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The Gate's Hinge: Organizing Indirection in Poetry

                                    Chad Davidson and Gregory Fraser

The fifth chapter or “gate” of Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry tackles the question of indirection in the making of poems. Hirshfield writes, “A poem circles its content, calls to it from afar, looks for the hidden, tangential approach” (107). She argues that “Poems do not make appointments with their subjects—they stalk them, keeping their distance, looking slightly off to one side,” later noting that “language-making is a creative patterning as well” (109). The first two quotations obviously imply that poetry lies in suggestion, indirection, evocation, much as Yeats declared in “The Symbolism of Poetry,” or as Dickinson maintained: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” And yet, Hirshfield’s later notion about “patterning” and order might seem at odds with the elliptical and the hidden. This apparent tension prompts the question of how to pattern indirection, how to organize the tangential.
In our textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), we offer a few organizing strategies for Hirshfield’s brand of indirection. We speak of “juggling,” for example—shuffling between various imagistic and contextual arenas—as a means of avoiding direct treatment of the subject. Adam Zagajewski’s “Watching Shoah in a Hotel Room in America,” for example, achieves indirection by juggling scenes from the harrowing documentary, memories of the poet’s childhood, and even the peripheral sounds in the hotel where the narrator views the film. By doing so, the poem sidesteps direct polemics about the horrors of the Holocaust and the ravages of the Third Reich on Eastern Europe. It steers clear, in other words, of the directly rhetorical, the overtly propagandistic.

In the same chapter, we also cover the following poem by contemporary American poet Erika Meitner, one which concerns an unwanted pregnancy:


The day after I had a one night stand
and the condom broke, my car tire went flat
on West Main. All these men offered a hand,
but none of them could loosen the lug nuts—
a middle-aged one with a cowboy hat,
jeans too tight; a young truck driver on his knees,
browned biceps bulging, cranking the jack.
Someone done screwed these on too tight,
he cursed, handing me back the wrench.
I thanked him, waited for the tow truck’s
hulking girth. Damn, it was hot—
over ninety, and that street was shadeless;
not even the bus shelter held shadow
from the white, merciless yolk of sun.
I was sweating, nauseous from the pill
the doctor gave me that morning. Was it
he asked. Yes, I breathed,
willing myself to answer—my feet spread
in stirrups sheathed with paper booties
like small shower caps, his two fingers
in me, my face turned towards the wall.
It was an accident. He nods,
one hand pressing my uterus,
asks, Are you in a relationship?

No. He nods again, writes a prescription
for Plan B—birth control with irony, a name
with a sense of humor. Not diaphragm, sponge, IUD
or worse, the wall-chart of birth control pills
pinned above the medical waste bin
in their pastel hubcap discs—pink, yellow, white
like dandelion clocks: Orthocept, Lo-Ovril, Alesse.
This plan was meant for unplanned disasters:
“the morning after”—like the wreckage
of an overnight bombing.

It was an accident, I repeat.
I want him to know I’m responsible,
not like that sign in the Registrar’s Office
back in college: Poor planning on your part
does not constitute an emergency on ours.

He nods, as the tow truck driver would
later that afternoon, as the cashier
at the service station would too—
walking under my car jacked high in the air
while the mechanic in blue coveralls
pointed to a tear on the tire’s side, then the rip
in the boot cover, the axle problem.
Clueless about the inner mechanics
of cars, all I knew to ask was How much?

Like Zagajewski, Meitner engages in a juggling act of sorts, shuffling between the gynecologist’s office, the roadside breakdown, the mechanic’s shop, and—tangentially, indirectly—the one-night stand. In both the Meitner and Zagajewski poems, no one subject dominates. Juggling, then, stresses the interdependency of each contextual sphere in a poem, encouraging poets to approach their works not as static documents but as dynamically interactive performances.

Juggling suggests multiplicity, plurality. But successful poems also labor for economy. They court the primitive. They seek deceptively simple patterns of organization. A strong poem relies on complexity and simplicity, just as a car needs both the elaborate engineering of an internal combustion engine and the basic fact of the wheel. In the spirit of Hirshfield’s “gates,” then, Meitner’s poem also deploys a simple “hinge” strategy. In a fundamental way, her work hinges on two competing definitions of “rubber.” Both tires and condoms, we know, are manufactured from rubber; both substances in the poem are sites of rupture and gendered power relations. This hinge mechanism (gatelike, to be sure) offers a basic structure for the more intricate play of the poem.

Hinging between these two types of rubbers—between a condom and a car tire—encourages other hybrid imagery and discordant emotional states. From the simple rubber binary emerge more elaborate structures and spheres of imagery: the “birth control pills” for example, “in their pastel hubcap discs”; the haunting embryonic reference to the sun as a “merciless yolk”; and the equally troubling parallel between the auto repairman inspecting the “inner mechanics” of the narrator’s car and the gynecologist examining her reproductive system. The simple hinge between a rubber and a car tire, in other words, underpins the more artful figures and movements in the poem.

In the most general terms, gates take us from one space to another. They function as thresholds between two spheres of experience, sometimes complementary but more often contradictory. By juxtaposing these spheres—that which exists inside and outside the gate—the poet sets the stage for dynamic indirection, restless investigation, and connotative subtlety. Often enough, the strategy might be deceptively simple—a hinge, in this case, between two definitions of “rubber.” The aftereffects, however, of that simple instability can be wildly sophisticated and fruitfully indirect.


Note: “Rubber” by Erika Meitner is reprinted from Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003).

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