The Tell-Tale Line

Word Comix by Charlie Smith. Norton, 2009.

The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab. Penguin, 2009.

Blind Rain by Bruce Bond. Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

Trust by Liz Waldner. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009.

As Reviewed By: Joan Houlihan

Previews for a movie, or a trailer, usually tell me what I need to know about the movie-how’s the acting? Dialogue? Cinematography?-and I can make a decision to: a) go see it now, b) wait for the DVD, or c) forget about it. Sometimes word of mouth from trusted friends will convince me otherwise. However, I never seek out reviews to guide my decisions, whereas in the 70’s I wouldn’t bother with a movie if the great Pauline Kael wrote a bad review of it in The New Yorker. Nowadays, I might seek out and read a movie review afterwards, to see how my perceptions matched or diverged from, those of the reviewer. In the same way, I’ve gone from being led by a review to (or away from) a particular book of poetry, to “previewing” it, either by browsing in a bookshop, or more often, checking it out on Amazon’s “look-inside-the-book” feature. (Publishers take note: my shopping habits are not unique.) Amazon also provides a kind of “trusted friends” resource with List-mania-people who have liked many of the same books I do are good references for future book buying (but the so-called reviews of a book on Amazon can be discounted automatically; most are written by the author or friends of the author).

As Dan Pritchard, editor of The Critical Flame, points out in his blog, The Wooden Spoon, the delivery and distribution mechanisms for poetry (including POD, internet posts and blogs, e-books and many new micro-presses with .pdf downloads) have flooded the remaining, and vanishing, traditional gatekeepers (e.g. reviewers for major periodicals). So, with over 2,000 books of poetry produced in a year (including the small and smaller presses), the evaluation of what’s worth reading is falling more and more to the reader/buyer.

[private]But is it really so difficult for a reader to decide, and rather quickly, what’s worth reading? I don’t think so. In fact, I think most readers of poetry can tell from the opening lines of a book if it’s a book they want to read more of, just as most of us make a decision about seeing a movie from its trailer. As with a movie trailer, a lot can be seen in a small space. To test my theory, I’ll use the opening lines of four books, all written from the same aesthetic (an I-based narrative) so as not to confuse ideas about an aesthetic with those of writing ability. Imagine that you must decide whether or not the whole book is worth reading based on their opening lines. Let’s try the opening lines from four recently published books:

I have been in touch lately with my inner self,

the fruit picker who lived all those years in a motel.

(“I Speak to Fewer People,” Word Comix by Charlie Smith)

The scene at the table wasn’t going well

or so he thought.

(“The First Still Life,” The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab)

If you find yourself staring in your sleep

the way a boy stares into a campfire

on a lake of ice, his head lit, eyes closed; . . .

(“Afterlife,” Blind Rain by Bruce Bond)

Such embroidery of the green


(“Truth, Beauty, Tree,” Trust by Liz Waldner)

I’ll consider those opening lines, along with the rest of the books from which I’ve excerpted them, in turn.

I have been in touch lately with my inner self,

the fruit picker who lived all those years in a motel.

“I Speak to Fewer People,” Word Comix by Charlie Smith

Looking at the first line of the first poem from Word Comix, I note the clichéd phrase (“in touch lately with my inner self”) and, up against the title (“I Speak to Fewer People”), I already know how this poem will unfold. Perhaps these first words are not meant in earnest, are meant to be ironic; perhaps the narrator is deliberately using psychobabble to transparently indicate a resignation, a cover up of true feelings, and I might read the entire poem to confirm or deny this, but it’s also true that the first line indicates a preoccupation with an “I” and its perceptions; the syntax is straight ahead declarative (subject/verb/object), and the tone is deliberately flat, reportorial, matter-of-fact. Is this an “I” that I want to know more about? I flip through other first lines to glean more information:

I’d come so far.

The year I admitted I was lonely . . .

I don’t get it about the natural world . . .

People think I have a positive attitude . . .

I’d say more about these rocks, but . . .

I got stranded down South America way . . .

I got interested in religion . . .

I suppose I want forgiveness . . .

I’m tired, spent really . . .

I’ve been depressed lately.

Even if all the poems in the collection do not begin with an “I” based statement, none of the statements compel further reading, perhaps because I have no investment whatsoever in how this “I” feels or perceives life. I also have the distinct impression that I’m not likely to be surprised by anything-in language, idea, plot, or character. In fact, on reading some few poems, it seems that even when the poem doesn’t invoke an unremarkable I, it revolves around one. For example, in “As It Happened,” the landscape comes first, then “one” (“as one drives home”) then, finally, “you” (and by “you” he means, of course, “I”):

Out in the snow

in bare places, windswept

behind filling stations in Vermont

on hillsides in the Maritime Provinces

by lakes where picnic benches

take up the thread of loneliness

the stillness behind

a remark recalled as one drives home

from the council meeting

the day

like an attempt to return

nonrefundable merchandise

dying in its own arms

the wind dying down

a softness in your wife’s face

reminding you of something

you thought you’d never forget.

