Excerpts are from the poem “A Future History” by Suzi L. Garcia (Poetry, March 2020).
A muster of peacocks show off their tails, but instead of feathers, knives.
This line introduces me to “muster,” a collective noun applied to peacocks. It treats “muster” as plural: “a muster… show off their tails.” Going the American way by treating the collective as singular leads to “A muster of peacocks shows off its tails.” It has by-the-book rigor, but is slightly odd, suggesting a singular creature called a “muster of peacocks” (like “master of ceremonies”) that has multiple tails.
An enemy feints indifference and keeps their distance, places me on a fool’s throne. They underestimate me —
This line takes number fluidity further. A possible collective noun, “enemy,” is treated as singular (“feints,” “keeps,” “places”) and plural (“their”) in the same breath, then morphs full-on plural in the next sentence: “They underestimate.”
Number fluidity embraces gender fluidity under the covers here. Applying a consistent protocol to the collective noun could have two possible outcomes:
(1) “An enemy feints indifference and keeps (his/her/its) distance, places me on a fool’s throne. (He/She/It) underestimates me…”
(2) “An enemy feint indifference and keep their distance, place me on a fool’s throne. They underestimate me…”
The poem speaks by ear, not by book, and neither outcome is what it chose because stark clarity is not what it wants. The speaker wants to skirt the genderizing of his or her enemy, and fudging grammatical number is the expedient. Gender elision is the mother of number fluidity.
That leaves “feints” trying to be transitive in “feints indifference.” In my view this bit of rogue usage squanders license for questionable gain.
When noun “feint” moonlights as a verb it’s intransitive, meaning you don’t feint something (such as “indifference”), only somehow (such as “cunningly”). The case for going fluid here eludes me, and I long for “feigns indifference.” Even in a quarterback feint, the decoy move is “faked,” not “feinted.” And sonically, where poetry has much of its being, “feints” and “feigns” are almost joined at the hip.
c) 2020 JMN