In his essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Paul Valéry claims that prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing. Prose thus calls upon a language that is more transparent, more intent on getting from place to place, more utilitarian than poetry that would relish the expressivity of bodies as they move. His analogy makes of the practice of the prose poem an odd spectacle indeed, walking and dancing at the same time, casting off the hesitations of the line break for something less removed, more dressed down, and yet, as a poem, called upon to open and intensify in spite and in light of the missing architecture. The very word “prose poem” conditions our expectation, wherein we might slow down and look to the language to give us more, to radiate a bit of a poem’s complexity and fire.
The strange lyricism in the poem “Strict Traffic” by Jessica Piazza offers precisely that kind of generosity. With the authenticating informality of prose, it deploys all the swift movement, conceptual resonance, emotive intensity, and musicality of the lyric and so negotiates a territory between poetry and prose, between the luster of the one and the bedrock of the other. “I hunt. I haunt,” the speaker says, and the prevailing spirit of incantation summons a vision of the dead body as partly hers, partly that of “her bloodline,” that foundation below that bears the traffic of the living.
The music here is key to the spell of the poem, but so too is the suppleness of associative logic and argument that moves from subjunctive to declarative, deeper into faith where the speaker sorts through the bewilderment of grief with a wit that, through its speed and careful tonal pitch, gives grief its thoughtful vocation: “only rubble settles; people don’t.” So the dead are alive and yet not; they are the stuff of earth and yet not; they bear the weight of us and our traffic, and yet they walk with us, in us, in the mourner we meet, in the walking coffin of her body. One dead man in particular, revealed finally as the speaker’s father, as more openly personal and yet transubstantiated into archetype, haunts her, as she too haunts him, such that contradiction becomes a form of precision in the poem, of voicing the reciprocity in her felt relation to the dead.
In all its meaningful oddity, the poem exemplifies a broad sensibility—both soulful and meditative, heartsick and resilient, austerely physical and imaginatively rich. Thus, as the poem develops, we might feel increasingly the tension of opposites as they proliferate. We might sense a strictness to the traffic here, a dynamic force beyond control and yet disciplined, as all good poems are, by the pressure of emotional necessity to find its own “transubstantiation,” its own redeeming grace in the raw materials of “wet and salt” and the words they leave behind.
Bruce Bond’s recent and forthcoming collections include Choir of the Wells (Etruscan Press, forthcoming), The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (Finalist, The Poet’s Prize, LSU, 2008). His poems “Crown” and “Winter” appeared with Jessica Piazza’s “Strict Traffic” in 32 Poems 10.1.