But together we decide
which way the dream goes
like spilled water on a table
we carry across the room.
When Rasmussen was 16, his 19-year-old brother committed suicide. His book, Black Aperture (a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, and winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets), is his reaction, and contains this poem; a significant excerpt from the beginning and ending is available online via Arthur McMaster’s review of the book.
I’ve encountered Rasmussen’s work before; I used his poem “Chekhov’s Gun” in conjunction with comments about a story where a threat in the air never materialized, and I didn’t feel cheated at all; it was all about the tension, the idea that the gun might go off. The poem makes the point that, in order for the Chekhov’s Gun principle to work, the audience has to believe it might not go off. Which, oddly, the very aphorism has made unlikely for the modern reader. I was unaware of the specific context at the time I encountered that poem; it resonates even more, now. This is a poet who knows how to break your heart, very, very quietly.
The above-referenced review by Arthur McMaster notes that nearly all the poems are in couplets, and interprets that as a conversation between the two brothers: “My interpretation is that these lines, these pairings, are indeed the two brothers. Complete, but no longer complete. Matt’s brother’s suicide has become not only the theme but the architect of the volume. ” Of course! Now it seems obvious, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I overlook.
Emotionally, it packs a wallop, because even without the element of suicide, the notion of planting a phone at the foot of a grave is loaded with significance. If I can dip into pop culture again (as I so often do…), cut to a Twilight Zone episode, “Night Call” and an elderly widow receiving phone calls from her dead husband, later traced to a downed wire lying across his grave; it was horrific, since in her fear and misunderstanding she told what she thought was a prank caller to go away. This urge to communicate with those we’ve lost, as interpreted by writers, is powerful stuff.
I was puzzled by the phrase “no one is calling so / I put it to my ear.” No one is calling so? Why so? Wouldn’t “but” be the logical choice? That has to mean something. Maybe to reach through one-way – to go his 50% to encourage the brother to hold up his half, to call? My Modpo friends had some ideas:
You got me thinking about that line-cut, Karen, thanks! Why so? One possibility is that the enjambment gives that “so” the quality of an adverb. Such as: I love you so. I hate it so. No one is calling so.
Not only is there an absence, there is an absence of intensity, perhaps of warmth.
Of course! Look what happens when the ellipsed “much” is added: “No one is calling so much…” The absence becomes so powerful, it is in itself a presence.
The voice as dial tone carries this absence-as-presence through. What is a dial tone? It signals a connection: go ahead, complete your call. The speaker longs to hear this dial tone, to hear his brother say: I’m here, listening. But no; there’s only the “dark breathing of the dirt.”
There is a certainty in the writing. A planted-ness, definite-ness and stillness. I feel as if I am standing back letting his voice take the space.
Plantedness: like a phone at the foot of a grave, sprouting a black cucumber of a receiver. Receiving nothing.
Several of the other poems in the collection deal with inanimate objects intimately connected with his brother’s death (and if you don’t think machines can evoke emotional responses, you haven’t heard the Chinese Lunar Rover’s farewell message). I was particularly devastated by the last line of “Outgoing”: “I’m sorry we are not here, I began.” I’m sorry, too.
The dead of winter (how casually we use that phrase; “it” isn’t dead, just sleeping) may not be the best time for me to be dealing with all these literary suicides so intimately; it’s felt like a constant stream over the past few weeks. Then again, maybe it’s the best possible time for me to see the aftermath, to see all that pain transformed into all this beauty.