For my online poetry class last week, we discussed the “prose poem.” Now I remember from (way) back in the day when I was intrigued by prose poems because they seemed less intimidating than the usual poetry forms. Prose poems seemed more like writing flash fiction or flash nonfiction. Something I could do without having to worry about meter and foots and stuff like that.
One of the discussion forums presented three examples of prose poetry as a “slippery bean”: too far one way and it becomes flash fiction; too far the other way and it may become a lyrical essay. Then the question: “Is the prose poem’s proximity to other genres the danger of the prose poem or the benefit of it?”
Those who know me well know that I don’t care for how (any) writing is categorized. Read on for the three examples and for my response. Finally, if you’re still with me, read to the end for my own “prose poem.”
I ran into the poet Mark Strand on the street. He immediately challenged me by drinking a glass of wine while standing on his head. I was astonished. He didn’t even spill a drop. It was one of the bottles Baudelaire stole from his stepfather the Ambassador in 1848. “Is this what is known as subjective reality?” I asked. Years ago this same Strand translated a famous Quechua poem about a man raising a fly with wings of gold in a green bottle, and now look at him!
He had begun to read the novel a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business conferences, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he permitted himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the characterizations. That afternoon, after writing a letter giving his power of attorney and discussing a matter of joint ownership with the manager of his estate, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, its back toward the door–even the possibility of an intrusion would have irritated him, had he thought of it–he let his left hand caress repeatedly the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. He remembered effortlessly the names and his mental image of the characters; the novel spread its glamour over him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from the things around him, and at the same time feeling his head rest comfortably on the green velvet of the chair with its high back, sensing that the cigarettes rested within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the air of afternoon danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, licked up the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself be absorbed to the point where the images settled down and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin.
Some things do change, however. A membrane can simply rip off your life, like a skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can. I remember that day very clearly: I had received a phone call. A friend had been in an accident. Perhaps she would not live. She had very little face, and her spine was broken in two places. She had not yet moved; the doctor described her as “a pebble in water.” I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming. In the baby-shit yellow showers at my gym, where snow sometimes fluttered in through the cracked gated windows, I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling in spots, and a decent, industrial blue was trying to creep in. At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God. When I walked into my friend’s hospital room, her eyes were a piercing, pale blue and the only part of her body that could move. I was scared. So was she. The blue was beating.
I’m reading The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver which is a long read not just because it’s a long book, but there so much poetry in the language of the narrative. I don’t like “pigeon-holing” writing: this is a poem, this is an essay, this is flash fiction. I think prose poetry’s proximity to fiction (or nonfiction) enhances the read, at least for me. Must it be one or the other? If each of the three pieces Mary shared “works,” does the genre matter? I’m not trying to argue. It’s the lowest common denominator effect of classification that troubles me. I work with data at my day job, and see daily the loss of information (poetry?) when we produce aggregated results, that data that speaks only to the largest groupings of people; for example, Hispanic, Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic Black. It’s a necessity in my line of work (public health), but it doesn’t help the people who don’t fit neatly into those categories.
My prose poem (submitted assignment):
I felt the staccato snap of each vertebrae in my spine as I lengthened and then twisted my torso in Trikonasana, Triangle Pose, and wondered how much longer I could keep looking up at the ceiling before I lost all feeling in my neck. The yogi urges me to take two more waves of breath and then release—slowly—back up to Virabhadrasana II, Warrior Two. Pause. Then I am exhorted to drop my right arm down and behind, grazing my hand against the back of my left thigh, and lift my left arm, shining my heart to the ceiling for Reverse, or Proud, Warrior. I inhale, then exhale, then inhale and slowly straighten my left leg for Stargazer, my favorite pose because it reminds of you. I imagine us both reaching for the stars, me metaphorically and you literally with your fancy camera and telescope. The shutter of your camera snaps in time with my spine.