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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

One common misconception about the West Chester Conference is that everyone there is a strict metrist who looks down on poets who never count on their fingers, or even on those who don't always write scannable lines. Maybe that's the reason Moira Egan more than once apologized for a fine free verse poem as she read from her book Cleave during this year's First Book panel discussion. "I came late to form," she said, but most of us do. Hell, she's about 10 years younger than I was when I started seriously studying metrical form.

And she's tearing it up. Consider the beginning of the sonnet "EKG":

My mother watched her heart beat on a screen,
a clenching fist unclenching, shadowy,
its faulty backbeat traced in spiky green.
The heart's home movie: what else did she see?

or the end of the terza rima "Cliffhanger":

Precipitous


is the wrong word, my dictionary says,
but it works for me, dangerous and steep
and fast and one more look at your dear face

looking back at me, eyes serious and deep
with what looks so like love I have to say,
Take my hand, this isn't falling, it's a leap.

The last line shouldn't work as pentameter: TAKE my HAND, this ISn't FALLing, IT'S a LEAP. That "it's" would ordinarily get a metrical accent (though not much in speech), but somehow she makes what might be a glitch into a reinforcement of the line's meaning. Other things shouldn't work in that poem — "precipitous" rhymes with "trusting" and "rusty," and "precipice" with "nervous" — but once again there's a near magical resonance in how the rhymed words reinforce the poem's action.

Similar risks don't work as well in a few of the other poems, but more often they do. You can read the delicious "Dear Dr. Merill" in its entirety here, and the sestina "Love and Death" begins and ends like this :

Looking back, I presupposed love,
I suppose. At least, I felt whiff of death
each time she left. She had a theory: that sex
was the only path to the truth. Philosophy,
religion, physics—the other,
traditional pursuits—had it all wrong. Only poetry …

When we last made love, you left another
scar. And philosophy feels like death to me,
and I can't feel any poetry in sex.

I love the first two lines, especially the line break, and the movement she accomplishes in a form so naturally static. Cleave is a first book, sometimes uneven (why do people insist on calling any 14-line poem a sonnet?), but the successes don't feel like luck to me. I'll leave the end the to end of the poem I started with, "EKG":

The miracle's the heart's ability
to break like that, and sing iambically.


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