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 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
No. He nods again, writes a prescription
It was an accident, I repeat.
He nods, as the tow truck driver would
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).
|No. 12 - Fall 2013
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