Christine Stewart-Nuñez, an associate professor of English at South Dakota State, writes poems that are often narrative and often about her family, including the death of her sister (in Keeping Them Alive) and her own experience as a mother of a child with special needs (in the forthcoming Bluewords Greening). Her poems always pay close attention to sound and often to structure, and for me are an experience of the unity of lyric and narrative, which are sometimes taught as separate kinds of poem-making. Her poem “Boy at Rest” in Rogue Agent is an excellent example:
BOY AT REST, AFTER JULIE ZICK’S LITHOGRAPH GIRL AT REST
While sleeping, the child vanishes from his life.
—Carolyn Forché, The Angel of History
In Girl at Rest, I saw only a hazy
silhouette of a child’s body—the navy
blue frame of her arms, head,
and a bit of torso, and I read
the artist’s choice of ochre, taupe, and light
gray (shades shifting only slightly)
to imply background, table and skin
with wonder—the colors nearly vanish
the child. When I study my son
asleep, it’s in full dimension:
eyelids threaded with a blue vein,
a freckle emerging on the outline
of his lip. There’s no facial stress,
but I don’t need to guess:
rest is an illusion, not a feature
of a brain beset with seizures.
By day, they complicate the spelling
of C-A-T, how each sound, rolling
into the next, infuses meaning.
When sound does fall through the screen
of seizures, a word often fails to find its place
on his tongue. The spells also erase
memories of lunchtime pizza, gym-class
tag, the answer to What’s your last
name? the need to look both ways before
crossing the parking lot outside the store.
On the monitor, I hear him speak,
a midnight phrase thrown from deep sleep,
and I wonder what words emerge
(despite the seizure’s surge)
from the visual play of his dreams.
What world does he vanish to? It seems
impossible to draw in ink or words
more than a sleeping child’s curves
and angles. When I tiptoe into his room
to re-tuck his blanket, I will only assume
that wherever he’s at, he’ll come back.
Though the poem is one stanza, it proceeds with rhyming sets of two lines, as if they were rhyming couplets that just lack stanza breaks. That’s not to say that all of these couplets are perfect rhymes, or even that the poem has an even number of lines (I’ll return to that). “Head” and “read” rhyme, and “outline” and “vein” might be a slant rhyme, but some of these pairs proceed only by assonance, a repeated vowel sound, such as “light” and “slightly” or “vanish” and “skin,” or consonance, a repeated consonant sound, such as “words” and “curves.” Those sounds do unify the poem, though, and give it a texture, and also call into question resemblances—if the poem rhymed too perfectly, it wouldn’t represent the way the speaker encounters the lithograph, which is “hazy” and made of “implication[s],” as opposed to her son, whom she sees in “full dimension” as he “sleeps,” even though his seizure disorder won’t permit him to fully rest.
By the end of the poem, though, after the rhyme of “room” and “assume,” we’re left with the line “…wherever he’s at, he’ll come back” on its own. That choice underscores that it’s just an assumption—she’s putting an end word out there that won’t have a rhyme, that won’t hear its sound “come back,” just as she doesn’t know whether he will wake, or in what condition, whether he’ll be “back” to himself. And yet the line itself contains the assonance of “at” and “back,” so it feels like the sound might be coming back already, that it might be an OK assumption, he might actually come back from “wherever he’s at.” I admire how well the form of this poem enacts both its content and the speaker’s struggle with it.
Featured image by Amanda Tipton under the creative commons license on Flickr. Post by Barbara Duffy.
Read about more South Dakota Poets.