Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”

Something You Swear You’d Never Say Again: Guster’s “Lost and Gone Forever”

Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.

Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.

On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)

Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.

Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.

Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:

The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.

Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.

Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:

You don’t know how far you’ve gone
Or recognize who you’ve come
How’d you grow to be so hard?
Sick of playing my part

(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)

Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).

The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.

The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:

Like your father said,
“Just do what was done unto you, always”
In your father’s steps
You’ll do what was done unto you
It won’t be hard to start again

This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.

Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”

I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.


Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

Recent Publication: Visiting Bob

Here’s a project that I’ve been excited about for quite some time! One of my poems, “The Fury of the Moment,” has been included in the anthology Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers, 2018). This one has been a long time coming, so it was such a thrill to finally get this book in the mail on Friday.

To have a poem in this anthology is a great honor for me. First, as you may have gathered if you’ve read this blog for a while, I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music. I’ve dedicated blog posts to the rhyme scheme of “Queen Jane Approximately” and to placing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in the ballad tradition, but neither compares to contributing to the conversation around Dylan’s work through my own poetry. Second, it’s a privilege to share space in this anthology with such esteemed writers as Johnny Cash, Yusef Komunyakaa, Dorianne Laux, and Paul Muldoon. Certainly my work is put to shame by their example, but for the moment, I feel like I’m getting away with something.

Here’s a little background as to how this came about. New Rivers Press, which is based out of Minnesota State University Moorhead, announced that they were planning this tribute to Bob Dylan in early 2016, and in response I wrote a handful of new poems inspired by Dylan’s work. The one they eventually selected, “The Fury of the Moment,” attempts to capture the feeling of listening to “Every Grain of Sand,” the last track on his last born-again album, Shot of Love. I submitted my work in August 2016 (not too long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature), received the acceptance contract in December 2017, and at long last got my copy yesterday. Like I said: a long time coming.

Special thanks to the editors, Thom Tammaro and Alan Davis, for including my work in this project, and for accommodating a last minute change of address!

Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan is published by New Rivers Press, Moorhead, Minnesota. As of this writing, the book is listed as temporarily out of stock through both Small Press Distribution and Amazon, but with any luck it’ll be back in stock soon!

James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”: An Analysis

James WrightHere in the United States, we’re currently in the midst of American football season, which means it’s historically a fallow time for poetry. Unlike with baseball or basketball, there isn’t really a long tradition of poetry about football. As a sport, it lacks the aura of pastoral myth that surrounds baseball and the graceful control of the body that defines basketball. No, football is kind of an ugly sport: violent and dangerous, cloaked in concealing equipment, and overly complicated to describe. It just doesn’t lend itself to poetry.

There are, however, some noteworthy poems on the sport, like the one I’d like to talk about today: James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Unlike every other poem I’ve previously given a close reading for, this poem is still protected by copyright, but you can read it over at poets.org, where they also have a recording of Wright reading the poem aloud.

Let’s start with the title, because titles are something that James Wright is especially famous for. I’ve sometimes talked about poem titles as though they were sluglines in a screenplay, in that they can ground the reader in the poem’s situation before it actually begins. This way of viewing titles holds especially true in Wright’s poetry, which are very explicit (and lengthy) in laying out the occasion of the work. This is a man who titles his poems “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” or “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.”

Compared to those examples, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is relatively restrained, simply giving us the time and place. The first line of the poem then narrows the focus even further, placing us in “the Shreve High football stadium” (line 1). With a little knowledge of American sports schedules, one can piece together that it’s the start of the high school football season. So there’s our subject: a high school football game.

Except, the speaker then immediately moves the poem outside the football stadium, outside the bounds of Martins Ferry. Rather than talking about the game in front of him, he turns to the lives of working class people in the surrounding towns:

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes. (2-5)

There’s a Whitmanesque quality to these lines, listing off the laborers who make the Ohio River region what it is. But where Whitman might celebrate the image of the American worker, Wright takes a more subdued approach. People are “nursing” their drinks; they’re “ruptured” or have “gray faces.” When he ends the stanza by claiming that they’re “[d]reaming of heroes,” it sounds less aspirational and more hopelessly escapist. Life in the Wheeling area is drudgery, and the most that people can do is to imagine something better.

