Column: Music of Fragments

By Carol Dorf for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on March 1, 2010

With this post, Carol kicks off her column for WRB, “Music of Fragments," in which she hopes "to look at the divergent musics of our poetry communities." The column title, Carol says, "originates with several poems by Muriel Rukeyser. In 'The Poem as Mask,' Orpheus speaks the line 'the fragments join in me with their own music.' In 'Akiba,' Rukeyser also uses the idea of different elements of the community carrying music through the world."


Let me put it out there, I'm a sucker for narrative, fragments of story. Maybe it is the experience of listening to my grandmother Elsie and one of her friends, Florence, talk through other people's lives and fragments of the news, war, the draft, social security—the experience of being a child sitting slightly out of their sight-line so I could keep listening.

Lately, I find myself being drawn to prose poems. Their narrative, more fragmentary than fiction, often blurs the distinction between dream and daily life. Here is one of Ana Maria Shua's Microfictions:

Misfortunes Hung Out to Dry

One night, poor thieves steal the clothes I've hung out to dry. The next night, I hang out my (well-wrung) misfortunes, made wet by grief. The next morning, I'm definitely happy.

In this short narrative, we are tricked by the straightforward syntax into believing that since one set of things that can be hung out to dry is stolen, so can another.

The Pleasure of the Line: Often when we define poetry, we think of experience broken into lines, perhaps metrical ones like Emily Dickinson's, or Aphra Behn's; or the short unrhymed line (often six to eight syllables) of many twentieth century poets such as the late Lucille Clifton or William Carlos Williams. In these poems, line breaks both propel us through the poems and allow for a doubleness of meaning.

Other ways of using the line include formal and invented structures such as Annie Finch's or Marilyn Hacker's frequent use of traditional forms, or Rusty Morrison's use of a very structured invented form in The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story, where every section consists of three three-line stanzas, always ending in the words "stop," "please," or "please advise." In these poems, form contains feeling or experience, structuring it both for reader and writer.

Dream and the Prose Poem: So why give up the line break and form? Holly Iglesias in her book Boxing Inside the Box: Women's Prose Poetry sees the box as a metaphor for gender roles that constrain and contain women. I think this is true for some women's prose poetry, such as Nin Andrew's "Adolescence":

The winter her body no longer fit, walking felt like swimming in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Everything stuck to her skin: gum wrappers, Band-Aids, leaves. How she envied the other girls, especially the kind who turned into birds. They were the ones boys hand-tamed, training them to eat crumbs from their palms or sing on cue. What she would have done for a red crest and a sharp beak, for a little square of blue sky to enter her like wings... if only her buttons were unfastened by the water she kept swimming through, and she could extract from the shadow of her breasts a soul as soft as a silk brassiere, beautiful and useless, like a castle at the bottom of the sea.

Andrew's narrator would like to join the other girls, but is unable to be "hand-tamed," perhaps because she retains a soul, which in the world she inhabits is "beautiful and useless."

Opening the Language of Poetry: One of the goals of women's writing in the last 45 years has been to open a wider variety of experience to poetry. Here’s a prose poem by Emily Galvin from Do the Math that deals with the issue of time:

When you count time, how fast do you count? One, two, three: how long are the breaths you breathe and how long is your voice speaking? I try to keep the numbers spaced out evenly but even so, my breathlessness overtakes me, and by inhalation I stretch time. This expansion like a massive object, this breath like gravity. As the clock leaves the world of its creation, it ticks faster, its tiny tachycardia a release. Somewhere, an event horizon counts down.

Galvin is concerned with the relationship of time seen in science and time as it is perceived. The poem has a mathematical title, the symbol omega lamda, which indicates the concentration of energy in the universe, not an expression most readers of poetry would be able to recall. Galvin seizes the language of science and returns it to a language of feeling.

First Definition: The prose poem is the philosopher in her conference suit, offering us a seat, but the three chairs in the room are full of papers, and we stand puzzled before such incomplete choices. Or maybe the prose poem is a story we tell ourselves to make sense of other people's stories, where we can allow the collision of dream, personal narratives, and our imagined facts.


Carol Dorf is a poet whose work appears in Moira, A Cappella Zoo, 13th Moon, Feminist Studies, Heresies, Fringe, The Midway, Poemeleon, New Verse News,  Mezzo Cammin, Runes, the Not a Muse, Boomer Girls anthologies and elsewhere. She is a former editor of Five Fingers Review and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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