Several several weeks ago now, Tarfia Faizullah and I exchanged notes on the elegy in what was billed as the first part of a multi-part craft note on the elegy. We went, from there, into a discussion of “Duets,” poems that write from, toward, or with lines borrowed from other poems.
Quotation is, in its own right, a source of almost endless fascination for me, as are the remixings of the writing process that come when one engages quotation—all of which to say that the Duet notes justified themselves to my attention.
Nevertheless, the turn away from the elegy and to the duet was calculated, somewhat, or motivated, at least, by the sense that the elegy is always a duet—the poem blending the poet’s voice with the poet’s knowledge of what’s lost, the poet’s voice working around what can’t be changed.
What we discover, I think, in writing a number of elegies—there will always be at least one elegy that just destroys us, that we can’t write—is that the poem deals with the intransigence of death or loss not only (and maybe not even primarily) through a consolatory vision but as well (and maybe most seriously) through the poem’s capacity to arrange (and therefore too to rearrange) the information of the loss—which also means the poem’s capacity to write away from and to write within what the elegy requires the poet to write toward.
So, in a sense, the Duet, as we described it here, and the elegy are cousin forms, the Duet highlighting some of the technical problems the elegy encounters while it’s also working through some difficult emotional work.
One poet in whose work we can see these two forms as one is David Wojahn, and as Tarfia and I have been writing these notes, I’ve been thinking of a poem in his book Spirit Cabinet. “Can’t You Spare Me Over” is at once a duet with Dock Boggs (whose voice is immortalized in a Smithsonian recording of a traditional song many people know from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?) and an elegy for Jake Watson (whose identity we never fully discover, but who seems a denizen of the coal country from which Boggs hailed). You can see in the poem’s first movement, the play of voices, the sinuousness and flexibility of the poet’s narrative line as the two kinds of knowledge are stitched together:
Coal dust webs the lungs & from them slurs the plea.
The banjo notes are nails stabbing pinewood: Dock Boggs
pleading, high and lonesome: O Death,
O O Death. Not the archipelagos of Hades.
But surely Stygian water carves the hollows
of Eurydice’s bones. O Death won’t you spare me
over ’til another day. The tape is spooling
on a porch in Lechter, Kentucky. & Death insists,
of course, that we follow standard protocol.
I bind your feet so you can’t walk. I sew
your mouth so you can’t talk. You can feel Him
wet His needle, hover at your lips, stitch & slither
against your jaw, the work as patient
as silicosis. & now a kind of twilight
mists the earth, the strip mine shovels & the company stores…
I’d written in the last craft note, in response to Judith’s comment, that poems get written in many different orders. I was referring primarily to the fact that we often discover the poem’s true and final beginning or ending through a rather circuitous process—that the beginning of the process and the beginning of the poem are usually not the same thing.
Wojahn’s interleaving, his trading of lines with Boggs dramatizes this process, at the level of the sentence or the line. How many ways are there to incorporate the lyrics of Boggs’s song into the poem, how many ways to work the elegy between them? Anyone writing a poem about a song, anyone writing with and between the lyrics of a song (which is, in this series of notes, a fifth type of duet) will confront the problem directly and feel the need and see the benefit of a flexible—a mixable and re-mixable—narrative line.