The landscape of the post-industrial Midwest is a recurring feature of Wright’s poetry. “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” opens with the image of “the sprawled body of the derailed Great Northern freight car,” while “In Response to a Rumor…” is actually about women leaving a vinegar factory and appearing to disappear into the Ohio River. A sense of isolation and unease often overwhelms the speaker’s thoughts in these works: he is “lonely / And sick for home” in Fargo, and “will grieve alone” in Wheeling. Finding a similar malaise hanging over small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, then, is of a piece with the rest of Wright’s work.

Still, I detect something more personal in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In most of what I call his Midwest Hellscape poems, the speaker is an interloper, a visitor to vast decay, one who may interact with the people around him but only on a surface level. There’s no intimacy with the man in the train in “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” or the factory workers of “In Response to a Rumor…,” just a fearful fascination. But here, if only in the speaker’s mind, we follow the crowd back home.

There’s some initial ambiguity in just who the “proud fathers…ashamed to go home” refer to (6). Are they the various workers mentioned in lines 2-5, or the people joining the speaker in the stands of the football stadium. Of course, that ambiguity may well be meaningless, and I feel the poem is richer if one supposes that they’re both: steel workers on aluminum bleachers. Yes, they’ve come to watch their kids, but also to avoid a home life that they’ve long neglected—their wives are likened to “starved pullets,” i.e., young hens (7). And what are they starving from? They’re “[d]ying for love” (8). The struggles of the industrial working class don’t stop at the factory gates. They follow them into the house.

It is perhaps more than a coincidence that James Wright’s hometown is Martins Ferry, Ohio.

The final stanza, though, is where I think this poem truly becomes something special, which is interesting because it opens with one of the least poetic words in the language. Line 9 is the only one-word line in the poem, and that word is: “Therefore.”

Up until this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking this poem wasn’t making an argument, but just presenting a landscape. This sudden introduction of rhetorical logic is a little disorienting at first. The reader must readjust their expectations, and understand that the preceding stanzas are in fact the premises for the conclusion which is to follow:

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each others bodies. (9-12)

I adore this last stanza for two reasons. First, it perfectly captures the contradictions at the heart of watching football. The game is both a showcase of humanity’s physical potential and an exercise in self-destruction. Look at the language Wright uses here: “suicidally beautiful,” “gallop terribly.” The sons of Martins Ferry embody both these aspects of football in two strange yet powerful word pairs.

Second, as a final stanza and a conclusion to an argument, these four lines offer something of a twist. Introducing this wholly mundane scene—beautifully described, yes, but mundane as a scene—with such a heavy “Therefore” is the exact sort of surprise I look for in a poem. It’s attempting to justify something that we take for granted: why do kids play football? In Wright’s poem, the answer lies in everything that came before. What good does it do the sons of Martins Ferry? Lord knows, but then again, they are “suicidally beautiful.” The endgame may well not be the point. All that matters is the feeling that comes from “galloping terribly against each other’s bodies.”

What do you all think about “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio?” Are there any other poems (or stories, etc.) that you think do well in tackling the reasons we play sports? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thank you for reading.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors”: An Analysis

Lady Mary Wortley MontaguWriting these close readings as a regular feature for the blog has given me many things: a chance to sort out my own, disordered thoughts; a venue to practice my critical reading skills; even a microscopic audience for my writing. But one benefit I’ve just started to appreciate is that, in writing up these pieces, I’ve introduced myself to some interesting historical figures. I wasn’t much aware of Charlotte Smith’s role in the early Romantic movement, or Thomas Moore’s involvement in revolutionary Irish politics. But I think, in terms of having a fascinating biography, no one I’ve covered quite stacks up to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

We’ll hit some of those notes along the way, but for now, let’s take a look at one of her poems: “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors.” The title alone got my attention, we’ll give the whole text a read-through.