There’s nothing wrong with this poem. The laconic, wistful tone is supported by appropriate descriptors (“out in the snow / in bare places, windswept” and so on); it uses a syntactical strategy of delayed cognition that impels a reader onward and creates the need to find out what’s at the end of all those prepositional phrases. And the payoff? A realization of time passing, and an image of futility-unto-death in the form of nonrefundable merchandise (?) “dying in its own arms / the wind dying down.” Or, more likely, it’s the day doing the dying-modifier alert here. When not using punctuation, it’s especially important to place modifying phrases close to what they modify in order to avoid confusion. And only one dying is necessary, thus:

. . . . . .

a remark recalled as one drives home

from the council meeting

the wind dying down

the day

like an attempt to return

nonrefundable merchandise

a softness in your wife’s face

reminding you of something

you thought you’d never forget.

In any case, this clumsy epiphany trips and falls into a sentimental one: “a softness in your wife’s face / reminding you of something / you thought you’d never forget.” I suppose it’s something more momentous than a gallon of milk, but I’ve lost interest in figuring it out.

While many of the poems in Word Comix are more ambitious than this one (chosen for its brevity), the strategy is essentially the same, that is: I feel a thought coming on. I’m not gonna tell you outright. See if you can guess what I’m thinking from the landscape descriptions. I’m a laconic western-type guy who seems unfeeling but that’s a cover-up. I understand more than you think. And I do have feelings.

In other words, my reading of the first line told me all I needed to know.


The scene at the table wasn’t going well

or so he thought.

(“The First Still Life,” The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab)

In Lawrence Raab’s The History of Forgetting, the talk doesn’t emanate from an identifiable, consistent I, but from an omniscient, third-person, point of view. The first line, up against its title, along with the title of the book, all give me the impression that I’ll be experiencing a “project,” one that involves the idea of rewriting history. In this case, how a painter might have approached the first still life and with “first” and the use of “scene at the table” inevitably that would be a painting of The Last Supper. This is confirmed by the next lines:

Why not try something

different? Leave Christ out. Do the bread

and wine by themselves. Add a knife.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, the writing is fine, but I find it uninteresting. These poems are stories and as such, have plots, characters and a clear trajectory from start to finish, but, as Charles Harper Webb observes (1), the narrative form by itself is not to blame. The problem is that, instead of the dazzlement of masterfully written narrative prose, or the suspense of good story telling, we get mildly interesting anecdotes and lessons in The Obvious as from this poem, “The Hero’s Luck”:

When something bad happens

we play it back in our minds,

looking for a place to step in

and change things. We should go outside

right now, you might have said. Or:

Let’s not drive anywhere today.

The sea rises, the mountain collapses.

A car swerves toward the crowd

you’ve just led your family into.

We all look for reasons. Luck

isn’t the word you want to hear.

What happened had to,

or it didn’t. Maybe

the exceptional man can change direction

in midair, thread the needle’s eye,

and come out whole. But even the hero

who stands up to chance has to feel

how far the world will bend

until it breaks him. He can see

that day: the unappeasable ocean,

and cascades of stone. A crowd

gathers around his body. He sees that too.

Someone is saying: His luck just ran out.

It happens to us all.

This poem is not badly written, only dull. And so a question persists: why was it written? What is the emotional center, the driving purpose of this poem? And, if it is a poem of ideas, what are they? Things happen in the universe that are out of our control? One thing inexplicably and inextricably leads to another? Pride goeth before a fall? Don’t be naïve? Death gets all of us in the end, even the apparent lucky ones? Any idea that occurs is Simply Obvious, and, without much to offer in the way of dynamic writing (where are the images, the syntactical variations?), the poem exists as a page in a book filled with other, equally forgettable poems. It’s possible I’m not getting it, of course. Maybe, as the poem “Taking Out the Moon” suggests, this whole idea of writing poems is a bankrupt one anyway:

But after a while it’s just tiring

to line up the words on a page

and cross the wrong ones out,

find a better adjective than “pale,”

a livelier noun than “sadness.”

If the poet is as bored with writing poems as this poem suggests, how can the reader be less bored? Why should a reader sit and read one word after another, go down a page, then turn it-it’s just tiring. As the last lines of the book’s first poem (“The First Still Life”) have it:

He titles it Apple in a Bowl

to say: That’s all that is here.

