Do You Fear Palindromes, Too?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Recently, my fortune cookie read:

All men should try to learn before they die
What they are running from and to and why.

This was the first fortune I’d ever seen written as a heroic couplet. And, while I know this fortune is mass-produced, I still feel it’s a signpost as to what I’m supposed to do next. I don’t think the universe is guiding me, but I use the detritus that comes across my path to guide myself. I read my fortunes and my horoscope, draw tarot cards, look at the moon, and wait for the moments when the signs in front of me pull me out of the present and help me imagine the future. This fortune tells me that right now (as before, as always) my future depends on my past, on all the couplets I wrote and then threw aside: “My chest is full of bees/ and they are making honey.” “It’s the first cut that lit me up—reminder/ of the blood beneath the skin, the skin that bleeds.” “I do not want to be outside. / There is so much light there.”

I have been wondering for a long time what to do about my poetry. Like this fortune cookie, the poems I wrote in my twenties contain a lot of internal rhyme and aren’t necessarily interesting to anyone but me. Sometimes I’ve thought there is perhaps nothing to be done with them; they will sit printed out in a box under my bed until, like old diaries, they become so embarrassing I have to take them out with the garbage. I already wish I could immediately throw out—even burn—each one I published in an online magazine. But I’m also sad some of these poems didn’t live the life I wanted them to: They never grew into a book, they were mostly never read outside of workshop. 

I knew many of these poems to be bad as soon as I wrote them; others are embarrassing only in retrospect. But some seem so good it’s hard to believe that they came out of the same mind that I use now—and when I read them, I can’t remember either how I wrote them, or why I stopped. I began an MFA program thinking I would surely publish a book by the time I was thirty. A year later, I had left the program, started working toward a Ph.D., and stopped writing anything creative. I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal note in a birthday card, much less a poem. But I also didn’t want to let go of my hard-won identity as a Poetess.

It was difficult to admit that I’d stopped writing. I’m just so busy, I would tell friends. Or, Critical work makes it hard to be creative. These things may be true for many people, but they weren’t true for me. I wanted my old writing published, but I couldn’t write anything new. And eventually my old writing became so old it was unrecognizable. I started telling people, I’m not a poet anymore

Gillian Anderson writes that, since the 1970s, Americans have been ashamed of lyric poems. She details the history of the lyric, for a long time understood as private monologue overheard and, after the rise of confessional poetry, as the private made willfully public. What is shameful about this, exactly? Since the 1970s, literary theory has stressed the impossibility of a coherent text, much less a coherent self. Avant-garde poetry has worked to dispense with the poetic “I,” to imagine poetry as something that can be more than personal. To be a lyric poet today—to say “I” and mean “I”—seems to depend on the faith that a box of words can reflect you, and also that you are definitely interesting and possibly important. 

When I stopped writing, I had let go of the idea that I was important. And I was ashamed that I had believed I was for so long. But I’m not sure where, exactly, I began running from rhyming and writing. And so I’ve decided to go back.

I wrote the first poem that I thought was truly good in my second workshop. The process to get in had been competitive, and I’d applied alongside an ex-boyfriend and several of his friends. My ex had told a mutual friend I wasn’t a writer, and that he’d resent it if I got in and he didn’t. When we were both accepted, I wanted to prove that he was wrong about me. I also wanted his renewed attention. I got only one of these things when I wrote a love poem.

Do you fear palindromes, too?

Don’t nod. I know you
place furniture off center,
unstack books and leave your pillows
at the edge of the bed, I know
your haphazard feng shui.
You won’t meet my eye on level
planes, avoid my face. Don’t tilt
your head at obtuse angles.
In parenthetical poses (bird rib
close) there is still, I swear,
enough space to shift. You move
a meter to the left, deny
the possibility of harmonic arrangement.
O stone, be not so,
I cry, as you stare
at the square door,
folding your shoulders into mountain peaks.

The romance that served as a backdrop to this poem seemed monumental then, but it’s hard to recall all the details. Here is what I know: We both liked punk rock. He had taken a year off before going to college, which made him seem mature and worldly. He was a virgin and I was not. This made him seem less mature and worldly. I told other people about his inexperience, and, later, he found out I had done so. He was pissed. We broke up, I dated other people, I moved on.

The next year, he was living with two of my best friends, and I spent a lot of time there hanging out with them. We mostly ignored each other until a game of Spin the Bottle. When I spun to him, we kissed with a depth and intensity that reminded me why I’d fallen in love with him. Then he spun to me; we kissed again; our friends shrieked and cheered. After the game, we went back to his room and kissed more and groped each other and fell asleep, drunk. 

In the weeks that followed, I went back to my friends’ apartment every opportunity I had. I hoped he’d come home and hang out with us—with me. He was twenty-one by then and was starting to live a different social life, so he was usually gone. But some nights he did come back; he talked and watched TV with us before he left for the bars. Sometimes, he stayed; he brought whiskey and we all drank it before he and I left to kiss in his room.

I had started to fall in love again, and I didn’t know what held him back from rekindling things more fully. “Don’t nod. I know you,” I wrote—I knew him well enough by then to know that he was playing games, avoiding straight answers. 

