Pushcart 2015: Sandra Lim, “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue” (Poetry) from The Account, Fall 2013

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Each time you see a full moon rising,
you imagine it will express
what your life cannot otherwise express,
that it’s a figure of speech.

This one (available online, thank you, The Account magazine) took me back to ModPo, for a variety of reasons.

From the first stanza, I thought – “I dwell in possibility!” – the Emily Dickinson poem that was a semi-mantra for the course. It’s perhaps a recognition of something above and beyond language, which is an odd proposition for a poem, a form that celebrates and lives within language. But it’s the image that has the deep meaning here in the first stanza; the words are a transportation system.

At least, that’s what I thought until I went looking for hints, and found a marvelous commentary by Christopher Kondrich: he points out the “it” in the fourth line has two floating antecedents, and while that’s no-no’d in composition classes, it’s the art of this poem: what is it that’s a figure of speech, the moon, or your life? Both? Back to Emily and Cid Corman and John Ashbery. And I missed it until Kondrich underlined it for me.

An image, a poem, can be like a figure-ground perception test: is it the face, or the vase? The old woman sunken into a shawl, or the young lady in the fashionable hat, looking away? Is a bed a raft or an island?

This really means watching yourself
turn something unknown into
something manageable.

The second stanza made me quite sad, until I looked at it line by line. To start with, “This really means watching yourself” sounds like a warning – hey, watch yourself, buddy; be careful. But the phrase then turns into a proposition of observation. It’s not, Watch out for yourself, but Watch how this happens. That shift happens because of a line break – a break that changes the perception of figure and ground, a break that unites multiple perceptions. We’re so certain we know – we turn the unknown into the manageable all the time, those of us who recoil from ambiguity and uncertainty – but watch out! Because the unknown might just be what we’ve turned it into, and something else, and a dozen other something elses, all at the same time, and poetry, the figure-ground perception sketch with words, is how we hold that.

When Schoenberg pointed out
the eraser on his pencil, he said, “This end
is more important than the other.”

The final stanza is something of a mash-up, bringing in John Cage, another ModPo poet. We may turn the unknown into something manageable, but Cage, Schoenberg, and Lim remind us to keep our erasers handy, because it might also be something else at the same time, and Watch Yourself! or you could miss all the worlds the something else implies. Maybe we can get away from seeing erasure as obliteration of an error, and see it as another doorway, an alternative.

One of my favorite quotes, from Charles DuBos: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. ” Maybe something like this applies to our take on the world – but certainly, to our take on poetry, on art. A drawing of a cat can be banal. Or it can be a pretty cool example of what one can do with an eraser. One of my least favorite aphorisms is “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there.” But that assumes there is benefit in getting there, instead of getting somewhere else. If you barrel your way determinedly from London to Rome, you’ll miss what’s just outside your window, which could be… Paris. And you’ll never even glimpse Vienna.

What fascinates about the last stanza – one of the things that fascinates me – is that this is only part of the quote, from Cage’s Lectures and Writings: 50th Anniversary Edition published in 2011; the next sentence is: “After twenty years I learned to write directly in ink.” But that’s not part of the poem – perhaps because it’s exactly the opposite of the poem’s mood, how growth happens: we start out writing in ink, giving the right answers, knowing everything, and if we’re lucky, we run into Emily, and dwell, with our erasers, in possibility. And in stating that, it sounds so definite, as if I know. As if it’s written in… ink…. Uh-oh. Emily, hand me a pencil, please.

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