Pushcart 2021 XLV: Leila Chatti, “The Rules” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, May 29, 2019

Van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhône
There will be no stars—the poem has had enough of them. I think we can agree
we no longer believe there is anyone in any poem who is just now realizing
they are dead, so let’s stop talking about it. The skies of this poem
are teeming with winged things, and not a single innominate bird.
You’re welcome. Here, no monarchs, no moths, no cicadas doing whatever
they do in the trees.

Back when I used to read submission requirements, I always smiled when I saw the dictum: NO RHYMING POETRY. Rhyme is so 19th century, so tenth-grade English class. We’ve moved beyond that now.

Apparently, there are additional rules. As the speaker lists them, I remembered: oh, this is paralepsis (yes, I had to look up the word even though I recognized the device), a form of irony and a clever way to bring them all into the poem, make it a celebration of the forbidden.

But why all the prohibitions in the first place? Because they’re not cool. They’re not cutting edge. We did that thing with the tree and the tiger and the daffodils already, we need to move on to new territory, and if your heart is moved by stars – or trees, or tigers, or daffodils – that’s just too bad. You’re stuck in the past, maybe take up book collecting and find your joy in those dusty volumes instead of turning conteporary poetry to mush.

And its that theme again, the theme the works in this anthology keep circling back to: irony vs. sincerity, cynicism vs. hope, where the earnest is intolerable while sneer and scorn and hard, sleek edges meet with approval.

I thought I was overreading again – I mean, come on, I must be stuck on this topic, seeing it everywhere, it can’t really be everywhere, can it? – but then I came across the poet’s contributor note:

I spent much of the last year unable to write. When I tried to listen to my interior, what I heard was a cacophony of accumulated voices telling me what a poem should be, what a poem should do—and, more disturbingly, what it shouldn’t. I began this poem as a genuine attempt to follow the rules I had internalized, but as I wrote the poem, I was interrupted by a strong urge to instead write about something that broke them—I wanted to write about the walk I took the night prior, in Madison, Wisconsin, and the brief, vital moment of joy that indicated my year-long depression might finally lift. I knew this risked sentimentality, earnestness, and vulnerability, things I had been told to guard against, but I was tired of the rules—I wanted to write the real thing, even if it wasn’t the ‘right’ thing. So I did.”

Leila Chatti, poets.org

Paralepsis isn’t the only tool in this poem. I love her enjambments, mid-sentence line breaks that start you thinking in one direction then turn you around when you hit the next line. For example: “This poem has no children; it is trying /” leaves me thinking it’s trying to have children, but no: “ / to be taken seriously” as we all know a poem with children in it must be dabbling by some sentimental fool.  Or the even more abacadabrous “no one / dies or is dead in this poem, everyone in this poem is alive and pretty” which is a pretty complete thought in itself, all the alive, pretty people, but again, the next stanza surprises us: “okay with it,” turning pretty into something else.

Then there’s the two-line stanza form. In the past, I’ve thought of that as a conversation between two people, even as walking (though terza rima kind of has that one nailed) but here, it’s more about this two-pole dichotomy, the tired (rhyme, stars, children) and the wired, which the speaker never really identifies. I’m thinking paralepsis, clever enjambments, and form emphasizing function might be within the Rules.

This poem will not use the word beautiful for it resists
calling a thing what it is. So what
if I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the first time
in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I mean. Oh hell, before
something stops me — I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them all.

What a great ending. First, she ends with a single line: she has chosen a side after all. Then there’s that wonderful surprising enambment from “So what”: the ultimate in cynicism, the smart-ass answer to allt he sentiment, that resolves into this burst of earnest vulnerability she mentions in her Note, a burst that is made even more powerful by the denial that has preceded it.

I’m reminded of a Pushcart piece from a few years ago, Pam Houston’s essay “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” in which she too defends sincerity against the Seinfeldesque quality of contemporary life. But here, the speaker uses irony and its variations (like paralepsis) to pay homage to the light of stars.

A long time ago, in some book I don’t remember, I read something like: “I was the rock and she the tide, but it’s the tide that shapes the rock.” Much more recently, I discovered that a couple of millennia ago Lao Tzu wrote: “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water. Yet, to attack the hard and strong, nothing surpasses it. Nothing can take its place.” We’ve left all we perceive as soft – vulnerability, earnestness – behind in favor of strength and power. As Houston asked, has this really been a screaming success?

* * *

Complete poem and Contributor Note available online at Poets.Org

Chatti reads the poem on the Academy of American Poets Soundcloud channel

One response to “Pushcart 2021 XLV: Leila Chatti, “The Rules” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, May 29, 2019

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2021 XLV: Click to End | A Just Recompense

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