A Receipt to Cure the Vapors

I.
Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
‘Tis too soon for hartshorn tea:

II.
All those dismal looks and fretting
Cannot Damon’s life restore;
Long ago the worms have eat him,
You can never see him more.

III.
Once again consult your toilette,
In the glass your face review:
So much weeping soon will spoil it,
And no spring your charms renew.

IV.
I, like you, was born a woman,
Well I know what vapors mean:
The disease, alas, is common;
Single, we have all the spleen.

V.
All the morals that they tell us,
Never cured the sorrow yet:
Chuse, among the pretty fellows,
One of honor, youth, and wit.

VI.
Prithee hear him every morning
At the least an hour or two;
Once again at night returning—
I believe the dose will do.

We might as well begin with the title, which promises the reader something useful: “A Receipt [i.e., a formula] to Cure the Vapors.” The “vapors,” as the term was used in the 18th century, refers to a nebulous mental disorder primarily diagnosed in women and characterized by depression, hypochondria, fainting, and so forth. (The name comes from its supposed cause: gaseous emanations from the internal organs. This condition was also known as “spleen,” as we see in the fourth stanza.) Thus, the poem presents itself as a remedy for something that resembles depression.

That Lady Mary would write a poem of medical advice is not surprising when you consider her biography. In addition to her career in letters, Lady Mary was England’s leading advocate for small inoculation, which she learned about during her husband’s tenure as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Reading this “Receipt,” one gets the sense that the speaker’s medical knowledge covers more than smallpox; she says it is “too soon for hartshorn tea” (line 4), an ammonia-based brew related to smelling salts that was commonly used to treat the vapors.

In addition to any public-minded goals, Lady Anne may have had a personal impetus to write this remedy down. The footnotes to the poem in The Norton Anthology of Poetry say that the “Receipt” was “apparently written to Lady Anne Irwin, widowed eight or nine years previously,” though she is not referred to by name here. Rather, the speaker gives her the generic poetic name of Delia, and so one can reverse engineer that Damon in stanza 2 is Lady Anne’s deceased husband. These pseudonyms allow Lady Mary to respect her friend’s privacy while still using her situation to address a social concern.

So what is this promised cure for the vapors? Well, it takes the speaker the length of the poem to actually get to it. Indeed, the speaker spends much more time detailing the symptoms of Delia’s condition. Delia is inclined to “retire, / And idly languish life away” (1-2), suffers from “dismal looks and fretting” (5), and is given to “So much weeping” that she may “spoil” her appearance permanently (11). Whether or not “a case of the vapors” is the best way to describe her condition, it certainly seems that Delia is severely despondent.

To go off on a slight tangent: the poem’s musicality tends to underscore the uneasy feeling associated with the vapors. The poem’s base rhythm is alternating lines of trochaic tetrameter (eight syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed: “All those | dismal | looks and | fretting”) and trochaic tetrameter catalectic (same as before, but with the last unstressed syllable dropped: Cannot | Damon’s | life re | store“). Trochaic rhythms are particular incessant, always pushing forward, yet the stress pattern means one tends to end on the unstressed, weaker syllables. One leaves a trochaic line feeling incomplete, as though one more syllable is needed to round things out. That seems fitting for the vapors, doesn’t it? (One could say the same of the poem’s use of slant rhymes.)

Not only does the speaker linger over the symptoms of the vapors, but also she deploys some misdirection in prescribing her cure. From the first two-thirds of the poem, one would get the impression that what Delia really needs is a stern lecture. In the second stanza, the speaker tells her in no uncertain terms that her beloved Damon is gone: “Long ago the worms have eat him, / You can never see him more” (7-8). In the third, she commands her to “consult [her] toilette,” her “face review,” with the warning that “no spring [her] charms [will] renew” if she keeps on weeping (9-10, 12). And in fourth, she says the vapors are just a common problem for women: “Single, we have all the spleen” (16). The speaker doesn’t quite say, “Just get over it,” but the sentiment creeps close to it.

