“Development” on a Dish
Key West Poet Laureate
My fellow writer friend, Kelly Wolfe, asked if I would be willing to share my poem “Development” with her students (a group of aspiring chefs at Johnson and Wales)—to which I of course agreed. One of my poems was going to be discussed and analyzed in a classroom—as if it were a real piece of literature! The students were to read the poem and then write about what they thought it meant, and how the poet (me!) achieved that. Here is the poem (published in my chapbook “The Awful Suicidal Swans”):
Once, beyond the chain link fence,
a thicket of wilderness. The gravel
company’s skyline of sand spires
hourglassing the horizon. Silt
accumulated in the windowsills
& March, especially, wind’d take fistfuls
of invisible granules & whiplashes
them into your hair, your mouth.
Sometimes, a singular sharp grain
riding air, would jackknife
into an open eye. The blood-
root, poison ivy, wild red Columbine:
uprooted & trucked away.
Machinery has felled the trees,
now exposing through the diamonds
of the fence, a cleared shrubland.
The train’s unbuffered yowl rattles
the complex as if it means to cleave clean
through. You left for the last time. That empty
slash of sky? A gray wound. Chance of hail.
The students’ responses were attuned and varied. They picked up on many of the effects I was striving for—most obviously, the depiction of a failing relationship. Kelly then asked me to provide a small treatment explaining some of the craft choices I made and why, that she may share with the students so they could see firsthand what the poet thought the poet was doing. Here is what I sent.
In this poem I use the word “development” as first an implication of things to evolve, to come into being—specifically as to develop land. But in order to develop the land, the land must first be dismantled, stripped, cleared, made empty. It is out of the emptiness that the building can take place. I use that premise to establish the emotional landscape of the poem. Just as the land is gutted to make room for new, so too is the speaker gutted emotionally in order to move on, move past.
I chose couplets because it suggestions the relationship between two people, but also it provides (visual) stability—which of course is counterintuitive to the poem’s emotional impulse. The stanzas’ lines don’t vary too wildly in line length, reinforcing that false sense of security.
There landscape comes from my childhood; there was a sand and gravel plant behind my grandparents’ apartment; the apartment building was on the wrong side of the train tracks, at the end of the street. The backyard was concrete with a small perimeter of garden. The sand spires could be seen from the sterile yard—they seemed like glimpses of a castle—at least to my imagination. The older kids in the neighborhood would follow the tracks into the woods, where they would drink beer, etc. When the city revamped the train station, much of those woods were destroyed. Without the trees and sand spires—the sky seemed even greater, wider, completely open and empty. The impending weather is another example of an emptiness being filled.
Though the world development suggestions something substantial, and perhaps tangible, this poem roots itself in states of emptiness. In my personal life at the time of this poem’s inception, I was between relationships—meaning, I was in the process of leaving one person to be with another. I was a ‘walking on egg shells’ in my own house.
This landscape is dangerous; grains of sand have the ability to cut your eye, they infiltrate your hair and home—and the (daily) sound of the train (without the shrubbery to absorb the sound) morphs into something that will not be ignored—and filling the emptiness with noise. But these are passing; the train sound dissipates, the hail—which may or may not develop—will not last forever.
The landscape embodies the uncertainty and impermanence, emptiness and longing the speaker feels/contemplates. There is the sense that the speaker has little control over her environment—and yet somehow doesn’t perpetuate herself as the victim—it’s not “wind’d take fistfuls// of invisible granules & whiplashes/ them into my hair, my mouth” but the vague second-person “your hair, your mouth” [as opposed to the “you” of the penultimate line which is a more specific “you” the speaker is referencing/addressing—the “you” of the broken relationship]. “As if it means to cleave clean/through”—but does it? Chance of hail—not necessarily hail.
Upon retying the poem, I noticed other poetic moves I didn’t address in the treatment. Variations in line length is something that I tend to notice in poems; I believe the longest and shortest lines of a poem reveal—or should reveal—some subtextual element, whether it speak to craft or emotion (which become, in the best case scenarios, entangled). Here the longest line reads: “through. You left for the last time. That empty/”. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of “through” includes (but is not limited to): used as a function word to indicate movement into at one side or point and out at another and especially the opposite side of; by way of; used as a function word to indicate passage from one end or boundary to another; this is congruent with the meaning of the word as used in the line. However, to say “I’m through with this,” is to announce one is finished with, down with, exhausted with a current, specific relationship—as is happening in the poem. The poem’s shortest lines (that is, there are two lines equally short), “riding air, would jackknife” and “uprooted & trucked away” also speak to the emotional situation in the poem. “[W]ould jackknife,” “uprooted” and “away” speak to impending violence–in this case, a physical violence executed by the sand and clearing of the land, but also the emotional violence and emptiness of a break-up.
The poem begins with the word “Once,” which is a temporal cue, but also, albeit by extension, calls to mind the beginning of a fairy tale, “Once upon a time.” Once upon a time this couple was happy but now their relationship is devastation. The sand, which is an irritant, remains, an infiltration in the house much in the way one can imagine raw memories irritating the mind and soul of the freshly heart-broken. But one must also remember what becomes of the sand grain that finds its way into the clam’s shell—it scars over and manifests into pearl.