To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.
A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”
I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”
Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”
Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”
We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”
A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”
Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”
I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”
She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.
Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in September.
Like by A.E. Stallings
Stallings has described the “strange dream-logic connections of the rhymes themselves that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited. Rhyme is a method of composition.” Like, her fourth collection, is exactly the book needed in our time of neutered cultural language. Her poems are an antidote to the anodyne. We use the word “sculpted” to describe a well-formed poem, and Stallings earns that description: She’s adept at poetic control. In “Alice, Bewildered,” she brings the reader elsewhere—“Deep in the wood where things escape their names”—before alluding to a tale we know, of “likeness in the glass.” I love what she does next: “Yet in the dark ellipsis she can tell, / She’s certain, that her name begins with an ‘L’— / Liza, Lacie? Alias, alas, / A lass alike alone and at a loss.” A bounty of consonance and assonance to turn your tongue enough to taste what’s happening: She’s remaking language. Not with tricks, but with stretches and sprints. Like in “Bedbugs in Marriage Bed,” when the narrator wonders if “it’s best to burn the whole thing down.” Each morning, she checks “the seem of seams,” and there’s nothing for weeks and months—except paranoia. “When darkness blanches and the stars go grey. / Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams / Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good: / They are the negatives you cannot prove.” Subject becomes symbol becomes saying—it’s a clever movement for a poem. As in her other volumes, Stallings can bend to antiquity as easily as she can write of modern life. My favorite? “Dyeing the Easter Eggs.” Any poet who can deliver phrases like “chrism of olive oil” and “Punctilious as Pontius Pilate” is a gift.
When Rap Spoke Straight to God by Erica Dawson
Although broken into sections in the table of contents, Dawson’s book functions as a single, long poem. The stanzas brew and burst, but they build across pages. It feels like a book born to be read aloud. Dawson has said there’s “nothing wrong” with poetry that’s “difficult or strange.” Those descriptors can be applied, quite positively, to her new book: an athletically sure trip that begins with Wu-Tang and ends in an oneiric place, “a dark and empty heaven.” The speaker of Dawson’s continuous poem is witty, wise, hilarious, enchanting. She wonders about a Lady Jesus, who dares Peter to deny her. Who commands: “When I asked for grace / the dust hid all the stars and not / a single thing happened. But now/ I am the dust.” She concludes the section suggesting that now “the Holy Spirit finds its voice.” This voice has many varieties; some sections pun presidential, while others are satirical shreds of identity—“Let’s ball, / white boy. Next time I get exotic, I’ll call / You Hoss. Third person. You’re beside yourself.” Dawson’s fluidity is her function: When Rap Spoke Straight to God barrels across a wide plane. “You won’t believe what happened to the angels,” the narrator says. “They never speak the language of the body. / I have a dream I corner Gabriel and tell / him how, one time, I cored the moon and lived, / for a month of Sunday’s, warm inside its curve.” Read this book and you’ll want Dawson to sing of everything.
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
“My parents fold like luggage,” Olivarez writes, “into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.” Above, “stars glitter against a black sky,” a sky from which “borders do not exist.” What folds them into that trunk is “the belief that the folding will end. // it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents / near breaking. broke.” This sense of passage and crossing bleeds throughout the collection, which includes interspersed, short pieces titled “Mexican Heaven.” In one, St. Peter is “a Mexican named Pedro.” He waits at the gate “with a shot of tequila to welcome all the Mexicans / to heaven, but he gets drunk & forgets about the list. / all the Mexicans walk into heaven, / even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals.” Olivarez’s humor often arises from a place of cultural anxiety: To be Mexican in America is to be talked about, to be labeled and debated, all so without being asked and respected. In one poem, the narrator dreamt he had “Armani suits / isn’t that what Harvard / was supposed to buy / where the border ended / in a boardroom.” An Ivy League education might unlock doors, but it doesn’t unlock stereotypes. What makes Citizen Illegal so pitch-perfect is the anxiety of expectations of immigrant families, the narrator who tries to be “a good Mexican son” but whose Spanish has begun to falter: “my mom still loved me. even when i couldn’t understand her blessings.” In another poem, the narrator is asked “what i am,” if he is really Mexican. I love how that poem ends: “i know i’m a questionable narrator / when it comes to my own life, i ask Jesus / how i got so white & Jesus says / man, / i’ve been trying to figure out the same damn thing myself.”
Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan
“Live streams, meanwhile, / pump night-green footage from Ferguson’s / punctured lung into our timelines. Flash / grenades gush like stars spangling from a flag / drawn and quartered. I feel a vicarious / smallness watching demonstrations flee. / A boy has been murdered again.” Dargan is a master of threnody: lines tensed and pulled so much that his poems shake the page. He’s writing within an American language that is broken. In “Poem Resisting Arrest”: “This poem is trying to compose itself. It has // the right to remain either bruised or silent, / but it is a poem, so it hears you’d be safer // if you stopped acting like a poem, ceased resisting.” Poem as resistance, reaction, rejoinder. In a later poem, Dargan writes about the problem of seeking joy from poets: “my struggles with writing / for you, friends, a poem / about gratitude—gratitude / which is all the rave / now.” He prefers poems of gratitude like “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa, where “the gods are blind / and so he praises / off-mark bullets / and butterflies / that kept him alive.” What, really, do we want of poets? What confessions? Who seeks penance? “You want / my private aspect / (joy) to be public. / You want my public / aspect (pain) to be / stowed beneath / my bed like a precious / something someone / might steal from me.” Those “peckish for a peek / at my cloistered, incandescent / revelry—were you as earnest / about my frostbite, my burns, / I would have opened / these hands, sated you all.” Anagnorisis is a book of the inevitable: “To be born human is to be tendered / this challenge to live larger than your woe.”
A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
Yoon’s book is anchored in poetic testimonies of “comfort women” of the Japanese Empire: women forced into military prostitution. Yoon envisions her channeled narratives as a way “to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them. I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too.” She succeeds on several levels. In poems like “Comfort,” she captures the rhythm of pain: “On Wednesdays, it rains // for the children they bore. For the children / they could not bear. For the children / they were.” Several pieces in the collection are titled “An Ordinary Misfortune,” suggesting that violence against women is endemic, threaded into culture, normal. “She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.” Yoon’s cadences accumulate in this particular iteration, with a stress on girls grabbed: stolen and kept. Another refrain across poems are the “reused condoms,” capturing a shared experience of suffering. Her powerful “Testimonies” section will make you weep—and wonder at evil. Other poems in the collection exist beyond the years of war; pieces like “Bell Theory” skillfully consider how language displaces us. “When I was laughed at for my clumsy English, I touched my throat.” The narrator wants to escape the mockery, but she can’t: One of the cruelties special to our species is how language—and its daggers—is often all we have.
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers
“The (Im)Precision of Language” is the perfect poem to introduce this collection, a book in which clever wordplay, trauma, and transcendence live together. The narrator begins by wondering about how porous and flexible English can be: “How far the ring-necked dove is / from wringing a dove’s neck. The way / a stand of trees can hide a deer // stand, concealing the hunter who / will shoot the deer.” Then, she moves her mood: “Once, someone who was dear to me / threatened me with a deer rifle.” Words and wounds are close. “Language became a tricky game where saying / nothing meant everything, where saying everything // meant nothing left to fear.” Her conclusion, though it stings, works so well: “Which brings us back to the dove, / the difference between ringing // and wringing and where language leaves us / when someone controls every word we say, / when we have no one left to talk to.” The narrators of these poems seek other, better bonds, such as between mother and son. From “Last Night”: “Since Liam turned two, it has been less / and less. The gradual stretching and thinning / of the thread between us.” She thinks “about / before he was born, lying in that same spot / on the bed, watching him flip and roll under / my skin.” Her boy will be 3 in a few hours, “and I will remember sadly the night before / the last time I ever held him so close.” Despite all that these narrators have experienced, they retain hope—to do so is a power against despair.
American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time selected by Tracy K. Smith
I don’t often think of books of poems as potential gifts, but Smith’s volume could make the perfect present. Pocket-sized, long enough to offer a breadth of poets without becoming repetitive or overbearing, Smith’s collection is well-prepared—exactly what you’d hope for in an anthology from a poet laureate. In Smith’s introduction, she says these poems “bear witness to the daily struggles and promises of community, as well as to the times when community eludes us.” Her prefatory remarks, and the book as a whole, feel optimistic. There are some poems of pain within this bunch, certainly, but Smith has done a fine job of giving the reader poems of earned emotions. There’s a fantastic lineup here, but what follows are some special highlights. “’N’em” by Jericho Brown: “They said to say goodnight / And not goodbye.” “They fed / Families with change and wiped / Their kitchens clean.” (Brown’s poems of place and generation drill down, puncture the earth: if you’re looking for a poet of community, look no further.) The always great Vievee Francis with “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding”: “When it’s time to celebrate, something dies. / When something dies, we take it with the sweet.” The spiritual architecture of “After the Diagnosis” by Christian Wiman: “Change is a thing one sleeps through / when young.” And the prose poetry of Nathalie Handal in “Ten Drumbeats to God”: “Then I heard the drumbeats and remembered—like rain like song like light lit by old questions—there is no reason, there is god, drum, beat, there is what lingers and there is what comes later.”