On “Calamity”

Another of the WordPress blogs I follow is @ bittersweet diary, to which I was introduced when its owner liked a post made to this webspace. (I appreciate it, by the way.) One relatively recent post to the blog is the 25 February 2018 poem “Calamity.” Preceded by a black-and-white photo of a blonde-haired, pale-skinned woman exhaling beneath dark gray waters under a cloudy sky, the poem reads as some thirteen lines of free verse grouped into four irregular stanzas. No dominant pattern or rhythm or rhyme presents itself, no regularity of line-length appears, a disorderly structure perhaps connoting the calamity of the title and appearing in the first and penultimate lines of the poem.

That near-bracketing is one of the few structural elements in the poem; a few other instances of repetition help to give the poem a shape, namely “I drowned” in the second and third stanzas (ll. 4, 5, 11)–linking them–and the anaphoric “Not once did I [even] try” in the second stanza (ll. 6-8)–reinforcing its distinctiveness. They, along with the consistent tenor and vehicle, serve to keep the poem a coherent piece of writing despite the inherent disorder of free verse.

They also serve to unify the piece across a particularly strong juxtaposition of the narrator, metaphorically fire in the third stanza, and the dominant image of the addressed lover as an onrushing oceanic storm. The two lines treating flame stand out against the watery rest of the poem, evoking the idea of the narrator being doused by the addressee, fires extinguished by the calamity in which the narrator drowns utterly.

Additionally, there is an interesting neologism in the poem: “everywords” (l. 5). The phrase where it appears would normally be rendered as “In other words,” indicating that another way of saying or explaining the phenomenon would be presented; in such a case, the “drowned” of the preceding line would be presented in different terms, likely expanding upon it in some way (although the word is not arcane, to be sure). The construction, however, is “I drowned. / in everywords, I drowned” (ll. 4-5), the narrator tacitly saying that there is no other way to explain what has happened. Every word that could be used is used–and repeated, further foreclosing the available ways to talk about what has happened amid the calamity. That traumatic events tend to restrict how they can be discussed, usually by surpassing the ability of the mind to frame them, is amply attested–and enduring a calamity, as the narrator claims to have done in interacting with the addressee, is the stuff of which trauma is often made.

It might be easy to read “Calamity” as one among many break-up poems, or else as a quiet reaction to an abusive relationship–the idea of obliteration and subsuming in the poem lends itself to the latter. I am not sure that either is actually the case, however, although I find that I am not able to articulate clearly what the poem is actually doing. (That may be me more than the poem, though.) And it is possible that that inarticulabilty is the point, that in presenting something that seems like it ought to be accessible–because a short poem talking about a bad relationship should be–but actually is not is something that befits the title. Reading the piece may not be a calamity, but being unable to read it results in something not unlike one.

Help me avoid my own calamity?


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