Flaming Comforter and American Charybdis
FLAMING COMFORTER by Airlie Sattler Rose
French whistles sing to the coal train moving mountains, the green motorcycle gleaming under stained glass cylinders, tumbling star-like crystals peacefully rolling, comfortably rolling around on the bed on top of the motion of waves, the bare feet of the catalog's down comforter singed with fire.
It's ok, really. Don't you think the swan song is beautiful and the Lorax might find his way home some day? I look at the concrete, the molasses geography and dream of Jesus bursting through radiant clouds skipping on giant sandal feet from building to building. David Byrne's "Nothing but flowers" mark his steps until everything is flattened into life.
There is no more room. It is either going out or going in, breathing, sustenance, fire. Fire is the root, the structure, the comfort. A burn is a sharp thing that cuts. I sing to my children 10,000 songs, but they always want to hear Happy Birthday. Synchronicity when they line up together and—darn—those bare feet sticking out from under the blanket again.
I keep going, but the horizon is grey with smogulous smog and fogulous fog and everyone is coughing. This nation is so small minded. We are such children—gathering our bugs in a jar. We don't know enough to touch the other. The other's touch inflames us. It is how we grow-up. Un believable the American children. Un believable their world of princess dolls and ballrooms. What do they make of the decaying corpse of nature that fills the air with the stench of poetry? Ugh. It is inescapable.
Fleas contaminate the bed. Plink, plink—they're hard to catch, but I don't mind. I like to squish fleas and lie down in flea free luxury. America doesn't have fleas. I live here. The island paradise awaits, and the sun is setting. What kind of boat is this? Why does green flash as the fireball submerges? and did my freckle move?
Copyright 2010 by Airlie Sattler Rose
AMERICAN CHARYBDIS by Airlie Sattler Rose
I step into the lapping edge
of American culture.
My daughter looks adorable in her red ribbon pleated polyester
safely within the eyes
of the camera.
My son is safe.
He stands beyond the jetsam line
afraid to come closer.
Cars snake along
I can't slow down
pull out of traffic.
The guy to my left
flips me off when
I swerve to get off of
here. This bridge isn't safe.
I've got kids on board.
It's rotting from the inside
below the water
sucks around the piling
as it bounces and returns to
New couches smell of urethane.
If they catch fire,
into a scalding puddle
So, I tell my kids not to play with matches.
It's the sucking sound
of the television
arguments over why we
don't buy from Wal-Mart.
The princess ball is surely happening in the heart of that castle and
the small plastic bucket
holds a blue bubble
that looks like plastic
except for muscle-less twitches
and the slow curl, uncurl
The water was a draining ache when I got in,
but now it feels ok
I pack my thrift store specials
into a charity bag
and take out my Chico's
I ask the lady behind the counter
if any children wove until their hands bled
to make this garment, and
when she looks at me like I'm crazy
I feel I have done my duty to the children.
Because the only thing
that is real to me
is the slick
wrinkle-free fit of my pants
and the fact I feel professional
in-front of a class.
I like the way it feels
to spend money like smooth silk
spread over the rotting infrastructure.
The murdered land off-gases
beneath our feet.
It all feels normal.
Copyright 2010 by Airlie Sattler Rose
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Many authors have a set of core concerns to which they return, in one form or another, throughout their career. Mary Oliver's prolific volumes of nature poetry share a common message that life is precious and paying attention is a spiritual practice. At the other end of the mood spectrum, Stephen King is obsessed with the artist's evil double, the dark side of genius. With each variation on their theme, writers hope to come closer to finding the best form to express an idea that won't let them go.
For this month's critique, I chose Airlie Sattler Rose's poems "Flaming Comforter" and "American Charybdis" because they represent two such variations on a topic that attracts many contemporary poets: how to survive the unwholesome excesses of American commercial culture. Rose has tried out two poetic forms, the prose poem and the free-verse lyric, each of which is suited to explore different features of this dystopian landscape.
The prose poem is a hybrid form, rapidly evolving, elusive of definition. In this it resembles the mutating, confusing environment that the protagonist of "Flaming Comforter" inhabits. Surrealism is a natural tendency of the prose poem because it lacks the ruminative pauses of lineated verse, and also the logical progression of ideas we expect from prose. The quick succession of associative leaps can overwhelm the reader's analytical mind, just as this poem's narrator and her children are overwhelmed by the seductive pop-culture data stream.
One might say that the prose poem is the perfect form for our wired age. More than ever, it's up to us to connect and filter the random information that engulfs us. No one is going to shape it into a nice sonnet or an executive summary.
From the first paragraph of "Flaming Comforter", the reader is immersed in a stream of gorgeous yet disorienting images. Just as we begin to relax and enjoy it, a note of danger is introduced, "the bare feet of the catalog's down comforter singed with fire", followed by a hasty retreat into false hope: "It's okay, really. Don't you think the swan song is beautiful and the Lorax might find his way home some day?" (The Lorax is a Dr. Seuss character who warned in vain about all the trees being cut down to make consumer products.)
