Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kerry James Evans on "Leaning in from the Sea"

I tend to remember quite a bit of what I hear. When I began writing “Leaning in from the Sea,” I started with this idea of the “heard” thing: the emotion and the physicality of an experience strained by voice. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth speaks mostly in iambic pentameter before he meets the witches. After he meets the witches, who speak in trochaic tetrameter, his speech changes, and he begins speaking in trochees and often in spondees. He loses his mind. What he hears he then speaks. His actions are then confused by his speech. Often I see this in my work: this disjointed narrative caused by what my narrator has heard. I am a young poet so it comes as no surprise that my narrator—especially in this poem—is struggling to form an identity.

The section breaks offer a shift in tone and logic. This poem is about poverty and class and race and the speaker in this poem has a difficult time understanding the words he heard as a boy. His own syntax imitates what he has heard. However, the real struggle is for him to put these pieces together and come out of the narrative with a hold on his experience. He claims responsibility in some sense I suppose, but he also looks for a way out. He in fact is leaning in from what he has heard—a protective measure—but the underbelly is much darker. His actions are influenced by what he has heard.

For me, this poem came out of a need to understand the landscape that in many ways has shaped me. As a Southern poet I am also writing from a tradition that questions the blood, the decisions and the history of a scarred agrarian society.

I just returned from a visit to Mississippi, where my mother still lives. She has adopted two foster children who are behind in school. She lives in double-wide next to a cornfield next to pine thicket next to another field. There are deer nesting in the pine thicket right now. The fields won’t be plowed for a couple of months. About two miles over, a chemical plant hums day and night. It also glows something awful.

Obviously these are images relative to the trope of this poem. Right now, in “Leaning in from the Sea,” I have yet to come to terms with this “home.” While there is beauty here, I am sure, there is no beauty in what I see, and there is nothing beautiful about this poem. Here there is an inherited blood that moves in my work. And there is a gun. There is mange on the land and there is poverty and racism and ignorance. This is where the poem comes from. As I reread this poem, I am often struck by how flat and void of music it is. I’d like to find that music in future poems. Which is to say that maybe we can broaden the discussion on this forum beyond this particular poem.

When is music necessary? Is lyricism all there is to poetry? In this poem, the narrative strangles the lyricism. These are my thoughts lately. When I wrote this poem, it was catharsis and a search for responsibility, the notion that I could end the narrative with silence. Silence must live in poetry as it must live in the poet. Often a poem wants to escape from what is heard, and in the lyric, we often find beauty and space. Here there is yelling and there is violence. I don’t know that the political can ever be comprehended in a poem, but sometimes what matters must be screamed there.


  1. Unbelievably perceptive, quite on par with poetic criticism, but like always, Kerry, you are too hard on yourself and I guess, in the long run, that's what makes you a great poet.

  2. Toward the latter half of your response to the poem, you seem to backtrack on the subject of your narrative in “Leaning in from the Sea” to consider the continuing issue(s) of heritage, inheritance, blood, etc, and while you don’t consider the poem a failure (although a poem that ends concedes a certain level of failure), you suggest that the language in the poem is flat and void of music, and that perhaps in future poems you’d like to find a musicality.

    Are you suggesting that your language, which is steeped in the “heard”, negates the need for music? Or more likely, are you arguing that musicality is presently impossible without reconciliation? In the poem (both in composition and now response) you’re in it—the southern landscape has not only shaped you, but is still in the process of shaping you. Obviously one could argue that poetry shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the language of the “common man” as Wordsworth put it, but your language here seems more site specific than common—Mississippi double-wide specific. Then again, what is common? White bread and John Mayer?

    That being said, Wordsworth still trafficked heavily in the lyrical vein and argued famously that poetry comes from “powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility.” For me and many others, composition as an exercise is hardly tranquil; however, my surroundings generally are quiet and conducive for composition. To sum up, perhaps the language you’re after (the language you’ve heard) is more site specific than common, thus allowing a flat language to rise to the surface and void the possibility of music. And perhaps your proximity to the material of your narrative influences or prevents the distancing through lyricism.

    To continue the discussion: can lyricism imply distance? Does the proximity of the poet-as-speaker to the subject influence the possibility of language and music? Also, what is the language of the “common man” anymore?


  3. I love the way the poem moves back and forth between the lyrical and the flatly vulgar. The clashing of timbres reveals the beauty in the ugly, one of my favorite things a good poem is wont to do!! Bravissimo, Kerry James.

  4. Thanks all for the commentary--

    Travis, I must say, well-executed points and great ideas all around. I'll try to get at some of what you've said. As far as musicality is concerned: I don't think that lyricism implies distance. Robert Hayden is a great example of this.

