The first time I married
we lived in the woods,
a spot clear enough
for a sixty foot trailer.
At night, we heard
bobcats scream. Our lab,
Sonia, whimpered, took refuge
in a break in the underpinning.
My husband shot targets
from the back door. I tried once,
the recoil of the .357 magnum
pushing my arm past my ear
like a starting gun.
Later, ducking thrown dishes, I ran,
watched from the Home Stretch Inn
as a wrecker hauled the steel trap away,
the frame sprung in the middle,
both sides pulled apart.
Copyright 2010 by Barb McMakin
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
"If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are," wrote that famous poet from Kentucky, the conservationist and contemporary transcendentalist, Wendell Berry. He was referring to the powerfully—even viscerally—expressive, if hard to define, quality that poets refer to as "a sense of place."
This month Critique Corner will look at a fine example of how a new Kentucky poet, Barb McMakin, has evoked that quality in "No Salvage", part of her just-released collection Digging Bones from Finishing Line Press.
"No Salvage" is a compact piece, fewer than a hundred words. From them, three images evoke a sense of place. Each earns its keep.
Most of the first stanza is given to "woods/a spot clear enough/ for a sixty foot trailer" establishing the importance of place in this poem. It is a pellucid description. It gives enough information for almost any reader to conjure a picture. For an American, the word "trailer" carries connotations of class and transience. It is a laden word.
Later she uses the proper noun, "The Home Stretch Inn". This is a clearly readable regionalism for a certain sort of roadside bar/motel near a woods in that part of the U.S.A. But this is a poem, so diction counts more than specifics. McMakin could have chosen any name. With "Home Stretch Inn" she contrasts "home" to "trailer", while at the same time, the phrase "home stretch"—the last leg of a race—makes a sort of witty rejoinder to the starting gun in the previous stanza.
Bobcat is another regionalism; the same cat is called wildcat or lynx elsewhere. While Kentucky's "Bob" screams, the more exotically named "Sonia" whimpers, providing an audio track for the reader's sense of place. Sonia is a symbol for what this couple shares, as she seeks safety within this frightening setting beneath the "break in the underpinning".
This is muscular writing: words chosen to do more than one thing. McMakin has multiple reasons to support every detail selected that also pertains to scene. Each contributes thematically. Each contributes to the poem's coherence. There is nothing esoteric about them; they are not named flora or proper nouns. She does not list. Her choices are more subtle and far more integral to the poem as a whole.
Toward revision I would suggest a reconsideration of the line breaking. One method to test whether a poem might not be achieving its most effective line breaks is to look at the words that begin all the lines and also those that end them. Are all the power words—the verbs and nouns—at one end or the other? Same question for the supporting words, prepositions, for example.
"No Salvage" provides a strong model of diction chosen to operate on a number of levels. Perhaps there are some line breaks that might do the same.
Take line seven. If it ended with "in," McMakin could underscore the repetition of two final lines of the second stanza. The refrain of "in, in, in" is already present. Reinforcing it could be a choice.
More importantly though, line breaks can be exploited to heighten drama or suspense. What if the line ended with "shot"? Or "ducking"? Then, for the briefest pause, the reader would ask, "Shot what?" "Ducked what?" This is the suspension and resolution discussed in the April 15, 2010 Critique Corner as the function of the third line of a haiku.
Another way a line break can operate expressively is by changing the tone. If line ten ended in "tried", you might not only have suspense as in the previous examples, but also the emotional implication of resignation.
While these might or might not affect one's reading, what is indisputable is that this author was able to make every word count in this unsettling poem.
Where could a poem like "No Salvage" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Kentucky State Poetry Society Contests
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Local poetry society offers prizes up to $100 in open category, plus smaller prizes for poems with various themes and styles, including formal poetry and humor
Narrative Magazine Annual Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by July 18
Competitive award offers prizes up to $1,500 plus publication in this high-profile print and online journal of narrative poetry and prose
Naugatuck River Review Narrative Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by September 1; don't enter before July 1
Well-regarded journal of narrative poetry offers prizes up to $1,000 plus publication for winner and numerous runners-up; enter online only
These poems and critique appeared in the June 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques