What Makes a Poem ‘Hard’?

“Syntax” is the answer to the fudgy question.

It’s hard to reach image and reference through muddy syntax. In narrative and exposition, context comes to the rescue; in poetry often not, because a poet revels in flare-gunning lap dance moon rocks nose hair close to congeries of quandary spelunkers.

Nothing is always obscure. Poetry-speak can be so unconditioned, stark and abrupt that it’s a syntaxing decoy duck which is a real duck hiding in plain sight.

The poem is “Sacrament I” by Robin Gow (Poetry, March 2020).

& all the faucets pour oil or milk.
We fill father’s bottles, the brown and green;
thick glass blood cells, a throat-slit pouring silk.
When will the baptisms make me feel clean?

Is there a slit in a throat? And the slit is pouring silk? The hyphen makes it look descriptive, though, which begs for a described thing to follow: Has to be “silk.” Is it silk engaged in pouring, and the throat of that silk is slit? (Table for now the question of does it matter.)

We dig holes in the yard. They fill with mud.
I go, I drop in all the shiny things,
the necklaces clit-plucked, pink flower bud,
my hole — amuck mess: gargling glint rings.

Little contest here syntax-wise. I resolve “glint rings” into “rings that sparkle,” left to admire the jolt delivered when drab enunciation — We dig.. they fill… I go, I drop… — leads to the creepy hole gargling gewgaws sourced from… clit-piercings? And that single pink “bud” bobbing in apposition!

Our dish soap is blue & so is mary.
She’s plastic bottle, she’s soil bubble.
It’s baby bath, she rubs me black cherry.
We go digging for the pit, pair knuckle.

I can’t get close to lowercase mary’s “soil bubble,” but the quatrain sails past in toddler-patter voice like a toy boat in a bath tub. “Pair knuckle” neatly shoots the gap between “pair socks” and “bare knuckle.” The near-rhyme with “bubble” tickles me black cherry.

& so I repeat each morning again.
Stain skin, sugary with original sin.

The ending couplet is a marvel: a dozen words stripped to the bone — including the sly “repeat… again” quasi-solecism stopped with a crucial period. What exactly is repeated (again)? Literally, “each morning.” A follow-on act, implied repetitive and itself clarified with a comma, is the staining — not of sugary skin — but of skin (his-her own? others’?) by one who is “sugary” — a devilishly inspired descriptor! — with the innate state of badness visited upon Christian humans by the insubordination episode in Eden.

Interrogations of syntax go only so far. This adroit sonnet with its clashing symbols and skillful management of tone appears to me to be a working through of trans-spiritual burden or trauma which chooses not to speak its name.

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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