Contributor’s Marginalia: James Henry Knippen on “Burn the Scarecrow” by Luke Johnson
Thus far, most of the Contributors’ Marginalia in response to selections from 32 Poems 11.1 has shown a strong commitment to the analysis of musicality, and how could it not? So many of the poems in this issue are music-driven and even speak to the power of sound as a dictating force. Inevitability clashes with surprise to produce tantalizing effects.
But sound can be just as admirable when functioning in subtler ways. Luke Johnson’s “Burn the Scarecrow” demonstrates this. While the poem certainly exhibits Johnson’s aptitude for music, it reads to me as being more meaning-driven than sound-driven. And yet the poem’s sounds enhance its themes throughout.
One such example is Johnson’s use of assonance, particularly his distinctive use of the long e, which maps the intensity of two of the poem’s themes: otherworldliness and mortal experience.
The first half of the poem crescendos toward an otherworld. The poem begins with memory, “the smell of a match gone out,” and builds to a half-way point in which the scarecrow becomes “an effigy burning itself to a cross,” after the “chemo-ravaged” mother has made the strange request that the scarecrow be incinerated. Given the connotations of the word “cross,” along with the suggestion of self-sacrifice, the reader has no choice but to consider the otherworldly implications this “effigy” embodies, especially in the context of life-threatening illness.
The long e guides the reader toward this otherworldliness with growing intensity. This progression begins with “sleeves” packed with cornsilk and “heat” on palms, which at this early point in the poem could just as easily suggest a sort of coziness. Then the reader is introduced to the mother ravaged by “chemo,” and the innocence that marked the initial long e sounds is replaced by a looming sense of death. The scarecrow’s shirt is then doused with “kerosene,” which lends an incendiary dread to the previous mentions of “heat” and burning, as well as deeper sense of physical harm in the context of “chemo,” before the scarecrow’s fate as a blazing “effigy” on a cross is realized. This spiritually tinged culmination casts the ache for and of an impending afterlife onto the more earthly images that precede it.
The poem does not end here, however, and neither does the use of the long e. The otherworldly intensity that marked the effigy subsides—wind “sweeps” smoke and ash in the fire’s wake from the sky. The crows and the corn assume their routine role of staring. But as the scarecrow is approached, the reader is asked to “feel” sizzling sweat on the forehead, an uncomfortable bodily experience that is heightened when made akin to the sensation of being stung by thousands of “bees.” Despite the poem’s consistent dreamlike qualities, this escalation of corporeal intensity, which climaxes with such an excruciating familiarity, stands in dramatic contrast to the prior push toward an otherworldly perspective. In this way, Johnson stresses the fervor that both existing in this world and thinking about the possibility of another bring to the human experience. And sound leads us there.
—James Henry Knippen
James Henry Knippen’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, West Branch, Hayden’s Ferry Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is an AWP Intro Journal Award winner and poetry editor of Newfound. He currently lives in Texas, where he teaches first-year English at Texas State University-San Marcos.