Contributor’s Marginalia: Traci O’Dea Muses on “Will You Tell Me if You Will” by Marielle Prince

October 8, 2012

Even though it’s sixteen lines instead of fourteen, I want to call this poem a lazy sonnet. Not lazy in a derogatory sense. Lazy in a sexy, salty, Southern, too-hot-to-do-anything-other-than-sit-here-and-fan-myself sort of way. Like a heat wave. I live in the Caribbean, so if this poem came from here, and I wanted to classify it as a sonnet, then it would be a sonnet on island time. Island time is not lazy. It’s just laid back, as in, “life’s too short to stress about getting anywhere too fast.” Like Julia Alvarez’s sonnets (also Caribbean). But all this talk about heat and islands has nothing to do with the poem other than its structure. It is open. With those spaces in the middle of each line, like forced caesuras, making the reader pause before every “or.” For example, the first stanza reads:

The question was red it was on her mouth           or it was black it was

penciled in around her eyes                        or the mark of it slung around her

waist                     or dangled from her ears              or it hung down her back

it swayed like the hypnotist’s watch chain                            or chimes in a soft

breeze not quite making a sound

The structure of this poem works in its favor. If instead of the caesuras, the poet had used line breaks before each “or,” then the poem would lose its sexy, lazy, open vibe. It would read more staccato and almost robotic, like this:

The question was red it was on her mouth

or it was black it was penciled in around her eyes

or the mark of it slung around her waist

or dangled from her ears

or it hung down her back it swayed like the hypnotists watch chain

or chimes in a soft breeze not quite making a sound

The Walking Lesson, Jacek Yerka

“Will You Tell Me if You Will” is also, starting from the title, almost palindromic. Palindromes are circular in content but linear in form. This poem’s linear content circles back on its self, encouraging the reader to begin anew as the “she” in the poem begins each day with the same question on her lips—a question that is never asked or answered. The “hypnotist’s watch chain” in the fourth line mimics the palindromic movement of the poem. The hypnotist can move his watch like a pendulum or in a circular fashion. But all I’m really trying to say is that the poem has a hypnotic, tide-like pace that speeds up and slows down. The first stanza starts furtively, like the question is destined to be asked and answered, but then we lose the question and only have “the mark of it”—a question mark—which is then “slung around her waist,” so by the time we get to the “chimes in a soft / breeze not quite making a sound,” the pace has slowed down to let the reader know that this question is probably not going to happen. And the fact that this question will not be asked has been long accepted by the speaker.

The second stanza starts much more pragmatically: “You saw the question,” it says. Unlike in the first stanza where every new metaphor built on the one before, in the second stanza, each metaphor turns the previous one on its head.

You saw the question                  or looking right at it didn’t see                           or

you saw and its language was foreign                     or too familiar to notice

or you saw it you covered it quickly with your hands as if it were

shameful             or yours to guard             or full sun in the direction

you were headed

So, in this case, the palindrome has transformed into a metronome—moving back and forth, without any forward trajectory or circular nature. This stanza offers opposites struggling against each other like magnets—equally strong when the metaphor has moved to each pole—yes, the question’s language was foreign; yes, it was too familiar to notice. Even though the “or” (instead of an “and”) before each proposed metaphor tells the reader that it is not all these things, the poem and its magnetic nature still suggest that the question can be all those things at once.

The three stanzas can be separated into Her, You, and Them, with the Her and You making the argument that would typically be made in a sonnet’s octet. The third stanza is the Them, in that both the Her and the You appear, and this makes up the resolution of the sestet. Up until this point, the Her and the You had not interacted, even though the relationship was implied. The third stanza brings them together with one, intimate hypothetical, metaphorical gesture: “or you unclasped the question behind her back.” The Her and the You are also brought together through the combination of the two previous stanza’s implementation of the metaphors—in the third stanza, some of the metaphors build on their predecessors while others oppose.

And her eyes were closed           or they were open and she was blinded

or you unclasped the question behind her back                 or she sighed and

laid it aside herself          or she dropped it and found it in the morning

and hid it under her clothes        or saved it and went to bed with it as

if it were you                     or the dark          or an alarm set to wake her the

same each day

I’m not typically a fan of unpunctuated poems. Nor do I like clumsy line breaks on words like “the,” but “Will You Tell me if You Will” works without traditional grammar and punctuation and, even, a line break on an article. Again, the structure reinforces the breathy rhythm of the poem that has unconventional pauses and cyclical momentum. Had the poem ended with the line “the same each day,” it would’ve snapped shut—something of which I am typically a fan. But Marielle Prince’s poem has been, so far, set up not to snap shut, so the ending line could not have been anything other than an arbitrary, unforced line break that leads the reader to start the poem again. The best poems lead the reader back to the beginning, and “Will You Tell Me if You Will” does so through both its content and its structure. Lastly, I applaud the editors of 32 Poems for selecting a poem that fits so well with an issue that also seems to flow in a cyclical pattern—starting and ending with Dante and with the same hypnotic, tide-like pace throughout. This issue (like this poem) feels like a record album—conscientious and cohesive.

Traci O’Dea

Traci O’Dea lives in the British Virgin Islands where she is an English lecturer. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Measure, Unsplendid, and others. She is an Associate Editor for Smartish Pace.

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