Two Griefs

April 13, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Katy Didden on “Double Portrait” by Brittany Perham

The first poem that stood out to me in this issue was “Double Portrait [Years ago when the men left the women]” by Brittany Perham. I was drawn in first by the humor, then by the syntax, and then by the curious way Perham pluralizes narrative. But this poem (let’s call it Poem B) is the right side of a diptych, and the title keeps leading me to understand the poem in relation to the one that precedes it (Poem A), a poem I also admire.

Though Poem A  (“Double Portrait [Everyone’s writing poems for the dead]”) uses one of the most innovative mirror forms of repeated end-words I’ve seen, the two poems together aren’t identical mirrors. They treat different subjects, for starters, and they are written from different points of view. But they do resemble each other: each occupies about the same amount of space on a page, and each uses humor and conversational diction. I have to say, the more I read one poem in light of the other, the more I like it, and the more I’m impressed by the dimensions of the double frame. I think this structure unlocks new possibilities for poetry, and that it actually adapts a technique of visual portraiture in a compelling way.

By titling each poem “Double Portrait,” Perham does invoke the interplay between verbal and visual forms.[1] The title also makes me wonder, am I reading two single portraits side by side, or is this a diptych of double portraits? That is to say, are two subjects portrayed in each half? Each poem does portray a different woman whose idiosyncrasies call her into focus (Poem A’s beloved dead returns as a ghost “to tell us something we think we hear/ in her singular smoker’s voice” (9-10), and Poem B’s pining lover paces a widow’s walk “where at least she could see the ocean/ and spit on it and slosh her whisky over it”(23-24), but Perham’s portraits are also oddly, and engagingly, de-localized. How does she do this?  In Poem A, she pluralizes the poet-as-speaker “Everyone’s writing poems for the dead,” and uses the first person plural to describe the process: “even unwillingly/ we crack the brain’s backdoor.” In Poem B, she pluralizes the possibilities for a narrative structure:

Years ago when the men left the women
or the lover left or was left by her lover
and on of them boarded the White-Sailed Ship
bound for one promising continent or the other… (1-4)

So, Perham does not just portray a single woman in each portrait, she also portrays the proliferation of writers writing, which creates, for both poems, an artist-in-the-mirror (or artists-in-the-infinity-mirror) effect.

All that said, I don’t think the poems are ultimately about capturing these women, or even these writers, in detail. These feel more like an attempt to portray the impulses that drive creativity. Perham portrays two griefs—both are losses, both are longings, but one side belongs to thanatos, and one side to eros. What’s amazing is how the two inform each other: in Poem A (thanatos) the lover returns from the dead, “For a second she was more ours/ than she ever really was, entirely ours” and in Poem B (eros) the lover opts not to return, but to stay in “Promising Pioneering Paradise.” And I am moved by the irony of reading these in tandem, and by the implicit argument that we are somehow closer to, and better able to communicate with, loved ones who have died, than with loved ones who are still alive, but gone from us. But this is just one of the permutations that reading thanatos in the light of eros and vice versa allows. Each lays the other bare, and it’s the disarming conclusion of each poem that aligns them: each ends by calling out to an other, and each hopes (against reason) to be answered. And I’m persuaded by this double-sided assertion that it is only in the vulnerable exchange between death and desire, between loss and longing for new life, that all poetry, all art, continues to take shape.

[1] For more on this topic, see Frances Dickey’s terrific book The Modern Portrait Poem from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Ezra Pound.

Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). She has an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, and her work has appeared in many journals such as Kenyon Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, 32 Poems, and Poetry.  A recent Hodder fellow at Princeton University, Katy will be an Assistant Professor at Ball State University this Fall.

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