Yet right as the speaker got me scratching my head, the fifth stanza offers a bit of a swerve. “All the morals that they tell us,” the speaker says, “Never cured the sorrow yet” (17-18). In other words, the sort of lecturing the speaker has indulged in up to this point is of no use in bringing Delia out of her despondency. That’s an unexpectedly comforting thought coming from 1730. Further, rather than offering a universal cure for the vapors, the speaker suggests something more specific to her friend’s case.

And that cure is: another man. She tells Delia to “Chuse, among the pretty fellows, / One of honor, youth, and wit” (19-20). If the death of Damon is the cause of her condition, the thinking goes, then finding a new man to love should remedy it. It’s a little disappointing that the speaker’s cure is so other-centered, but it’s in keeping with Lady Mary’s larger body of work. Her most famous poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” is a critical look at society’s double standards regarding gender relations, particularly how “The judging world expects [women’s] constancy” (14), but will forgive men their infidelity. Viewed in this context, the “Receipt” is a cheekier variation on the same theme.

This context also brings into sharp focus an ambiguity in stanza four that I haven’t mentioned yet. The last line of that stanza, “Single, we have all the spleen,” can be taken two ways. The first way, I’ve already mentioned: women are “Single” in succumbing to the vapors, that is, they are the only ones who suffer from it. But that line can also be paraphrased as, “Women will suffer the vapors when they are single, i.e., not in a relationship.” No one would object if a man in a similar position tried out the dating scene again; why should it be any different for a woman?

Again, this is not necessarily great advice. Companionship can certainly be comforting for those in a depressed state, but those relationships can’t solve the fundamental problem. But the speaker doesn’t advise going all in with this “pretty fellow,” either. She instead recommends, as one should with any remedy, exercising moderation. Delia ought to “hear him every morning, / At the least an hour or two,” and hear him “Once again at night returning” (21-23). That, for the speaker, ought to be the sufficient “dose” to overcome the vapors (24). It’s like taking two aspirin, except it’s two rendezvous.

By the end, one gets the sense that this was never “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors” at all, but rather a critique of the whole diagnosis. Conceptually, “the vapors” is not too far removed from the clinical sense of “hysteria”: a medical-sounding term used to dismiss women’s emotional states as disordered. Such states are not diseases; they’re not like smallpox. One cannot simply administer smelling salts or devise an inoculation and have them be “cured.” One must treat those who suffer “the vapors” as fellow humans, and nothing less.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If, like me, you’re interested in outdated medical and scientific concepts, you might want to check out a very old post on this blog, in which I analyze Stephen Jay Gould’s article “Dr. Down’s Syndrome,” which critiques some of the inaccurate and racist terminology surrounding the condition.

Recent Publication: Review of “Not Elegy, But Eros” by Nausheen Eusuf (The Hopkins Review)

Eusuf Review

I’m happy to announce that my review of Nausheen Eusuf’s debut poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books, 2017) has just been published in the most recent issue (11.3) of The Hopkins Review.

Special thanks must go to David Yezzi, for encouraging me to try my hand at a poetry review; to Katherine Sharpe, for her patience as an editor; and, of course, to Nausheen Eusuf, for writing this wonderful collection.

Rather than leaving you with an excerpt of the review, I’ll quote the beginning of “Selfie,” one of my favorite pieces in Eusuf’s book that, alas, I did not have the space to talk about in the piece itself. I hope this will encourage you to give Not Elegy, But Eros a read.

excerpt from “Selfie”

If self’s the man, she’s the wife
who follows, shadow-faithful
through your twilight haunts
and midnight jaunts, who knows
your revels and your despair,
your zits and your stomach pits…

Not Elegy, But Eros is available through the publisher, NYQ Books, as well as through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’d like to read my full review of it, you can subscribe to The Hopkins Review.