    In his poem "Those Winter Sundays," / Speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well. / What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices? /

    Here is musicality at its best. The low-frequency vowels "o" carried from "cold" and the repetition of "know:" the liquid "l's" of "love" and "lonely--" also notice the long "o:" these moments of high lyricism really bring me closer to the tenor in this poem. I can feel the distance between the speaker and his father through his use of sound, but that is not the same as the distance between the speaker and the reader.

    I can also feel how the speaker is tied to his father--across space and time. The speaker implies that he knows at least something about "love's austere and lonely offices."

    That said, I think you've brought up an insightful point about distance. "The beauty in the ugly" as Frank puts it. The difference between Karl's poem and mine: the distance exists between two people and the speaker in his poem is coming to terms with a sense of "knowing" as he matures.

    In "Leaning in from the Sea," the speaker is controlled by many of those experiences and fails to come to terms with the landscape and the ugliness--he's trying, but what he has heard has corrupted not only what he says but how he says it and the actions he chooses to make.

    The musicality seems strangled in this poem, but the rhetorical devices, the syntactical phrasings from things "heard" to things said, seems to infer that the speaker is wrestling with his landscape and heritage. He wants understanding but his language is corrupted by his "heard" landscape.

    Perhaps, when discussing musicality--at least in this poem--the absence of traditional music in this poem is a condition of the speaker at war with himself: the distance between multiple selves: what he is trying to come to terms with.

  5. Leaning in from the Sea relies on rhythm, repetition and diction to give us a window into lives and sensibilities shaped by culture. Even when lines are not italicized to indicate spoken language, we "hear" the voices of the town and its inhabitants. The poem makes a music, stark to be sure, a "rouge music" but a music, like the sound of a dumpster lumbering down the street at dawn, stopping every few feet, raising its arms, wheeze, crash, bottles, trash, crush, then moving on to make that sad music again. This particular stanza, though there are others, is a good example:

    When I lived in Mississippi, where there are no cities,
    only snake pits and psychics,
    I learned young mothers bear children
    out of necessity. Out of loneliness.
    That cotton always needs more hands.

    Repetition: out of/out of. Mississippi, cities, snake pit, psychics, necessity, loneliness.

    I hear music throughout this poem. It's clear the speaker is at a distance from the self, but I don't think it's the absence of music, but the diction, spareness, elision and fragmentation.

  6. I'd like to continue this thread by asking you, Kerry James, how your use of spacing on the page--the white space between phrases and stanzas--corresponds to the sound/vocal quality you are working toward in your current work. Are you hearing a breaking off then lurching into breath? Are you counting out beats in the silence--in other words, is the physical spacing a form of scoring?

  7. Lee,

    There is silence in the section break, but there is also a call and response, a blues move. When writing this poem, I was thinking about hitting a drum. The emphasis on plosives and endstopped lines seemed to add to the puncturing tone. The asterisks and space breaks are meant to heighten the distance between the call and response between sections. The stanzas are meant to do the same, of course.

    I guess what I am saying is yes, the formal structure of this poem, the physical spacing, is a form of scoring in a musical sense.

    In fact, the use of music and hard-hitting monosyllabics give the poem the feel of an experience void of anything beautiful, but in fact it is through the use of hard-hitting plosives and repetition, especially anaphora, that gives this poem its shape.

    I like to think of a poem as an echo chamber. Each line builds on the line before it, then by the end, the poem ripples slowly back line by line, creating a sense of motion, where the poem is an actual living breathing thing rather than a static document of an experience.

    For this poem, then, sound and structure work to create the framework for trauma. The weight of "too much black," "too much ears," and "We'll make" and "We'll train," the anaphora of monosyllabic phrases stack and build to create the framework for trauma.

    To answer your question of counting beats, yes, I always count beats, especially in space, where silence plays the role of loss. Like a drum solo, you have to build with those hard-hitting crazy movements where the call would be: "Sounds Roman. Sounds like soldiers again. Sounds like trumpets," and the response, the more meditative statement: "Religion has always been a coin in the mouth," allows for this sense of "lurching."

    The section break is the denoument, the transition, and the silence that allows for the meditative statement to hold power and grace, which I work so hard for my poems to achieve.

  8. Hello KJE,

    When I first read your poem, it struck me as being fluent and (yes) musical. After rereading it, I caught myself thinking of muffled drums (that was before I read your comment mentioning 'beats' and drums). One line stands apart, it is like a sonorous fall, a sudden ray of light, or even a sigh: 'Always leaning in from the sea.' As if in that single line you are truly 'coming to terms' (of your own, that fit you; terms always being second-hand), as opposed to getting rid of terms or words of others, or events that just happened, brutal, traumatic, reality.
    This moment in the poem, the change in music coupled beautifully with change in content; you (briefly) appearing, makes it, I find, a wonderful poem.

  9. Johan,

    Thanks so much for the kind words. I agree with you about the sonorous fall of "Always leaning in from the sea." When I was writing the poem early on, before revision, that was the line where I felt a sense of relief.