The Cure

March 30, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Rob Griffith on “Bald” by Enid Shomer

I should admit it at the beginning: I’m a sucker for a good poem about mortality.  Give me Death sweeping into the room in a swirl of black, flashing his bone-grin left and right at the crowded café tables, and I’m in.  Let him point a bony digit at some couple sharing their dessert, and I’m in love myself, watching with rapt attention as he chooses a deathly conga-line to follow him back to the Underworld.

But, better than all that is the rare poem that contemplates our fragility, our essential humanity, with subtlety and dignity, the poem that takes us where we fear to go and makes us glad for the journey.  Such a poem is Enid Shomer’s wonderful “Bald,” a meditation on nature, evolution, and death which leads the reader gently from a consideration of those things that approximate baldness to the bald fact of the speaker’s cancer itself.

The speaker opens this poem of tercets by saying that “everything wants to be smooth”: cue balls, eggs, the handles of tools, and even “the newel post worn to satin / by generations rushing up / and down stairs scooped out, thinned / like the bowls of spoons.”  And with this language (“worn,” “generations,” “scooped out,” “thinned”), the speaker begins to tap lightly on the reader’s subconscious, to suggest, perhaps, that the motion of life itself is one of ablation, something that smoothes us down, hollows us out, and leaves us (as she says later of languages such as Latin and Chinese) “simplified,” “till every word / was good for any part of speech:”

I own a dog, I dog the dog,
I have dog breath,
I walk dogly . . .

Yet this gentle and momentary humor is simply a respite before the scene darkens.  Now the speaker contemplates the “beauties of use,” the smoothness of “ivory pistol grips,”

And splendor of splendors,
evolution, that plucked the vulture’s
head for dipping in guts unhindered

by plumes….

Here we have moved far from the smooth, beautiful, Platonic world of cue balls, tools, and plumage.  Here we’re confronted, uncomfortably, with actual viscera and the violence of death’s aftermath.  The speaker goes on to say she thinks of her “own lost / hair like that—not as the cost / of killing deadly cells, but a sleek / mutation.”  In other words, in Nature’s grip as all of us are, the speaker sees her change more as transfiguration than mere transformation.  She is whittled to her essentials; she herself is a “splendor of splendors”; and she needs only the barest language to convey the facts that matter to her now: “I own a dog, I dog the dog….”

And so, in the final stanza, instead of a banal pronouncement on the democracy of death, the speaker surprises us instead by tipping her “Yankee blue” ballcap to “nature’s / thrift, to cure.”  In the face of suffering and possible annihilation, she acknowledges Nature’s primacy and gives us a grammatical puzzle that allows us to see this condition in two startlingly different ways: on the one hand, she’s tipping her hat to a “cure”—the speaker has not given in to despair, to fatalism.  On the other hand, however, it’s possible to also read that final (startlingly truncated) line as a tip of the hat to “nature’s thrift,” nature’s ability to pare us down to our core—that is the “cure,” the cure for “generations rushing” and for “Barbarian hordes,” for all the messy, complicated distractions that life provides.

It’s a beautiful poem made more beautiful by its lyric simplicity, a contemplation of mortality that does something rare and wonderful—it says something new.

Rob Griffith’s latest book, The Moon from Every Window (David Robert Books, 2011), was nominated for the 2013 Poets’ Prize; and his previous book, A Matinee in Plato’s Cave, was the winner of the 2009 Best Book of Indiana Award.  His work has appeared in PN Review, Poetry, The North American Review, Poems & Plays, The Oxford American, and many others. He is the editor of the journal Measure and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Evansville, Indiana.

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