Pushcart 2014: Jill McDonough – “Ming” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review Fall 2012

When the former curator remembers the Ming,
remembers knocking it over, he remarks, “The thing

took fucking forever to fall.” Shaking
his heavy head. Inside, the Ming’s still taking

its time….

Ouch…

My favorite thing about this poem (available online) is the line breaks: they take forever to fall. At first I thought that the halting, segmented way McDonough reads the poem at the 2012 Applied Brilliance Conference was to emphasize the segmentation of time, but on watching her read additional poems, it seems that’s just the way she reads.

Still, much of the language, especially towards the end, plays into this segmentation: “slivers” and “your fault in the space-time continuum” – the double meaning on the word fault there; it’s kind of cool that “rent” and “spent” get rhymed, “rent” having financial meaning as well as that of “torn”.

I see a lot of interesting form in this one – the line breaks between couplets are pretty dramatic, amazing in a couple of places – the first one’s pretty good (“The thing / took fucking forever to fall”) though I’m surprised the break didn’t occur between “to” and “fall” or after “forever” – maybe that would’ve been too on-the-nose? Then the next two stanza breaks – “the Ming’s still taking / its time” – and “a way of making more / time” really build up that little bubble of infinity-in-a-moment, which is cool. The killer comes a few more in: “the instant the Ming first leans / into thinner air”. Boy, is there a suspension of time in that one, it’s perfect. It plays into the content – snatches of time recovered a sliver at a time.

In content as well, there’s this idea of distorted time, and feelings of regret. I love the guard with the vase-shaped head, he’s been permanently physically altered by this accident – what an image. There’s a Star Trek DS9 episode, “Emissary” in which (I’m not sure of this, it wasn’t a series I watched frequently like TNG) Sisko is explaining to an alien being why his memories include a painful one of his wife’s death. The alien asks, “Then why do you exist here?” The guard with the vase-shaped head exists in the moment the vase fell. “You gain a week. This is how it’s spent.” This is the tragedy.

In her reading, McDonough refers to the “study of awe” at Stanford Business School (conveniently available online in both general readership and academic versions; I’m not sure their method of inspiring awe is particularly awe-inspiring, but maybe it’s just me) which found that it’s awe, not just happiness, that gives you a sense of time expanding; she wanted to capture that in this poem.

Some of my ModPo compatriots had some wonderful observation about the poem:

The last few lines bring me closer to understanding the curator’s endless series of flashbacks to those moments of dread as the vase fell.
The title seems aggressive. If the vase hadn’t been super important, a Ming vase, its breakage would not have had such an effect on the curator’s life, shattering his composure, completeness, sense of being ok. So he and the vase are united in their irreversible shattering. It is only the conventional unforgiving world view which makes it such an event. Were the vase to be less valued, the man’s value to himself and others would be greater.
I thought the poet was making a contrast between the extra time which is created by awe and the awful moments of shame the former curator feels each time he thinks back to those extra long split seconds as it falls. Those moments of memory probably make up a week of his life, but they are the opposite of awe.

What a scary relation between the guard’s self-worth and the vase’s apparent worth! Yet it’s true: and I’m also taken with the notion that his awe towards the vase is balanced by his shame: anti-awe.

There’s always something tentative in every stanza, tenuous even, the poem itself like a “half-hearted shelf” of couplets. I’m really drawn to such expressions as “thinner air” and “week of stutter and halt”.
Some of it seems metapoetic to me, for example “his heavy head. Inside, the Ming’s still taking” which sounds like, yes, it’s still actually falling inside this man’s life, still claiming him beyond its already super-extended presence. But maybe it’s also “still taking” because of the poem or inside the poem, inside couplets that come across as “slivers of seconds” and “panicked gasps?”
Perhaps us beholding the curator beholding the monumental fall of the Ming is itself a moment of awe.

Yes, the observation of someone else in awe can itself inspire awe. It’s run-off-on-a-tangent time. Let’s talk about chains of awe:

Many of my friends from the humanities wonder why I’ve been taking so many math classes. Here’s why: Last April, I took a math MOOC where the teacher talked about the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus like he’d touched the face of God. I was ashamed to admit I didn’t get what the big deal was, but I wanted to understand what this guy was so jazzed about. So I took another math MOOC, and again, I saw a teacher talking about real analysis of converging sequences like he was touching the face of God.

I want to know what they’re seeing.

Notice I say “I want to know,” not “I want to see.” I’ll never see it myself, never touch the face of God through math; I believe (though I have no proof, or even evidence) that’s a matter of neuronal wiring, that what we’re capable of understanding, as well as what brings joy, differs from person to person. But I want to understand what it is they’re seeing in that way. Right now I’m reading a biography of a Russian émigré and eminent mathematician (recommended by one of the math MOOC teachers), and there it is again, right through the page: he sees the face of God in groups of symmetries. That’s why I’m taking – and retaking – math MOOCs: what do they see that I don’t? Chains of awe.

But chains of awe aren’t automatic: the “study of awe” McDonough cites used videos of people ooohing and aahing at waterfalls and whales. That wouldn’t inspire awe in me, no matter how touching-the-face-of-God they looked. Maybe awe is more complicated.

I was once in a field on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, and it was so quiet – no traffic, no people, nothing but an occasional bird – I could hear the blood rushing in my ears; that was awe. I’ve read stories that had me wondering what the writer was thinking until on the last page everything came together perfectly in a totally unexpected way and revealed a whole heretofore invisible world of meaning on second read; that was awe. When Carlo Bergonzi and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau hit certain harmonies on “Solenne in quest’ora” from La Forza del Destino, that’s awe. When I read about a seventeen-year-old Russian Jew climbing over a fence to sneak into a math lecture officially barred to him because of Soviet anti-Semitism: awe. The guard with the vase-shaped head: definitely awe; but a sad awe.

Back to McDonough, who, in her reading, says: “If you are a poet you are constantly shopping for these moments of awe.” We all are. Maybe human existence is pretty much the search for awe; maybe we don’t always recognize it when we see it, or maybe it’s pretty scarce. And maybe some of us have allowed our heads to become vase-shaped – filled with anti-awe – until we can’t appreciate awe when we see it.

What shape is your head?

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3 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Jill McDonough – “Ming” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review Fall 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2012 | A Just Recompense

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