Pushcart XL: Marianne Boruch, “Mudfest” (Poetry) from American Poetry Review, #43.6

Some kid in the class,
a boy usually. Do we have to, Sister?
And the nun once: no. She turned and slowly no, you don’t
have to do anything
but die
.
 
A room’s hush
is a kind of levitation. So the end of a rope frays. So mortality
presses its big thumb into clay early, 6th grade,
St. Eugene’s School, mid-century.
It’s a mudfest, ever after. Free, yay! is what some heard
howbeit the gasp
primal, a descending, an unthinkable click.

Most of us have experienced moments when the world shifts in its orbit, when gravity no longer feels inevitable, when everything looks or sounds or just feels different. It’s usually by accident, and it usually forces upon us some awareness we’ve never before considered – or one we’ve been, consciously or not, avoiding. The same event might not have the same effect on everyone, however. For instance, my mother was sick for most of my remembered childhood, so I don’t really know when I realized she could die. My “oh” moments involved much smaller, absurdly smaller realizations: household dispensers with triple spools for waxed paper, plastic wrap, and tin foil were not issued to everyone at the same time houses were issued (yes, I was an extraordinarily naïve kid, stupid, some might say); the knowledge that all females above a certain age had monthly periods struck me as a huge secret that had been kept from me, and I wondered what other secrets were as yet undiscovered; seeing an attractive friend with an attractive boy I liked pretty much made me realize my crush was in fact an embarrassment, and I should go find someone more suitable. Trivia, really, though the fear of some massive secret everyone but me knows stays with me still.

This poem shares a similar moment in which a boy realizes that his own death is inevitable. Now, that information was probably available to him in scattered particles, but it took the nun’s bald statement to connect the synapses and bring it into focus: you will die. Some day, he might see this as a comfort, but at 12, it’s quite a shock.

But that’s a story; why is this a poem?

That’s a question I ask myself with every poem. If there’s no particular formal structure, no meter or rhyme or repetition, what makes it a poem? It’s a question I still can’t answer. When I read the poem aloud, I have to admit, it does “sound” poetic, but much prose sounds poetic to me. If I were hearing it instead of reading it, or if it were in paragraph form, would I still hear poetry?

Boruch has included a number of interesting elements, in any case. The nun’s motives aren’t clear; is she just tired of the company line (so to speak) or is she being cruel because she’s tired of hearing “Do I have to?” every time she assigns homework? This leads to one of the most beautiful passages of the poem:

Too old, too mean, too tired, too smart, maybe shocked
at her own relish, her bite coming hard.
I’m just saying there are
charms on the bracelet from hell.

I think the world has been relishing too much hell’s charms lately, but it’s still a lovely way of phrasing it. She, too, doesn’t have to.

Some of the boy’s classmates didn’t absorb this lesson; maybe they weren’t quick enough, maybe they weren’t listening, or they only heard a familiar phrase and never gave it much thought, or maybe they reflexively blocked out any contemplation. Some of the kids heard only the beginning: you don’t have to do anything, and took that as permission or a release from all obligations. I wasn’t sure what a mudfest was, to be honest. Turns out it’s exactly what it sounds like: sort of a beach party, except instead of sand and surf there’s mud (and apparently, trucks, lots of trucks). Where a beach party has an upscale feel to it, a mudfest is for the rest of us. If I squint, I can also see playing in mud, covered with wet dirt, as a kind of foreshadowing to burial.

I’m mesmerized by the last lines of the poem, as the boy walks home, feeling “pushed for a time off the anthill”:

As for the other ants, we had our work.
It gleamed like truth is said to, in the dark before us–
grains of edible filth or just
sand and splintered glass. To carry.
Carry it down.

What pushed him off the anthill? His knowledge? The consequences of his violation in asking, “Do we have to?” Is this a kind of Tree of Knowledge, not of good and evil but the results of that violation, the first “you don’t have to” from the serpent? The ants are building an anthill, carrying sand from inside to outside, building a hole in the ground for a nest. A hole in the ground. Whether it’s a mudfest, or an anthill, whether we party away to stay oblivious, or work, all our fun, our work, our achievements, our leisure, our mercies and cruelties, are all in the service of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth, and we’ll all end up in the ground.

The repetition in that last line is the poetry, I think. It’s almost a song. In my head I hear: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time”.

That’s a lot for a sixth grader to take in. I wonder what happened to him. I wonder if he continued to be set apart from his classmates, or if he forgot his violation, the nun’s violation, and joined the mudfest.

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