Community Feedback is our recurring column that provides an opportunity for our audience to get some quick, free & exceptional feedback on a new poem.
It works like this: we give the prompt and the link to our open submittable category.
The category closes in two weeks, and afterwards our editorial staff selects a poem to critique and comment on.
We publish the poem and the comments a month after the original post, and repeat the process.
PROMPT for June 22, 2018
The inspiration for this month’s prompt comes from a new work in Foundry: “In a Different Country,” by Ricardo Hernandez.
Hernandez performs a contemporary love poem wonderfully—the play and resistance of erotic power, the side-long selfishness, the cows in the field. Love stays the same, but every generation lives it out new—what does your love look like? Send us your love poems.
This month, we chose Jonathan Turner’s poem, “Hospital.” Thank you to all of our submitters.
I eat the word.
The word is now a feeling.
I am very young.
She’s going to live here, not at home.
This is her home.
Friends, and the best things.
They would leave if they could, I say.
She is hunted and iron.
I don’t remember falling asleep.
I pretend my scrotum is a snakeskin pouch of desert herbs.
The tiles know my steps so well.
Blotched like seal-grease.
When I’m older I can help.
The word is strange.
Hope it all works out.
Nice isn’t very.
Best in the world.
Diseases named for people.
Doctors plunge briefcases into hearts of patients, pulling out dead rats.
Walls coughing up forms.
I squint, make them black ants on winter snow.
How is she, she asks.
You know who.
The word floods the basement, fills the helipad to the brim.
The doctor tried to touch me, she says.
Isn’t that their job.
Then I understand.
The word gags me.
Everything muted: lights, AM, bedsheets.
Near-death myths of cotton swabs.
Reeks of kindness overbearing.
Choke on radiant faceless love.
Even this will not — cannot — help.
She is gauze-woman, mâché-boned.
Lungs shouldn’t click.
Does she remember air.
Her ghost creaks her jaw, shows me memories.
You’ll float away if you get any lighter.
Not her voice.
Call me hummingbird.
Hooked to a bird feeder.
He’s five now, I say.
The photo burns cigar holes in her eyes.
I leave the word alone.
Elephants trample, swallow up the sun.
This new night blinds me.
Scabs over limbs I never knew.
Ouroboros tamed by her heart-feather.
Now there is grass, and the unspeakable.
For him, stories.
His arms lift trucks.
As high to him as heaven.
Writing a poem with full end-stopped lines is tougher than you’d think. Most work we write is a dynamic interplay between end-stopped, parsed and annotated lines. See Logenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line for a fine analysis of each.
With my first reading, I’m really struck by the rhythm the poem finds with all its periods. The stanzas look a bit like slanted EKGs, with the line stretching from single word fragments to whole mutli-clause sentences. Usually, end-stopped lines are put to use to punctuate and perform against the backdrop of enjambed and syntactically formed lines. It takes the reader, therefore, a minute to internally adjust their expectations of what this poem is doing—but that adjustment is smoothed out by choices the poet has made here, unique and interesting choices.
For one, the poem begins with a fragmented line to set our expectations. It’s training the reader how to read the poem. “Hospital.” “L’hôpital.” “Hospice.” “Auspice.” With this repetition, the poet is building our trust, allowing us to relax into the unusual rhythm of a fully end-stopped poem.
There are also moments here where the poet bends syntax across the punctuation in such a way that it performs end-stopped and enjambed at the same time:
“The tiles know my steps so well.
Blotched like seal-grease.”
“Hope it all works out.
Nice isn’t very.
Best in the world.”
“Call me hummingbird.
Hooked to a bird feeder. “
These groups of lines give us a subtle break from the staccato rhythm of end-stopped lines—the logic of one line continues into the next: the period may actually have been a comma, two lines may have worked as one.
What I’d like to see is a little more control over these movements. More care and deliberation into the shape, order and rhythm of these stanzas—the speaker’s voice is careful, detached, observational. But the shape and the rhythm of the stanzas seem to be stuck between two modes: a raw-emotional juxtaposition, or a matching tonal structure. The poem would be served by choosing one or the other. Either the structure is tightened up to match the speaker’s tone and voice, or is broken loose to cut across the authority of that voice. I personally feel the poem wants a little more deliberate consistency in its structure, but I could see the poet also going the other way and breaking the structure down further to undermine the speaker’s confidence and control—as that is exactly what illness does.
The other strength I noticed immediately is an evocative use of metaphor and body imagery. The poet has anchored each stanza with a powerful image that activates the reader’s body—
“I pretend my scrotum is a snakeskin pouch of desert herbs.”
“Doctors plunge briefcases into hearts of patients, pulling out dead rats.”
“She is gauze-woman, mâché-boned.“
“The photo burns cigar holes in her eyes.”
“Scabs over limbs I never knew.”
If we analyze this closer, we see that the third stanza actually has two of these anchoring images, and the fourth’s anchor is relatively weak compared to the others. Scabs is an excellently evocative noun, but “limbs I never knew” is vague and self-defeating in its phrasing.
If you’ve had your eye on emerging poets winning awards recently, you’ll see that they often pack in tremendous amounts of imagery like this. Two poets that come to mind are Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong. Highly recommend you copy them. As Dean Young, author of Falling Higher, says, “I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”
Here, the poet can learn from folks like Akbar and Vuong to not be overly precious with these images. This poem actually has room for more lines like these, each stanza could comfortably hold two or three—at least 50% of the reader’s joy comes from their body. With contemporary audiences, it’s probably higher. Give to your reader’s body, give them imagery that activates their senses, that plunges into their chests, fills their scrotums with herbs, burns out their eyes.
It’s also worth noting that this poem is capable of holding more imagery like this because it does such a good job building a strong narrative structure. The poem uses time, character and scene skillfully—the exposition is subtle, the dialogue simple and unobtrusive, the characters fleshed out through interesting details and observations. With such a sure structure of narrative, the reader will allow for some wild image-movements and associations to arise and lift the whole thing further into poetry. That’s why a snakeskin scrotum is not obscene, but vulnerable—cigar holes for eyes is not violent, but nostalgic.
This poem is close to being ready for publication. With a little tightening, a little addition here, a little cutting there, this can become a very powerful exploration of the intersection of family and illness.
Thank you Jonathan, for sharing your work with us. It’s been an honor to read and think deeply about this poem.