opportunity to have your poem presented as an interpretive dance at festival in San Francisco
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Competitive award for unpublished poetry, fiction and essays; entries in all genres compete for top prize ($3,000 and trip to NYC to meet editors and agents), plus there are prizes up to $1,000 in each genre
SSA Writer's Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 31
The Society of Southwestern Authors offers prizes up to $300 for poems, short stories, children's stories, and memoirs; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2008 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.