One night as we stood smoking on the fire escape outside his window, he told me that we would only work in a vacuum, but that as things stood, I became unbearable as soon as there was a third person in the room. I might have made him a mix CD to try and convince him otherwise, and I might have given it to him. I might have gone into his bedroom at a party, refusing to leave and crying on his bed until my friends took me by the arms and walked me home.

Heartbroken, I wrote “Do you fear palindromes, too?” and read it out loud in our workshop. Up until this poem, I’d adhered to the mantra “show don’t tell.” We learn to describe with detailed images, and then we learn to build metaphors. In that class, though, I thought for the first time about the elements of language that do more than describe, elements of language that don’t signify. Rhyme is one of these things; its function in verse was once as a tool for the easy memorization of complex materials. Medical texts had meter and rhyme in the sixteenth century. But rhyme doesn’t mean anything, and once I realized that, it didn’t become useless—it became interesting. This was to me for years the great mystery of poetry: Why is it that the elements that contribute least to meaning contribute most to feeling? My fortune cookie illustrates this principle clearly enough. All men should try to learn before they die / what they are running from and to and why. The rhyme helped these words stick in the back of my mind, the back of my mouth, for so long that I felt compelled to answer them.

In this poem, I take on palindromes, which don’t signify, either. Race car. Able was I, ere I saw Elba. A man, a plan, a canal: Panama! These are linguistic curiosities, but their alphabetic symmetry contributes nothing to their meaning. 

“Do you fear palindromes, too?” the speaker asks her lover, before she begins with the poem’s first palindrome: “don’t nod.” The speaker will be wielding palindromes as a weapon against her lover: “eye,” “level,” “bird rib,” and, most important, “O stone, be not so.” 

The lover is hell-bent on leading a life of disorder, as I perceived my ex to be at the time—staying out, drinking, refusing to pair up. But why? When he doesn’t look the speaker in the eye, is it because of fear of reciprocity, where the gaze between one lover and another is a living palindrome? Or he is just not that into her? The speaker’s commands, her assertions that she knows him, straddle the line between seductive and delusional. 

Just after my ex called me “unbearable,” a squirrel entered my apartment and became trapped behind the microwave, screeching terribly. It sounded like a terrified, awful bird. I called my ex to help me get it out. He came over, and used one bare hand and one oven mitt to guide it out the window. Then, we walked to class together. 

During this period I felt afflicted by forces beyond my control: A few days later, I broke open two eggs and found huge, orange double yolks in each. I took this, along with the squirrel, as guiding signs: I must spend less time in my cursed apartment. I must go out into the world and experience. I must try to make something other than an omelet. All this is easy to remember for a clear reason: the squirrel and the eggs are vivid images, unlike the continuous stream of slights and reconciliations that make up so much of life, romantic and otherwise. I attached symbolic significance to both, and they stand out in my mind, bright against the mauve walls and linoleum floors of that apartment and that time.

The squirrel helps me to remember more: I was grateful to my ex for rescuing me from it, and impressed by his bravery and compassion in guiding it out the window. His compassion, however, was reserved for the squirrel. He was deeply annoyed that I’d chosen to call him, as he didn’t have time to get coffee before class.

How could I make him love me again?

The third stanza, of the poem, indented from the rest, is a plea: perhaps it could work. “There is still, I swear, enough space to shift,” the speaker says—our love could be reciprocal and roomy. But the form belies a doubt: This indented stanza, boasting five lines instead of four, throws off the formal balance of the poem. He sees her doubt; he swerves away.

In the final stanza comes the final palindrome. “O stone, be not so” uses “O,” the letter of poetic address to a person or object not present. Literary theorist Paul de Man says that this “O” tries to conjure up and even resurrect the dead, but will always fail. Like a palindrome, the “O” has a function that is not precisely meaning-making; it simply indicates that the poet is crying out to someone or something, trying to conjure its presence. And, in crying out this palindrome, the speaker here veers into the histrionic, using a dramatic poetic device to capture the attention of her lover, to call him a stone, and to attack him with a final palindrome. It is not successful; he becomes even more stonelike as he folds his shoulders into mountain peaks. This final image takes the poem out of a bedroom and into a landscape in which words have lost their power and meaning.

This poem was about the person I loved, and I am sure that, while writing it, I felt these tones collecting in the poem: coercion, delusion, desperation, pleading, and poignant resignation. The title, after all, is not “Do you fear palindromes?” but “Do you fear palindromes, too?” The speaker does not suggest what she might fear about palindromes; perhaps this is one question I could not have answered at the time. But now I know. I feared living the same love story on eternal repeat: being together and apart and together and apart and together and apart. A palindrome has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the end is the beginning in reverse.

As I read that poem in workshop, I felt my face and chest flush; so many people in the room knew who I was writing about, what I felt. But I also felt empowered, significant, and yes, even important. I finally had his attention, and my instructor’s, and everyone else’s. I didn’t know yet that writing poems to my lovers would become a pattern in and of itself. That I’d use lines of verse to cry out to them, again and again. That as I sought to write more and grow in my writing, I’d begin to seek out men who were increasingly disinterested, distant, and even cruel—they made the best objects of desire, and subjects of poems.

Monday, July 16, 2018