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CRW3013: Layering in Poetry

Accessing the hard topics in poetry through layering of concrete situations


on 21 March 2013

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Transcript of CRW3013: Layering in Poetry

Layering in Poetry Erika Meitner "Rubber" Watching Shoah in a Hotel Room in America The Mortal One Access to Poetry layering! What's the first thing you should do when you see this title? Go look up Shoah if you are unfamiliar with it. Go ahead. I'll wait... I'd like you guys to try this one out for yourself. Bring it in Tuesday and we'll go through it together. Do just what I've done in the previous two poems. Answer the first 4 questions like normal, and for the 5th, try to scan the poem for layers. Just to give you a hint, for this poem, you'll need a square, not a triangle. Extra layer! 1. What is literally happening in the poem?
2. What context do we have? What concrete details are present that seem important, and why?
3. What is the shape of the poem, and the nature of the line breaks? How does this affect pacing and tone?
4. What does the title offer, before and after we understand subtext?
5. Subtext, in the case of these poems, will be to trace the layers and find the question they're asking or the point their posing. What is it? Layering is the process of using two or more concrete ideas to approach one abstract topic, by way of weaving in and out of the concrete details to show similarities and allow the brain to make the connection to the abstraction. So what does that mean? Remember your list of 5 ways to access poetry. 1. A woman has a flat tire and remembers her experience with a gynecologist earlier that morning.
2. We know the two contextual settings. There are lots of details and word choices that are important. See highlighted in poem to the left.
3. The shape isn't particularly important, but we have a lot of enjambed lines. Look at the words she chooses to break on even just in the first 11 lines. You should see a tone emerging.
4. Obviously this refers to both the flat tire and broken condom.
5. flat tire broken condom responsibility / womanhood / sexism / whatever you want to call this lines 1-14 lines 15-39 lines 40-48 connection! what? Rubber
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
consensual? 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? Let's try to follow the layering through this poem. We're presented immediately with the premise "The day after I had a one night stand and the condom broke..." and we know (Layer 1) she's getting a flat tire changed. We're presented with "all these men" who try to help her but can't 'get the job done' (if you will). They're presented in a sexualized manner, "bulging biceps" and "on his knees," "hulking girth." She says "Damn, it was hot-" and we know she's referring to the temperature, based on the next line, but we still make the connection to the truck drivers, because of her word choice and presentation. She calls the sun a "merciless yolk" much like the mercilessness she'll experience from the egg inside of her later on. But she never explicitly STATES that. Trust the mind to make these connections.

(Layer 2) We move to the doctor's office. He's asking her 'probing' questions. She's in a compromise and sexualized position, "feet spread in stirrups," "his fingers inside me," "one hand pressing my uterus." We know these are normal experiences for a gynecologist, however because of the section preceding, they seem overtly more sexual. Plus, this doctor is tiptoeing boundaries he shouldn't cross. Whether or not she's in a relationship should be irrelevant to his medical opinion of her need for this prescription. But it's not blatant. She never mentions religion or morality. It's just hinted at. She uses neat images like the "dandelion clock" (gentlemen, go google image search 'birth control' if you need reference) and the disaster of "an overnight bombing." Very VERY briefly, she brings up responsibility. And that's what we're getting at here, through these layers: the concept of responsibility. No moral judgement one way or the other, but an argument to make you consider the present situation.