There’s nothing you can’t see.



If you find yourself staring in your sleep

the way a boy stares into a campfire

on a lake of ice, his head lit, eyes closed; . . .

“Afterlife,” Blind Rain by Bruce Bond

Along with a smart syntactical strategy of “If” clauses, Bruce Bond’s Blind Rain begins with mystery and provocative imagery. I like that the first line presents a situation that’s a little off kilter (“staring in your sleep”), alongside one that’s familiar but described in an original way (“on a lake of ice, his head lit, eyes closed”), and also that it contains a potentially big hypothesis (gathered from the title). It’s interesting, provocative and it presages an observant and imaginative writer. As the if clause leads me further and further along in a desire to see what’s at the end of the “If . . .,” I feel myself to be in the hands of a writer who knows what he’s doing and so I move easily along to the next poem, “Wake,” alert and interested:

One day now since my father last tried to speak,

since the outer provinces of his body shut

down like small cities when the power goes,

just the enormity of starlight to guide them . . .

Again, Bond’s syntactical strategy, using clauses to compel the reader onward (the first run-on line finally ends after two stanzas), works well, but more impressive is the fact that Bond is using subject matter that is so overdone it nearly always fails, namely, the I-based story of a relative’s sickness or death. As Webb also observes in the same article:

Writing programs, presses, and periodicals confront mountains of poems chronicling events from childhood, the illness and death of relatives, and the general doings of an author’s life. Short narratives-from-life seem to be what beginning poets write. When such poems are spoken by an “I,” the story will all-too-likely be pedestrian, predictable, and “true” . . . .

Bond’s facility with imagery, his ability to frame what could be sentimental material in a way that is both moving and original, his sophisticated use of syntax, subtle use of rhyme, and surefooted pacing and rhythm, all indicate that this is an author whose imagination is both observant and compassionate, one whose narratives will hold far more than a flat report from the province of “I.” There are many poems that I admire here, too many to list, many that move me, and the title poem (“Blind Rain”) earns its place as the spotlight poem of the collection. And, I think that many of the qualities that interest me in Bond’s poems were discoverable in the very first lines of the first poem.


With Trust, Liz Waldner pushes the boundaries of narrative but never quite breaks them. This tension gives the poems an undeniable suspense:

Such embroidery of the green

Body. The sky

Is a beautiful wound

In it. I

Would like this not to be

True but it is.

Nor is it useful-like the eye

Itself the sight

We hope to see through (to)


(“Truth, Beauty, Tree”)

Here also there is attention to the line unit, to the way lines enjamb and yet survive as their own islands of meaning. The turns from line to line-of both meaning and tone- keep my interest keen even as I admire the technical accomplishment. Here, there is a story but it is not because of any ostensible story being told. Much lives under the surface of these poems, and the compression of language, the nearly violent concision of lines into one another, pronounce the emotional energy that isn’t directly described. Instead, Waldner deals out narrative as a series of impressions and leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, meanwhile keeping those dots alive with emotion. The “I,” while present, is not a pedestrian observer but rather an inner voice (In it. I / Would like this not to be / True but it is). This poet is working on the outskirts of narrative, and achieves a kind of dangerous allure.

I almost died in a car crash here

Like Marc Bolan I used to love

Back when my father’s vein crashed in

And his brain drowned in not enough air.

Since my wreck I haven’t felt

Able to find myself.

Car 54, where are you?

. . . . . . . . .

The first two stanzas in this poem, “Taking the Air,” are certainly an I-based narrative, but are not like any I-based narrative I would expect to read. The line, again, is masterful in its turns (“Since my wreck I haven’t felt / Able to find myself”), and lively with rhyme, rhythm, vivid surprising images (“Back when my father’s vein crashed in / And his brain drowned in not enough air”) and, surprisingly, wit (“Car 54, where are you?”). I find these qualities in some measure present in all the poems in Trust and, though Waldner strays far from whatever tethers the poem, a tether is never lost. An emotional through line holds the story together. The collection as a whole is a delight and a powerhouse-perhaps not all its riches obvious from the first line, but enough to read on and find the rest.

As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free, and that readers will “sample” poems and make any buying decisions based on these samples. Readers will become sophisticated enough in their own judgments, or tuned in enough to trusted recommenders wherever and however encountered, and soon the disappearance of reviews in mainstream periodicals won’t be missed. It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place-we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a “mixed tape” of poems we love, or a subset of poems by a favorite poet. The packaging and distribution mechanisms are already in place; we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.[/private]

About Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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