"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?
How many times do I have to say
get rid of the books off the goddamn floor
do you have any idea how it feels
to step over books you wrote about her
bloody hell you sadist what kind of man
are you all day long those fecking books
in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books
tell me now what do you have to say
for yourself you think you’re such a man
silent brooding pondering at the floor
pretending you’re bored when I mention her
fine change the subject ask “Do I feel
like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel
like I need more medication it’s the books
don’t you see don’t you see it’s her
why don’t you listen to anything I say
and for god’s sake books on the floor
are a safety hazard remember that man
from Cork who nearly died fine that man
fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel
you’re getting the point the point is that a floor
is not an intelligent place for books
books I have to see and books that say
exactly where and how you shagged her
what shirt she wore before you shagged her
I can write a book too about some man
better still about you I can say
something to demonize you how would you feel
about that ha ha why don’t I write a book
about how I hoover your sodding floor
and how you’ve never once hoovered your floor
why can’t I be a muse why can’t I be a “her”
what does one have to do to be in a book
around here do I have to be dead for a man
to write me a poem how do you think it feels
to be non muse material can’t you say
you feel for me what you felt for her
can’t you say I’m better than that woman
can’t you get those books off the floor?
Get it off your chest, why don’t you?
I bloody love this poem. I don’t generally like strict forms; usually, I prefer a subtler weave of sound and shape. But William Carlos Williams told us that poetry is a machine made of words, and he was right. His whole quote, from his introduction to an essay called The Wedge, is this:
A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
Enter Kathryn Maris, mad as hell. At least, her narrator is mad as hell – just because a poem is entirely convincing, doesn’t mean that it’s literally true. And it turns out that the way for this woman to express her fury is in that most formal of forms, a sestina. Look at the first stanza: the words at the line endings are say, floor, feels, her, man and books. Look at the next five stanzas: the same applies, in a different order. The poet chooses splendidly unremarkable words, so they fit into the sense and music of the poem without attracting attention to themselves. Had she chosen sesquipedalian it might have been harder to incorporate so seamlessly. If you want to know more, look up ‘sestina’ on Wikipedia, where it is illustrated with this terrifying diagram. In the meantime, back to the poem.
Arguments are hard to get right in poetry. It’s tricky to catch the vicious energy of the moment, and there’s a temptation to appear as the injured party. Your narrator is, perhaps, a misunderstood soul with a strong resemblance to yourself? Bad news: you can’t stand on your dignity in a poem. It should cost you something to write, and that cost is often some small exposure or lack of dignity. Kathryn’s narrator has, it seems fair to say, lost her rag completely. This is not a later report of the incident in a considered tone: it’s the woman’s own voice, ranting. We get the full and immediate force of it, as does the poor partner.
She is speaking as one speaks in a real argument. It’s been bubbling for weeks or months, and finally it bursts out in a torrent of grievances that she’s been rehearsing in her head over and over. No wonder a sestina lends itself to a row; all those repeats. Yet Maris crams in far more repetitions than are necessary. The word ‘books’ appears eight more times than the form demands. She’s really pissed off about those books.
There’s still more repetition, along with colloquial language that makes it both credible and comic: ‘bloody hell you sadist’ and ‘books I have to see and books that say/ exactly where and how you shagged her// what shirt she wore before you shagged her’. My own books have similar information in them. This conversation sounds pretty authentic to me. An argument with no swearing would be unconvincing, but the cursing here is lightweight and laughable – ‘goddamn’ and ‘fecking’. Kathryn wants her arguer to sound ridiculous, out of control and completely bloody furious.
Now look at the punctuation. Quite right, there isn’t any. Not a comma, not a semi-colon and certainly not a full stop. That’s because she never draws breath. We get one set of speech marks, to quote the man’s own foolish question back to him: ‘”Do I feel// like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel/ like I need more medication.’ More repetition there, signalling mockery and anger. Not only does the poet meet the requirements of the sestina, she buries the necessary repeats in a heap of further ones. The form lends all its strength to the subject but remains completely camouflaged.
The breathlessness also helps to make it really, really funny. We’ve all heard (or alas, made) the kind of intervention that she’s replying to here: ‘fine that man/ fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel/ you’re getting the point’. A hurley is a sort of hockey stick, by the way. But I don’t feel you’re getting the point.
As we’ve seen in other poems, punctuation is a vital aid to navigation. If you lose all of it, you risk losing your reader in a maze of confusing sentences. This poem has to supply signposts in some other way, to indicate where to breathe, how the sense of the sentence should be read and whether an exclamation or a question is intended. Maris does it subtly but perfectly, often using a line break roughly where a comma might fall. She uses italics to show emphasis and capitals for that shouted NO. We may be a bit bowled over and occasionally struggle to keep up with the words being fired out – that’s intentional. Nonetheless it’s an astonishing feat, in such a tight format and with no punctuation, to so guide us that we never get entirely disorientated.
An argument, like a poem, is never about what it’s about. Obviously this one isn’t about books at all. The information we need to interpret the subtext is fed to us gradually. The books have been in the way for three years. They’re books he wrote; acclaimed, she spits. It’s clear as the poem goes on that our heroine is a writer too, so that must rankle. The books aren’t even about her, they’re about a previous lover. That woman was a muse: this woman gets to do the hoovering. The last three lines finally speak the fear aloud; ‘can’t you say I’m better than that woman’. This poem is about a very specific argument, but it is so fierce and funny that it reminds us all how silly and layered are our domestic tiffs.
William Carlos Williams wanted a machine whose movement ‘is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character’ and this poem fits the bill perfectly. Every component runs smoothly in the service of the narrative, and the chosen form is exactly right to do the job. When all of those apply, then nothing can beat a bit of precision engineering. If this poem was a car, it would be a Ferrari.
[Kathryn Maris is one of three poets in Penguin Modern Poets 5, coming out this summer. Her next collection THE HOUSE WITH ONLY AN ATTIC AND A BASEMENT is due out in early 2018 with Penguin.]