Line 40 brings us back to layer 1, the flat tire, but we start to see very clearly its connection to the situation in the doctor's office. The car is "jacked high" like she was in the stirrups, the mechanic is working on it, just as (not stated) a man 'works' on her the night prior. And there's a tear in the tire/condom. Whose fault is that? No one's, most likely, but regardless the issue has presented itself. She knows plenty about the inner workings of her body, but just like the car, all she can do is ASK for someone to fix the problem. Perhaps, now, we're even seeing helplessness in this poem. 1. There is a man watching a movie about the holocaust in his hotel room, the room next door has a loud birthday party.
2. We get out context from the title, but for the movie we rely on the description of the speaker. You don't need to watch the movie to know what he sees: the quiet trees of Poland and Auschwitz, the SS, the trains of Jews, and the wagons of hair, piles of shoes...
3. This poem uses a mix of endstopped and enjambed lines, and the long lines maintain a quiet, lyrical nature while describing a gruesome implied image.
4. But seriously, putting the name of the movie in the title is smart. It means the contextualization is easier for the writer, and it gives the reader time to research it before they're halfway into a poem. Being familiar with subject matter is important!
5. Birthday Party Auschwitz / Shaoh lines 1-4 lines 5-16 lines 17-32 lines 33-36 innocence or lack thereof line 14 line 23 line 28 line 36? Watching Shoah in a Hotel Room in America
There are nights as soft as fur on a foalbut we prefer chess or card-playing. Here,some hotel guests sing Happy Birthdayas the one-eyed TV nonchalantly shuffles its images.The trees of my childhood have crossed an oceanto greet me coolly from the screen.Polish peasants engage with a Jesuitical zestin theological disputes: only the Jews are silent,exhausted by their long dying.The rivers of the voyages of my youth flowcautiously over the distant, unfamiliar continent.Hay wagons haul not hay, but hair,their axles squeaking under the feathery weight.We are innocent, the pines claim.The SS officers are haggard and old,doctors struggle to save them their hearts, lives, consciences.It's late, the insinuations of drowsiness have me.I'd sleep but my neighborschoir Happy Birthday still louder:louder than the dying Jews.Huge trucks transport stars from the firmament,gloomy trains go by in the rain.I am innocent, Mozart repents;only the aspen, as usual, trembles,prepared to confess all its crimes.The Czech Jews sing the national anthem: "Where is my home . . ."There is no home, houses burn, the cold gas whistles within.I grow more and more innocent, sleepy.The TV reassures me: both of usare beyond suspicion.The birthday is noisier.The shoes of Auschwitz, in pyramidshigh as the sky, groan faintly:Alas, we outlived mankind, nowlet us sleep, sleep:we have nowhere to go. This one is a bit harder, but let's trace trough it. What usually helps is to read the poem once. If you identify layers, read through it a second time to see where they split and how many you have. I've marked in the previous panel where Zagajewski switches between Shoah on screen and the party in the room next door

The "nonchalant" TV juxtaposes the importance of the setting on screen to the speaker. He didn't intend to watch Shoah but saw "the trees of my childhood," signaling that perhaps he grew up in Poland. He described the Jews on screen as "exhausted by their long dying" and in this way he doesn't need to surprise us with an outcome. They're doomed. From history we know how this story ends. One of the most striking images we get from Auschwitz is the Nazi catalogging of body parts. We see here the "hay wagons haul not hay, but hair" and later on, the shoes. Line 14 gives us our first outcry of "we are innocent," from the pines. Though the Jews are dying, there are doctors struggling to save old SS officers. We see the importance placed on a human life here.

Line 17, we;re back in the hotel room. We're seeing the loudness of Happy Birthday as something that is overpowering the cries of the Jews on screen. It's metaphorical, but it's trying to make a point about what's important here, or rather to ask, "how can we go on with our lives like normal, when things like this happen?" But we're back to Shoah, and the trains, and this time Mozart is saying he's innocent (through the soundtrack). The Aspen is prepared to confess its crimes. What might those be? What would the trees have done? Think of it this way: the trees just stand there. We obviously know trees aren't to be blamed for Auschwitz. But again the author implies the question of blame. Are bystanders innocent? The speaker even declares he grows "more and more innocent," which is a round about way of saying that something else becomes more important in the immediate vicinity than these dying Jews, and that's sleep. "the TV reassures me: both of us are beyond suspicion." The last image we see is the shoes piled high as the pyramids (built by slaves, FYI) groaning. Yes, the image has survived, but has it resolved anything? Are there not still 6 million dead Jews? Even the shoes, now, want to sleep, to be innocent, to forget about this, to be a bystander. Journal #15: Layering exercise Chose one item from column A and one from column B. Write a poem about a housewife doing something from column A and her young son/daughter coming home from school, having just learned about something in column B that startles, offends, terrifies, or mystifies him/her. See how your choice from A and B can relate. COLUMN A

laundry, dishes, cleaning
drinking wine
yoga, zumba, exercise
making an omelet
cutting vegetables
dusting, making the bed
watching Law and Order COLUMN B

people eventually die
carnivores eat other mammals
Abe Lincoln was shot
the dinosaurs all died
where babies come from
long division
how far away China/moon is
you can also substitute your own ideas in each column if you'd like. Write a minimum 18 line poem, and try to alternate subject matter every 2-3 lines (IE 2 on housewife, 3 on son coming home, 2 on housewife, 2 on son telling her about x)
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