icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

An Occasional Word

Wonder and Association

In May, I went to visit my mother for Mothers’ Day. My mom is a pistol. Thank God. When I stumble downstairs in the morning, she’s sitting at the kitchen table, all coffee-ed up, hard at work on the crossword puzzle.

“She’s out in the garage,” she says.
“The cat. Sleep OK?” she asks.
“Good,” I say. “How about you?”
“Your brother and I were up until two. Yakking away. The coffee maker—you don’t drink coffee. There’s cereal. You want me to make you an egg? Is the tango a Brazilian dance? Five letters. You didn’t hear us?”
“Try samba.”
“Samba! Samba. I have bacon.”
“Thanks, Mom. Cereal’s fine. I have to take the dogs out first.”
“She has her bed and food. She’s fine, she’s comfortable.”
“The CAT! Here’s the Free Press. Poor Valverde. They changed their mind about that other deal.”
“Ma. Who’s they?”

And so on. My point: Mom’s a master at free association. One thought triggers another seemingly unrelated thought with lightning speed.

I told her, “Mom. Your associative powers are dizzying.”

“Associative powers. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“It’s great for poetry. Thank you for that. But sometimes it’s hard to follow.”

She laughed. Thank goodness. I said the right thing.

And this is how it relates to poetry: Associations are one of the key pleasures—and hazards—of poetry.

When a poet leaps from one image to another thought, and we can follow it, it gives us great pleasure. The poet takes a risk, however, because sometimes readers can’t follow it, and then we get frustrated.

As it happens, I’d taken a book of poems home with me to read when I was tired and when my mom and brother were yakking away downstairs. I was reading What is Amazing by Heather Christle (Wesleyan University Press 2012). Christle’s work is new to me and I’m delighted by it.

Christle is one of those poets who risks being labeled “inaccessible,” because she makes wild associative leaps. For example, here is how the poem “Difficulties” begins:

I had a group of friends
who were anvils
They could not be recycled

What? Friends? Anvils? What’s going on here? I might get it, I might get it after I read more of the poem, and I might never get it. There’s a risk, but if I get it, the payoff is great.

As a reader, if I’m reading a new poet and get stuck in one poem, I try another. Here’s one:


People love to clean their ears and I love people
very much They are everywhere! Every single
thing I love I love for windows only and if
one window reflects another than friends
for me it’s all over And in the windows are trees
and in the windows are people What are they even doing
with their hunger and in their new shirts They are
taking care of themselves and they are taking each other out
for lunch Oh even the rain has to love them People
are just too attractive! and the rain places itself
on the window in order to be closer to the people
the ones who are eating The ones who are
busting out vigor Oh people You have to love
people They are so much like ourselves

Right away, I see that Christle mostly ignores punctuation, only inserting an exclamation point and a capital letter once in a while to orchestrate the rhythm and emphasis. The rest is run together, which accentuates the free-associative nature of the poem.

Then I notice the emotional feel. This is a voice that is caught up in wonder.
And that voice helps support me through the associative leaps. I have no idea why Christle includes the particular details of people cleaning their ears or their new shirts, but her tone of wonder makes me understand that she is taking a step back and noticing how people interact together and finding them wondrous and lovely.

She’s right, I think. People ARE like a coral reef, living together, doing little nice things for each other, chitchatting, continuously building and cementing the connections that hold us together. So next time I’m out in a restaurant my view of it might be changed a bit. I might notice more consciously the lovely little gestures people make and appreciate it more.

And Christle’s risk—her choice to include funny random little details—has paid off, because my view of the world has changed.

What do you think? If you were going to write a poem about the small things people do for each other in your life, what might be included? For me, it’s dentists. The fact that someone might devote his or her life to tending gently to the mouths of other people just knocks me over. What a species.
Post a comment