There is a precious nature to poems, a value—a need to keep them, to turn them over in the light and watch them sparkle. Good poems are not disposable. They can’t be consumed once and forgotten. Rather, they are heirlooms to be shared and admired, kept and passed down. One of the most basic aspects of gemstones is cut, or shape, e.g. round-brilliant, emerald, marquise, cushion, princess, pear, asscher, etc. Each cut is flattering in different ways, and appeals to different aesthetic tastes, and the same is true for poems. The sharp, elongated shape of a marquise stone is queenly, like a poem with sharp, distinct statements. The square princess cut is neat and contained—the facets have a clear organization, the way a sonnet does. The round-brilliant cut is classic and common—a crowd-pleasing poem—maybe Keats or Frost or Plath. An example of a poem I've kept like a precious stone is Richard Wilbur's “A Late Aubade”:
You could be sitting now in a carrel
Turning some liver-spotted page,
Or rising in an elevator-cage
Toward Ladies' Apparel.
You could be planting a raucous bed
Of salvia, in rubber gloves,
Or lunching through a screed of someone's loves
With pitying head.
Or making some unhappy setter
Heel, or listening to a bleak
Lecture on Schoenberg's serial technique.
Isn't this better?
Think of all the time you are not
Wasting, and would not care to waste,
Such things, thank God, not being to your taste.
Think what a lot
Of time, by woman's reckoning,
You've saved, and so may spend on this,
You who had rather lie in bed and kiss
It's almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.
If you must go,
Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
I’m particularly fond of the emerald cut, an antique shape that shines differently from the rest—instead of tiny facets, large “steps” reflect light, creating a hall of mirrors effect. The emerald cut isn’t as sparkling as other cuts, but when it shines, it refracts larger, more impressive flashes of light. “A Late Aubade” is what I’d call an emerald-cut poem. The poem has an antique quality to it—the old library, the department store (when department stores were new and luxurious), the wine and cheese and pears at the end—all of it bringing to mind a more ornate era.
Part of the joy of gemstones is their refusal to be memorized. Even after looking at a stone again and again, it’s hard to pin down its exact characteristics—its flaws and inclusions and shapes and facets. It seems counterintuitive to label a poem as not easily memorized—after all, isn’t that a mark of a good poem? That it echoes in the reader’s mind and stands out enough to be memorized? But what I mean is not that the poem refuses rote, verbatim memorization, but rather that it refuses to be easily placed into a category, or rather, refuses to give away all its secrets and complexity on the first reading.
Many poems are constructed around the idea of presenting something—a memory, a juxtaposition of scenes, striking images, etc. By virtue of presenting these things in a written poem, they are put into a somewhat artificial state—a medium that is purposefully artful. The first thing that comes to mind when I read the word shadowbox is a glass display of butterfly specimens: pinned, labeled, and preserved. This, it turns out, is the perfect object to represent how poetry can work.
Not all poems are shadowbox poems. A shadowbox poem must, for me, deal with a specific, real memory—after all, shadowboxes aren't meant for something ethereal or fantastical—they're scientific. Precise. Meant to inform. Meant to show. A shadowbox takes something—let's say a butterfly for continuity's sake—out of its original, natural element, and puts it in an unnatural display for the purpose of preservation and education. Good poems do the same thing. Below is a poem by May Lou Buschi, “Birthday Party in a Strange Town,” that embodies what I believe shadowbox poems do. A memory is presented via images and sensory descriptions. A label is applied—an analysis and judgment of the situation. And the writing itself—the actual poem—is the glass that seals it all into a neat, distinct object.
It was all wrong.
The dress I wore,
the gift, the girls'
lithe bodies nothing like mine.
When the adult versions
left the room, there was something
that sounded like an insult, laughter,
maybe one of them even hit me.
An open door.
Nothing familiar except instinct.
It was minutes, maybe hours,
before I was on my bike
in the same jumper and dress shoes
making loop-de-loops in the driveway when
came the six of them,
Easter egg silks, wide terrifying smiles,
the sun glinting off them like tinted cellophane.
I wanted to blink them
into a story I would later write.
It's fine Ms. Jones or Jacks
I hate them
as much as they hate me.
Tomorrow everything will be set right.
The insults hurled across the table
will be replaced with left over ribbon crumbs.
Big pretty ladies, someone has taught you to feign gentle.
Someone has taught you to float. The truth--
While some girls are threaded
with cotton and spring,
others are stitched with wasp wings.
III. Russian Doll
I am always struck by what beautiful objects Russian dolls are. Firstly, they are decidedly old-fashioned. There’s no streamlined, efficient, cold modernity to them. Secondly, though labeled as toys, they’re more objets d’art than playthings. Thirdly, they are a mix of sturdy and delicate. Their construction of wood and lacquer make them durable, but their painted details make them feminine and ornate. And there is a thrill in unpacking them—just how many smaller dolls are there inside? Will each one open, yielding more? Where is the end?
All these qualities, of course, can also be applied to poems. Looking at Lorine Niedecker’s “Wilderness,” this unboxing becomes apparent:
You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going
You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm
the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe.
With each stanza, the poem sheds its shell to reveal another, similar one within: “You are the man” is followed by the repeated “You are,” and the same is true in the second stanza: “You are the prickly pear / You are the sudden violent storm.” The third stanza does the same thing, only with a different construction. There is an infinitive in each line, “to raise” and “to float,” both of which are followed by relatively simple nouns: “the river,” and “the doe.” Each layer follows a similar set-up, is almost a mimic of itself—yet manages to be new and exciting with each unboxing.
Natalie Homer is the author of the chapbook Attic of the Skull (dancing girl press). Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The Journal, Blue Earth Review, The Pinch, The Lascaux Review, Ruminate, the minnesota review, Salamander, and others. She earned an MFA from West Virginia University and lives in southwestern Pennsylvania..