Contributor’s Marginalia: Rebecca Morgan Frank on “Personal Ruin” by Claire Wahmanholm
Haven’t you ever wanted to sit down with your nemesis, look her in the eye, and confront her? What if this nemesis was an undesirable state of mind? The instigator of your own personal ruin? Yourself?
Claire Wahmanholm’s poem “Personal Ruin” offers up such a scene with rollicking music and a wry playful tone and turn. I’ve always loved Frost’s line “If it’s a wild tune, it is a Poem,” and, I’ll confess, I skim poems for sound before deciding if I want to read them. “Personal Ruin” immediately swept me up into its wild tune from the first stanza:
dear hangdog, homely glumness,
dear vinegar chagrin,
I know I’d find you here,
where you’ve always been.
May I sit? I begin,
Then sit, sip gin and ginger ale,
play with my napkin, rip it to snippets.
Wahmanholm makes it all sound so easy that you could almost take the moves of this poem for granted; we’ve heard this sort of epistolary address of the inanimate before. But as Emerson says in “The Poet,” “Talent may frolic and juggle; genius realizes and adds,” and while Wahmanholm frolics beautifully, juggling sound and wit here, she’s clearly interested in something more. Substantial frolicking. She pokes fun– makes glumness homely, has her speaker cordially address the states of mind the poem has introduced through another mode of address. Then the movement of the poem, the real movement below the frolicking, begins with that perfect last gesture of fiddling and destroying the disposable object, the napkin. The self-conscious act faces off with the bravado of the tune itself.
The second stanza begins with an echo of the first. “Dear bad blood,” riffs off of “Dear blahs,” and we meet the repetition of bad across blood, news, ends, and eggs. It is the next line that fully wins me over to the poem as it keeps the poem moving in thought as well as tune: “how many feet can we fit/ in our mouths?” the speaker asks. Suddenly ruin isn’t just a state of mind, or bad luck, it’s something we do to ourselves, without accident, with an absurd intention of going as far as possible. There is not just one foot, or many feet, but the willful and visceral defiance of shoving in as many as possible. The stanza whirls on: “let’s all choose poorly/get drunk and surly/hurl on someone’s shows/leave the party early.” Poorly, surly, hurl, and early! It’s a playful avalanche of rhymes that we have to forgive because, well, this is fun! The pace embodies the unstoppable progression of self-inflicted ruin. We are frolicking faster and faster, yet it is not just the sound hurtling us forward. It is the wit of accumulation and magnification.
The end of the poem grows almost giddy, with the delights of a lobbed “baleful apple” and all sorts of swinging and slinging of deadly weapons: “swing a ring of gasoline around my bed,/sling me a million/pinless grenades/fix me in your headlights./Gun it.” The speaker eggs on imagined obliterations with gusto. It is not enough to invoke them or to bait them, however. The speaker ensures her own demise by moving towards the elements of ruin.
“I’ll come running,’ Wahmanholm ends the poem. I’d run towards personal ruin myself if it could always sound like this.
—Rebecca Morgan Frank
Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of Little Murders Everywhere ( Salmon 2012), a finalist for the Kate Tufts Award, and her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Guernica, The Georgia Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Best New Poets 2008 and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is the co-founder and editor of the online magazine Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction.