Pushcart XLII: Rebecca Hazelton, “Gunpowder” (poem) from Southern Indiana Review, Fall 2016

What if I did request that incendiary
                                                  touch, the slow-burn
                    of all too much, the bleaching kiss of a man
who twisted my mouth
                    into the words he wanted to hear?
                                                                                If it’s written, it’s written,
but what’s read differs.

When I saw this poem was nominated by Alan Michael Parker, I expected a twist of wry humor. Maybe that’s the case, and I’ve just had all the humor drained out of me over the past 18 months. The poem is, however, clever, and maybe that’s a better way to think of humor anyway.

The first few lines work with rhyme and rhythm. Some of that carries through – the wordplay of friction and fiction – but I’m left torn between the violence of love and the violence of violence, and why am I so obsessed with violence? I suppose gunpowder comes with its implication of violence, no matter how you arrange the words.

A section in the middle references alchemy, and feels right, even if I’m still not sure where the fire is or what’s being burned. Although alchemy has a rep for being all about turning stuff into gold, it’s really about finding ways to adjust substances by adding and subtracting fire, water, earth, air, and who knows what into the perfect ratio, the expected result being that perfect metal which (in the ancient/medieval mind) is incorruptible. And if metal can be perfected, why not the body? We all remember the factoid that Chinese invented gunpowder, and, by the way, the discovery was made by alchemists looking for the elixir of life, the substance that would purify the body, make it incorruptible. And if the body, why not the soul? Is that what love is, the purification of the soul, and our speaker is purging fire?

So after groping fruitlessly for a while, I turned to Google, and found an interview with exactly what I needed: “…[T]he inspiration for this poem came from Francis Bacon who said the printing, gunpowder and the compass altered ‘the face and state of the world.’ This poem uses composition of gunpowder as a metaphor for a challenging relationship.” As usual, I was trying too hard; it’s really right there on the page.

I said love, and that is a match.
                    I said believe me, and that was powder.

What an interesting change of tense: the saying of love was in the past, but the equating it with a match is in the present; the believing is all in the past. It’s the recognition, perhaps, that love is a match, that is present, a post-game analysis of what went wrong. Believe what? The love? Followed by… the flight of fear, of too much? Or a betrayal that proved the love false?

“I fell into a burning ring of fire” sang Johnny Cash. June Carter wrote the song, about Cash, when he was still married to his first wife. Nothing to do with the poem, really, except.

2 responses to “Pushcart XLII: Rebecca Hazelton, “Gunpowder” (poem) from Southern Indiana Review, Fall 2016

  1. Karen, I was preparing to teach Hazelton’s “Gunpowder” today, after first reading it when the Pushcart came out and I was struggling with some of the questions you are here, about the source of this explosion, and as you have it, the violence of love and the violence of violence…. I saw that interview you mentioned, where Hazelton says its about Bacon, but to me, this almost feels like a #MeToo poem, about how the male kisser in this poem is a n entitled loose cannon (kind of a Kavanaugh type) and the poet/ speaker has to navigate around this unwanted advance. Does that sound plausible to you?
    IDK, maybe the meaning of the poem is the least interesting thing about it, but there’s a seriousness in this poem that pushes it beyond levity and play for me, even though I usually like Hazelton for just those things.

    • Hi Matt – on re-reading the poem, the initial lines seem inescapably #MeToo: “twisted my mouth / into words he wanted to hear….what’s read differs”. Even the “what if I did request that incendiary touch”, or especially, since so often, the slightest admission of attraction is seen as seduction and/or consent for anything that follows.
      But I’m still resisting that tack, maybe just out of stubbornness? Last year’s Pushcart was for me all about context, reading, in the insanity of 2018, pieces that were written in 2016, and trying to resist backreading. But just because the media circus and the hashtag came about in 2017 doesn’t mean everything was fine before then, of course.
      The thing is, the poem still reads to me as if it’s about the power of passion to burn us to the ground, to turn our resolve and our logic into kindling and have us eager to throw them into the flame. I seem to be focused on the fiction/friction line, friction being what happens and fiction being how we explain it, all the system 1/ system 2 stuff, reason as the slave of passion no matter how we try to convince ourselves otherwise. But that’s my obsession;whether or not it’s in the poem I’m unable to say.
      I am, I hope you realize, the opposite of a poetic savant; in fact, I’m quite an idiot, looking at commas and feet when I’m supposed to be hearing music and rhythm, imposing myself upon the text, overreading with gusto. I’m distinctly uneasy writing about poetry, as the many disclaimers I pepper throughout my posts will attest. So when a professor suggests another way of seeing, I take that very seriously. I’m delighted you stopped by and hope you will feel welcome to comment on other poems at any point where you have time and interest. My intent in reading Pushcart is self-education, but when it comes to poetry, I sorely need teaching!

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