Carpe Diem is alive and well and living in Maine.
edited: Monday, December 18, 2006
By S. Donovan Mullaney
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006
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Review of "A Little Bit of Timely Advice" by Mekeel McBride, as found in "The Maine Poets: an anthology" by Wesley McNair.
Carpe diem is alive and well and living in Downeast Maine. That is, readers might certainly believe so after reading Mekeel McBride's free verse poem, "A Little Bit of Timely Advice." McBride blends colloquial speech with poetic technique to deliver a tight, six-stanza poem packed with the no-nonsense, pick-yourself-up philosophy so characteristic of her home State.
Written in the second voice, it's easy to imagine the poem's narrator as eighty-six year old Aunt Hazel coming over with coffee in a thermos and two slices of pie to impart plainspoken wisdom to a loved one in danger of losing herself to grief. (One could also imagine the same Aunt Hazel delivering this advice to herself in her kitchen on a dim morning in the long Maine winter.) There's no condescension here. The timely advice in this poem, i.e., the "best / music's the stuff that comes / rising out of nothing", has been personally lived.
Each stanza starts with very short lines of one or two words. Each then opens into one or two longer lines, then resolves with shorter lines. This slows the reader down as though the characters have created space and time for the reader to listen to the poem's pithy advice.
The brevity of the lines allows both the poem's colloquial dialogue ("Time you / put on", "You been", "Best / music's the stuff comes") as well as its original, surprisingly homey images ("crying / salty dead-fish lakes / into soup / spoons", "look-alike / contests with doom", and "lion- / looking-for food / music") to stand out. This choice allows the poem to avoid being overwhelmed by its message, although it remains in fact "timely advice."
The first and last stanzas are complete, ending with a period. The middle four are enjambed, both the stanzas and the lines within. This demonstrates the author's carefully deliberate structure. Although the poem isn't a classical syllogism, it's definitely an argument.
The first stanza states the narrator's position: "Time you / put on blue / shoes, high- / heeled, sequined, took / yourself out / dancing." Evidence and arguments are presented in the middle four, whose enjambment pulls the reader through to the conclusion in the final stanza: "You say / you got no / makings for / a song? Sing anyway."
The first three stanzas build a sense of grief that has deepened over a lengthy stretch of time. The subject is moving downward through "crying... into soup spoons" and "doom", to her nadir -the image of an almost ruined garden.
The turning point comes with the enjambed imperative "Crank up" in the fourth stanza. From there, McBride's upward imagery builds on her line length and rhythm create a sense of waking up, coming out from under grief: "all indigo breathing up / sunrise", "up and over", "rising out of nothing". This completes the argument; we've moved from the short first line, "Time you", to the last, "rising out of nothing".
Another lovely aspect of this poem is McBride's artful use of opposing assonance. She uses the 'u' vowel sound in both its long and short forms. Words with the long 'u' sound, e.g., "blue", "you", "soup", "spoon", "doom", "ruin", "moving", "use", "food", and "music", form the backbone of the narrator's advice. The long sounds occur most often in nouns, giving them greater worldliness or permanence.
Opposing this, short 'u' sounds echo the depression of the subject character, e.g., "put", "took", "much", "unplanting", "looking", "just", "another", "stuff", and "nothing." The short sounds mostly occur in verb forms and adjectives, things that happen and pass or are mere aspects of something greater, i.e., the aforementioned nouns.
Free verse serves this poem well-poetically and philosophically. While the carpe diem theme has enjoyed formal expression, notably in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", here the theme relies on the conversational tone to avoid didacticism. This poem could not have been written in formal metric verse for the simple reason that people no longer speak in verse. Free verse is the poetry of our time, hence "timely."
Philosophically speaking, free verse has both a looseness and a freshness. A Little Bit of Timely Advice reminds us that we need these qualities to experience life in the face of suffering. As in any art, a free verse writer must master form and technique to transcend it. Free verse is a poet's snow globe, devices and techniques the snowflakes within. The flakes are themselves beautiful, but when they settle, the heart of the globe becomes visible. The heart is what we look for; the heart is why we go on.
A Little Bit of Timely Advice
Reprinted without permission under public's right of fair use.
put on blue
heeled, sequined, took
much time crying
salty dead-fish lakes
contests with doom. Baby,
you need to be moving. Ruin
ruins itself, no
of your garden. Crank up
the old radio into lion-
music; or harmonica
all indigo breathing up
sunrise. Down and
out's just another
up and over.
you got no
a song? Sing anyway. Best
music's the stuff comes
rising out of nothing.