Friday, September 22, 2006

Lines of Deception





There is deception in cutting lines. And the lines, the object of cutting, pitch this deception onto another entity, say, a reader, for example, in terms of poetry. This form of deception makes anyone touch the moon and taste the wall, it empowers the deceiver to conjure paths to magical worlds, or simply, it consolidates different thoughts independent from each other, to reveal a single emotion or a feeling. Thus, in the case of poetry, we can say that poets, like street magicians, are masters of deception.

In the poem “Imagining Someone Else’s Place,” Emmanuel Torres could have written:

Imagine someone else’s magical greenplace:
how rain falling on thick lawn goes unheard
by the lord of the house taking early coffee
& stock of money making more even as one sleeps;

all that guarded space in which to brood on enterprise
as solid as the gleam of flagstone…

and made each line present a complete thought in an actually complete sentence where completeness may come in the narrative of the solid images of the unheard falling of rain on thick lawn, the lord of the house taking early coffee, and so on.

But deceiving as this essay declares from the start, the poet divided his narrative into much shorter lines:

Imagine someone else’s
magical greenplace:
how rain falling

on the thick lawn goes unheard
by the lord of the house
taking early coffee

& stock of money making
more even as one
sleeps; all that guarded…

where, upon reading, there are no vivid images of the unheard falling of rain on thick lawn. Rather, what it has is the image of someone else’s magical place where rain is falling. And the thought or the vision of that image diminishes at the end of the tercet, giving each line the thickness and intensity it deserves as a line in a poem. In the hypothetical line “Imagine someone else’s magical greenplace:” the persona’s invitation to imagine is made limp by the immediate presence of the place to imagine. On the other hand, the actual line cuts, aside from providing breathing points to the reader, the poet lets each line present its own image or thought that makes it a potent contributor to the establishment of a bigger or broader image. In the case of Torres’ poem, the invitation to imagine, the magical place, and the falling rain, together, are able create a distinct image which contains all these three aspects.

But the deception does not end there. Immediately, after the first stanza is diminished, after actually becoming a catalogue that helps make up what the entire poem is trying to convey, the second stanza fades in. It enters in two ways: as a continuation of the first stanza, therefore, sustaining the preceding image, and as a new image, a new catalogue entry, inviting the reader’s to another act of imagination. Whereas in the hypothetical lineation it goes:

& stock of money making more even as one sleeps;

all that guarded space in which to brood on enterprise…

Torres wrote:

& stock of money making
more even as one
sleeps; all that guarded

The first line seizes attention and maintaining fluidity by providing the venue of the falling rain, and the second line surprises us with a house lord, and that this lord, in the third, is in fact taking early coffee. The deception is in thinking that this stream of event is a continuation of the first stanza, at the same time, the images and ideas it presents as a stanza can autonomously co-exist with the those of the first.

The same deception is present in Mark Strand’s “XX” from “Dark Harbor”:

Is it you standing among the olive trees
Beyond my courtyard? You in sunlight…

Strand suspends our understanding of the whole image by merely ending with the olive trees, only to surprise us with the presence of a courtyard in the next line. While, like Torres, Strand could have written:

Is it you standing among the olive trees among the courtyard?
You in the sunlight waving me closer…

but he opted to drop “Beyond…” thickening more the line and creating the impression of an intensifying sequence of images. In this manner, the technique give us a poem similar to a stained glass window, whole, yet made up of smaller artworks, where we cannot fully comprehend the bigger picture without carefully examining, feeling, sensing the details. In this technique, Torres and Strand are like magicians, by their clever lineation, little by little, gently, carefully, the image—or even the world—of the poem is revealed to us.

This careful and gradual revelation of images to form one major image is executed not only by proper line cuts but also by the transitions done connecting the sentences of the poem. In “Imagining Someone Else’s Place,” the first sentence of the poem ends only at the first line of the fourth stanza:

of flagstones. Those granite
slabs once steadied
the holds of Sung ships

Imagine the hardness of the image found in this line that flagstones and granite, though separated by a period, are both there. However, in the sixth stanza, transition from one sentence to another came in the form of a contrast, “to Ma-Yi. But here…” In this image, distance is important, the movement of “to Ma-Yi” that is somewhere else, contrasted against the “But here” of the next sentence found in the same line. In Strand’s “XX,” it is found in:

Shields your eyes from the brightness that turns
all that is not you dead white? Is it you
Around whom the leaves scatter like foam?

Strand played with the second line of the above excerpt by ending a sentence—a question in this instance—and letting another sentence take over and sustain the flow of images and the tone of the poem. Similarly, although in Torres’ poem there are only two occasions—in the fourth and fifth stanzas—when this phenomenon occurs, we can vividly observe the role it plays in the flow of the narrative. The deception in this phenomenon, where in a single line a sentence ends while another one begins, is in making a poem sound like a choir chanting a madrigal in legato expression where no gaps are heard between the progressing notes, as if there is no breathing at all, but satisfying for there are no moments wasted in instilling in us the fluid sequence of images that the song, and this time, the poem presents.