The narrator sounds alternately disgusted by, and tempted to share, the willed naivete of her fellow citizens. It would be a relief from the vain struggle to protect herself and her children from a corporate monoculture that threatens not only their physical ecosystem, but the biodiversity of their imagination: "I sing to my children 10,000 songs, but they always want to hear Happy Birthday."
The childhood references (Dr. Seuss, princess dolls) are part of the storyline of the harried parent, but also suggest the culture's general immaturity and egotism, an inability to grasp the implications of one's desires: "America doesn't have fleas. I live here." In other words, we can't be wrong! It can't happen to us! The stream-of-consciousness voice of the prose poem, which does away with explanatory transitions, makes it harder to differentiate between the narrator's own views and the messages she receives from outside—which is precisely the point.
Bagginess and a loss of direction are special hazards of writing a prose poem. The stream of consciousness must be edited, but it must not seem so. The pitch of the poem falters, it seems to me, in the fourth paragraph, which is a bit preachy and uses nonsense words in a way that feels out of place. The Seuss-ism "smogulous smog and fogulous fog" isn't how the sharply intelligent and wary narrator would speak when she is making a serious argument, in fact the central argument of the poem.
Before moving on to the next poem, I want to say a few words about the wonderfully multi-layered title "Flaming Comforter". As a literal, physical description, the paradox instantly draws us in. The security blanket is on fire. Something dramatic is happening here. I also thought of the Holy Spirit, one of whose traditional epithets is the Comforter. Angels are radiant and terrifying, like fire. That green flash on the horizon...is God going to intervene? Will we be happy to see Him? Maybe not.
In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters living on either side of a narrow strait. Charybdis took the form of a whirlpool, while Scylla was shaped like a woman with wild dogs' heads coming out of her waist. The story has passed into common parlance as a metaphor for navigating with difficulty between two disastrous alternatives.
As in "Flaming Comforter", Rose uses water imagery in "American Charybdis" to represent the overpowering and chaotic force of a toxic culture. But if the prose poem was a flood, this narrative lyric is a drip-drip-drip, moving with the exaggerated slowness of paranoia, as the narrator must think and re-think the ramifications of the mundane choices that others rush through.
It seems to me that the target of this poem is false individualism, the privatization of public burdens. How interesting to use the first-person lyric, that supremely personal form, to critique an ideology that puts private choices at the center of the universe.
Try as she might, the mother cannot avoid being implicated in harmful decisions that are made at the corporate level. She has all of the responsibility, yet none of the power, to protect her family. Are your couches flammable (the flaming comforter again)? Well, just tell your kids not to play with matches! Simple as that.
Both of Rose's poems create the effect of two voices talking over one another, the ambient noise of the culture and the narrator's interior monologue which is in tension with those media messages. In "American Charybdis", the voices are more clearly delineated by the use of italics versus plain text, yet despite that, the voices bleed into one another as speakers break off mid-sentence and switch typefaces. It's like trying to read a book in a hospital waiting room where the TV is always blaring.
Perhaps because it has a clearer narrative line than the surreal "Flaming Comforter", this poem's political outrage feels a little more heavy-handed. Wal-Mart is almost too easy a target, and I would have liked to end on a more subtle and surprising image than "murdered land". Rose has no shortage of original images earlier in the poem, which makes her work stand out from the mass of other anti-corporate screeds. Some of my favorites are "the lapping edge of American culture", "money like smooth silk spread over the rotting infrastructure", and the lovely and strange sequence about the delicate sea creature in the bucket. Like the spirit of Hope at the bottom of Pandora's box, this little creature offers us relief from Rose's otherwise unbearable dystopian vision.
In style and content, I see similarities between Rose's work and the poetry of Joy Harjo, whose book A Map to the Next World also juxtaposed lyrics with prose poems on parallel themes. Other poets writing in the same vein include Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root, the husband-and-wife team behind the literary journal Cutthroat. Their annual contest will reopen in the summer.
Where could poems like "Flaming Comforter" and "American Charybdis" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Solstice Literary Contest
Entries must be received by March 23
New online journal offers prizes of $500 for poetry, $1,000 for fiction and essays; 2010 final judge for poetry is Terrance Hayes
Foley Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: March 31
Free contest from the Jesuit magazine 'America' offers $1,000 for a poem of 30 lines or less; no simultaneous submissions; past winning poems have touched on morally significant issues, but have not been "religious" poetry in the conventional sense
Bomb Magazine Biennial Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: April 1
Well-regarded literary journal offers this $500 award for unpublished poems in even-numbered years only; 2010 final judge is Susan Howe
Tiferet Writing Contest
Entries must be received by April 1
Tiferet, an ecumenical journal of spirituality and the arts, offers $500 for unpublished poems of any length; enter online
Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Highly competitive $2,000 award from Nimrod International Journal; editors seem to like poetry with a progressive political bent
These poems and critique appeared in the March 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques