Right now, in order to begin writing a few words on Marielle Prince’s fantastic poem “Will You Tell Me if You Will,” I’m pulling myself away from Facebook, where I’m embroiled in an entirely useless flame war about women’s reproductive rights and the misogyny of current conservative politics. Now, I wouldn’t usually mention this. (Academia has almost managed to beat the conversational and personal voice out of my serious writing.) I bring it up, though, because it strikes me as apropos that I’m having this particular political conversation while thinking about this particular poem.
It might seem like a stretch, I admit. But I’m on maybe my sixth reading of Prince’s poem, and somewhere around the third read it started seeming sort of…well, not sort of, but blatantly and uncompromisingly…feminist 1. The female subject of this poem’s experience is simultaneously brazen, complicated and confused, which makes the poem exciting. But it is also a quintessentially female experience, which makes the poem truly relevant.
The piece cleverly begins with “the question,” an unspecified query that the subject of the poem puts on like jewelry, like an accessory. This unspoken question is sometimes stylized (“penciled in around her eyes”), sometimes organic to her environment (swaying like “chimes in a soft breeze”) but—like a face full of makeup or a firm handshake—always inseparable from the identity she must show to the world. That Prince omits the actual question is a stroke of artistic brilliance; by doing this, the female subject in red lips and kohl eyeliner becomes every woman, and the question becomes any inquiry into identity and artifice 2. All at once, the subject of the poem embodies that ubiquitous feminine investigation: who am I and who should I be to the world?
But just when you think you know where you stand in this poem, the second stanza shifts everything. The speaker of the poem is no longer looking at the “her” of the subject, no longer watching her wield her well-coifed and mysterious question. Now, the speaker of the poem is looking at, discussing, dissecting “you.” You are now implicated in this question and, more importantly, in making sure the question is examined and answered.
The you in this stanza isn’t doing such a great job at it, either. “You saw the question.” “You covered it quickly” in shame. You “didn’t see.”
Is the “you” just us? The readers? Or is there a specific object that the speaker is addressing: a stand-in for the male gaze, for some douchebag ex-boyfriend, for her father or mother or society in general? Who knows? The point is, by pointing outward, the poem smartly loosens the net of its observation just enough to invite us personally in. We’re caught in it now, forcing ourselves to answer our own overwhelming questions about how we see and judge others, women, competition, men, the world 3.
By the last stanza, we’re able to see the many ways the female subject might be subdued or restrained from answering her question, and from fighting against objectification. She might be blinded to the question’s existence in the first place, or brainwashed into believing it is unimportant, or distracted by the need to be attractive, or by the need to please others.
The last line, though, is what brings these ideas home, while introducing the most obvious, but also the saddest, possibility. Prince ends by saying that the question that hangs in the air might be “an alarm set to wake her the same each day.” It’s this resignation—this assertion that life’s daily goings on can put even the most important questions to rest—that feels tragic and true, together. Maybe that’s why I thought of Eliot’s “Prufrock” poem in the first place…he ends it with ”Till human voices wake us, and we drown,” indicating that the numbing spin of daily life continues, despite the metaphysical goings-on in our heads. And while this is true for both men and women, Prince’s last line, for me, feels specific to women. Many of us wake up each day expected to put our needs aside for other people (children, of course, but family too, and bosses, and…you fill in the blank). Many of us do that willingly, the expectation fully our own. But either way, in this light ending the poem on the alarm clock and the similarly of the speaker’s days seems especially poignant.
Now, a caveat. This commentary is almost certainly over-politicized; I attribute this to my state of mind while writing it. What I do love, however, is that poetry can work like that. Prince might have meant this as an awesomely engaging and well-disguised feminist manifesto, or she may have been aptly describing a time in her own life during which she felt especially powerless, or she may be commenting on someone we don’t know, or no one at all. It might be about some chick she met in a bar, or about her mom, or about my mom. But that is not the point. The greatest poetry allows you—the reader— to put your own most present passion on its shoulders. This poem fulfills that in spades, with room on its shoulders to spare.
Also, it’s a kick ass read. Seriously 4. Poems that live in a box do very little for me; the poems I like best sweat, they breathe and pant and curse and cry and cackle. I’m a fan of poetry that asks you to do linguistic work, of poems that use white space and prose form in a distinctive way, of poets who put it all on the line. This poem and this poet do all of that, and I, for one, am a new Marielle Prince fan.
1. I truly hope she doesn’t blanche at that word the way some do—the way I sometimes do—since by saying it I’m complimenting, above all else, her artistry. Because this poem does what most poems, at their core, seek to do: it offers a window into a truth of experience, without sugar coating, but also without politicking.
2. Like Eliot’s “overwhelming question” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock,” Prince wants us not to “ask what is it.” In lieu of examining the question, Prince invites us on a journey into the poem subject’s experience. The difference here, though, is significant. In Prufrock, we are along for the ride inside the subject’s head, but not in Prince’s poem. Both have elements of stream of consciousness, but it’s important that Prince’s speaker is looked at, she is not, like Prufrock, doing the viewing. This objectification compounds my point, as it’s so very indicative of the artistic (and political) gaze toward women and their worth.
4. Despite the seriousness of the dissection I’ve done, I should mention that my least favorite thing about contemporary poetry is that is rarely seems like fun. I don’t mean funny, or even silly….I’m not limiting poetry like that. I understand its capacity to tackle the really hard subjects. However, when a poem is fun for the writer, when you can really see the writer getting a kick out of it, the reader also has fun reading it, regardless of its relative somberness or levity. And I had fun reading this.
Jessica Piazza‘s first full-length collection of poems, Interrobang, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2013. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is co-founder of Bat City Review, an editor at Gold Line Press, a contributing editor at The Offending Adam and has blogged for The Best American Poetry and Barrelhouse. Her poem, “Strict Traffic,” appears with Marielle Prince’s “Will You Tell Me if You Will” in 32 Poems 10.1.