But perhaps, the most important thing to consider in investigating on this poetic deception in cutting lines is its effect on the syntax. This aspect is apparently important as sticklers are always in constant lookout for grammatical errors committed by poets in their poems. Like James Longenbach’s observations of William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and all,” explicit also in “Imagining Someone Else’s Place” are “some lines narrow enough to exclude almost any suggestion of syntactical pattern”:

Imagine someone else’s
magical greenplace:
how rain is falling…

space in which to brood
on enterprise
as solid as the gleam


However, in Torres’ poem, line cuts obviously did go over the considerations of syntax. Had it been written by Williams, the seventh stanza could have been like this:

between grotto
& grove of
orchids stroking the
air with secret
promises,

But Torres is not Williams and he has nothing of Williams’ eccentricity and deception in cutting lines. He has his own way of telling it, his own way of deception. Thus, in:

between grotto & grove
of orchids stroking the air
with secret promises,

Torres maintained short lines without sacrificing syntactical flow. “Between grotto & grove…” is not just a line that is magnificent in its presentation of images, but it is also an embodiment of a line that is complete and free of errors in terms of syntax. The same holds for the second and third lines. What comes out is a stanza that is so able to release the thought or thoughts each line desires to exhibit. There is nothing more precise, more complete, clearer than the space between the grotto and the grove, and that this grove is made up of orchids stroking the air, and that the orchids use secret promises to stroke the air. In comparison, the hypothetical Williams’ version is very much fragmented, that it prevents us from perceiving images. Tedious it is to draw the images from “between grotto” or “orchids stroking the” or “air with secret.”

If in the previous form of deception, that is the sustenance of sound by containing in a single line both an ending and a beginning sentence, the metaphor equivalent is that of a choir singing in legato expression, here, in the consideration of syntax, legato expression might go awry and staccato might take over. If we saw a stained glass window in the thick and rich lines of the first deception, we might see a broken window here, where we cannot see the grove opposite the grotto, or the orchids might appear inanimate, only to discover a jigsaw puzzle that needs fixing.

For us, the art of countering these deceptions is in considering every line.

How we will discover the beauty of poems like “Imagining Someone Else’s Place” and “XX” is found in careful reading.

they lead to the morning
of the gunmetal gate where Blue
Security is forbidden

to trust the rising
tide of hovels & the lives
that squalor there & multiply

& mock monsoons with rocks
to hold down tacky
tin roofs, right next…

See how each line shelters a particular image, that of the morning, that of a gunmetal gate, that of forbidden security, and so on. On the next level, see how each stanza creates an image by sewing together the images produced by the lines. On the next level, see how another image, now mural-like, broad, and more colorful, is formed by forming together these stanzas. This is the way line cutting works in this poem, it builds up the images in our mind as we progress reading. One missed image will break the chain of comprehension and even imagination as each line is important, each line has something to say.

At the same time, it is also in considering each line we can understand the reason behind coupling the sentences by placing the end part of the first and the start of the second in a single line. In:

Of flagstones. Those granite

and in

to Ma-Yi. But here,

one must consider the relationship of flagstones to granite, or of Ma-Yi to here. By this a line becomes a line, and not a transition between two sentences. By this, one understand that those granite are the flagstones themselves, and that one is not in Ma-Yi but is in here.

Likewise, syntactical problems can be avoided by considering each line to bear a particular image that is vivid and complete, but not sacrificing narrow frugal lines.

an ancient housemaid minces her
steps, as if to keep
each strand of hair

on her head in place & her toes
from getting wet
were all to save the world.


Syntactically complete statements such as the first line actually make up a clear image, supported by the second one which is another image, sustained by the third, which is again another image.

Lineation depends on the conviction as well as the politics of the poet. It is his or her own form of deception. No singular lineation is better than the other as everything has justification why it is written as such. However, as poems must be complete since the old aphorism tells us that the poet dies after his or her poem is born, then with other things, line cut must be considered.

---------------------------------

Imagining Someone Else’s Space

Emmanuel Torres

Imagine someone else’s
magical place:
how rain falling

on thick lawn goes unheard
by the lord of the house
taking early coffee

& stock of money making
more even as one
sleeps; all that guarded

space in which to brood
on enterprise
as solid as the gleam

of flagstones. Those granite
slabs once steadied
the hold of Sung ships

that crossed the rough seas
to Ma-Yi. But here,
set on bird-high grass,

between grotto and grove
of orchids stroking the air
with secret promises,

they lead to the morning
of gunmetal gate where Blue
Security is forbidden

to trust the rising
tide of hovels & the lives
that squalor there & multiply

& mock monsoons with rocks
to hold down tacky
tin roofs, right next

to Somebody’s Great Wall
rimmed with shards of glass
bottles like shark’s teeth.

Imagine the lady of the house
installed in her rightful
space counting on

reserves of grace
& godliness to exceed
her scare of chaos & riffraff.

As for the luxury of walk
on those piedras chinas
in the after-rain,

an ancient housemaid minces her
steps, as if to keep
each strand of hair

on her head in place & her toes
from getting wet
were all to save a world.


XX
Mark Strand (from Dark Harbor)

Is it you standing among the olive trees
Beyond the courtyard? You in the sunlight
Waving me closer with one hand while the other

Shields your eyes from the brightness that turns
All that is not you dead white? Is it you
Around whom the leaves scatter like foam?

You in the murmuring night that is scented
With mint and lit by the distant wilderness
Of stars? Is it you? Is it really you

Rising from the script of waves, the length
Of your body casting a sudden shadow over my hand
So that I feel how cold it is as it moves

Over the page? You leaning down and putting
Your mouth against mine so I should know
That a kiss is only the beginning

Of what until now we could only imagine?
Is it you or the long compassionate wind
That whispers in my ear: alas, alas?

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