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Unread 05-03-2008, 04:02 PM
Richard Wilbur Richard Wilbur is offline
Mr. Parnassus
Join Date: Jan 2003
Location: Key West, FL
Posts: 52

Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud

The smell of mud and brine. I'm six, awash
with grey and beached by winter scenery,
pinched by the Peckham girl who calls me posh,
and boys who pull live crabs apart to see
me cry. And I am lost in that grim place
again, coat buttoned up as tight as grief.
Sea scours my nostrils, strict winds sand my face,
the clouds pile steel on steel with no relief.

Sent there to convalesce--my turnkeys, Sisters
of Rome, stone-faced as Colosseum arches--
I served a month in Stalag Kent, nursed blisters
in beetle shoes on two-by-two mute marches.
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.


The title and the closing couplet frame a painful recollection. The octave gives us, understandably, a rush of disagreeable memories; the sestet then explains what the speaker was doing in such a place. "Awash with grey" seems to describe a state of despondency and a grim scene; "beached," however, seems more forced, although suggestive of lake shore and feelings of abandonment. I take it that "the Peckham girl" thought the speaker snooty; I recognize the tormenting boys from my own grammar-school days, but I have trouble reconciling live crabs with a sea which supports no life. Much in this poem is vivid -- "scours" in line 7, or "the salt of swallowed pain." A well-executed narrative sonnet.

[This message has been edited by Richard Wilbur (edited May 12, 2008).]
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Unread 05-03-2008, 04:04 PM
Rose Kelleher's Avatar
Rose Kelleher Rose Kelleher is offline
Join Date: Jul 2002
Location: Maryland, USA
Posts: 3,748

This one's so vivid, it reminds me of a jar: I open it up, get a blast of sight/sound/smell; then I close it, but the after-tang won't let me forget.

One could quibble about one or two of the enjambments, but like I said before, it's the overall effect that counts. There's more poetry here than in many "perfect" sonnets I've read. Besides, this sonnet describes a memory of a rough time in the narrator's childhood. Should it be silky-smooth?
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Unread 05-03-2008, 04:34 PM
Janice D. Soderling's Avatar
Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: Sweden
Posts: 14,175

When I finished reading this the first time, my mouth opened and said, "Oh-h-h-h" without any help from me.

The second time, it gave out a great, huge sigh.

"coat buttoned up as tight as grief", "Strict winds sand my face", "stone-faced as Colosseum arches" Those are phrases to make you sit shaking your noggin until it falls off.

I am dumbstruck by the part that stands alone in the beginning like a mournful cry—"I'm six, awash…", then sweeps me into the continuation of the poem like the incoming tide.

I am glad I am not so smart that I see what is wrong with enjambments and other craft technicalities. This one gives me goose bumps and wets my eyes. What more can a poet ask for?
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Unread 05-03-2008, 05:09 PM
Janet Kenny Janet Kenny is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: Queensland, (was Sydney) Australia
Posts: 15,584

Oh this is terrific! It's English and the class implications add sting. Poor little six-year-old mite in Stalag Kent. Who wants to find fault in this intimate poem? I don't. Cold coastal poem that rocks (as I believe some might have said a while ago).

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Unread 05-03-2008, 05:19 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
Lariat Emeritus
Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,818

I more frequently complain of clumsy enjambments and extol brilliant ones than anyone else I know here. There are three here that push the envelope and strike me as neither clumsy nor brilliant. Well, maybe 'make/ me cry' is brilliant, as is the poem.
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Unread 05-03-2008, 05:33 PM
Robert J. Clawson Robert J. Clawson is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 3,401

I take great joy from the seashore at any time of year, especially the steel on steel events. I find this grim, nostalgic piece perfect nevertheless. I can smell that mud anew and realize that it's releasing more than I had ever even thought of smelling. It's richer mud, as I am for experiencing it in this piece. Well done!

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Unread 05-03-2008, 06:34 PM
Lisa Barnett Lisa Barnett is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Haverford, PA
Posts: 442

This is wonderfully evocative, with some fine descriptive passages, as Janice noted above. A terrific poem!

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Unread 05-03-2008, 10:16 PM
Anne Bryant-Hamon Anne Bryant-Hamon is offline
Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: Lynn Haven, FL, U.S.
Posts: 2,342

Certainly one of the most melancholy poems I've read. And finely written. If I must find a nit, perhaps it is the way the poem starts out with an incomplete sentence. But that doesn't really bother me - I'm just trying hard to be critical. It seems there were some mighty fine sonnets sent for this bake-off. No easy task for Rose. That's why she will have to discard the ones of people she personally dislikes . Stiff competition, for sure.

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Unread 05-04-2008, 01:57 AM
Alan Wickes Alan Wickes is offline
Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: Buxton, England
Posts: 359

I'm so pleased to see this one here, I remember being shocked by this when I first saw it. If anyone is still unconvinced by Fist's contention that sonnets can't pack a killer punch - surely this should persuade them.


[This message has been edited by Alan Wickes (edited May 04, 2008).]
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Unread 05-04-2008, 02:25 AM
Mark Allinson Mark Allinson is offline
Join Date: Dec 2003
Location: Tomakin, NSW, Australia
Posts: 5,317

Yes, a very fine piece.

And on a favourite theme of mine - the Proustian "involuntary memory", triggered by taste or smell.

Proust says that mere thought memories alone can never truly evoke the past ...

"But when from a long-distant past no thing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . . and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the vast structure of recollection." [SW 65] [pp. 108-109]

Excellent poem.

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