Craft Note: Duet—Part Two (Ending With A Post By Tarfia Faizullah Ending With A Line By Vallejo)

Jake Adam York
April 20, 2012
Comments 2

The poem that begins with a borrowed line begins spending its inheritance right away. It feels free, cavalier, perhaps even prodigal at times. It seems to thrive on its own liquidity, its sometimes casual, even forgetful relationship to what started it. This sort of poem almost forgets itself. It creates for itself an opportunity to remember what began it, which it may embrace or not. This is a poem that begins with a choice that actually seems to heighten the sense of opportunity in the choices that follow.

What then might we say about a poem that moves toward an ending of a borrowed line? It, too, begins—compositionally speaking—with a choice, a choice perhaps announced by its title, as in Grace Schulman’s “Poem Ending With A Phrase From the Psalms” or Frank Bidart’s “Poem Ending With Three Lines from ‘Home On The Range’.” The title announces the choice as a promise: you will see this phrase, this line.

This kind of poem seems to carry its secret, or its debt, with and within itself toward the moment when that secret is disclosed, that debt discharged. This kind of poem, it might be said, also has an inheritance, but it acts as if it is creating the inheritance, approaching the gift as if it felt the need to invest in that last line.


Maybe this is just the shape of a game of foreshadowing, in which an ending is promised, even imagined, however vaguely, and then approached by no definite course, on no predictable time-table. With each line, the impending resolution must loom larger, our desire for it more dire. Consider the experience of reading Larry Levis’s “Poem Ending With A Hotel on Fire” or Clay Matthews’ “Poem Ending With Hands on Handlebars.” As we follow these poems’ movements, always there is an image, however distant or grainy, of the end: these poems are teleological, almost eschatological.


But take Bidart’s poem, for example. The title gives us a sense of where we’re going, but “Home on the Range” seems a simple, sentimental destination. So, the poem’s got to develop another kind of complexity in order to make the ultimate arrival interesting. Bidart discovers a masterful repetition, deploying two conditional sentences, one after another, dramatizing our anticipation of the final quotation. But his poem meditates more explicitly on the central drama: whenever the speaker hears Ray Charles, “the irreparable enters me again, again it twists,” which is to say that the poem cannot repair the gap between desire and satisfaction—which is to say (paradoxically? or interestingly?) that the poem can only bridge the gap between desire and satisfaction by arriving at what’s announced in advanced though that end is already not enough, already an unsatisfying satisfaction. That’s making this sentimental song already more complex, already more interesting.


[Blogger’s note: what follows is by Tarfia Faizullah, who will join me as a Peter Taylor Fellow this summer at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, in which there are a few seats left.

Tarfia Faizullah is a Kundiman fellow and a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s creative writing program, she is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Margaret Bridgman scholarship, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she helps edit the Asian American Literary Review and Trans-Portal.]

Craft Note: Duet—Part Two (of Part Two)

(Ending with lines by César Valléjo)

I’m writing this post from a living room in Massachusetts, which is fitting as I feel as though I have been writing towards this room for as long as I have been writing towards the line of Valléjo’s that ends this poem:

En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith (reprinted with permission from The Missouri Review)

—at Dubai International Airport and ending with a line by César Valléjo

Because I must walk
     through the eye-shaped
shadows cast by these
     curved gold leaves thick
atop each constructed
     palm tree past displays
of silk scarves, lit
     silhouettes of blue-bottled
     I grip, as though for the first
time, a paper bag
     of french fries from McDonald’s,
lick, from each fingertip,
     the fat and salt as I stand alone
to the side of this moving
     walkway gliding me past dark-
eyed men who do not look
     away when I stare squarely
back—because standing
     in line to the restroom I want
only to pluck from her
     black sweater this one shimmering
blond hair clinging fast—
     because I must rest the Coke, cold
in my hand, beside this
     toilet seat warmed by her thighs,
her thighs, and hers.
     Here, at the narrow mouth of this
long, humid corridor
     leading to the plane, I am taking
my place among this
     damp, dark horde of women
& men who look like me—
     because I look like them—
because I am ashamed
     of their bodies that reek so
unabashedly of body—
     because I can—because I am
an American, a star
            of blood on the surface of muscle.


Earlier today, I was sprawled out across the sun-spilled backseat of Misha Chowdhury’s car en route to Wayland, a small town west of Boston. Last autumn, I was in the Dubai International Airport, about to board a plane to Bangladesh, where I was going to live for nine months.


Misha and I met and became fast friends at Kundiman Writers’ Retreat a week after I returned from Bangladesh. Is it a coincidence that his grandfather had been the president of the only college in Commilla, the small village my father grew up in Bangladesh? That Valléjo’s Collected Poems was the only book I had with me on my long layover in Dubai? Is it a coincidence that I opened the book to the poem “Imperial Nostalgias”?


For years now I’ve been traveling to Bangladesh via Dubai International Airport, but always with family, and only for a brief time. I began writing “En Route” amid the usual packed chaos of the terminal, trying to affix the newness of this wholly familiar trip I was about to embark on. What began as a description of what I always do on layovers in the Dubai airport, that strange and glittering space where we are all itinerants, escalated towards the moment I always am both anxious and ashamed of:

Here, at the narrow mouth of this
long, humid corridor
leading to the plane, I am taking
my place among this
damp, dark horde of women
& men who look like me—
because I look like them—
because I am ashamed
of their bodies that reek so
unabashedly of body—
because I can—because
I am an American—



“In the landscapes of Manische the twilight/fashions imperial nostalgias” begins the Vallejo poem from which I borrowed the last line of my poem, reinscribed hastily on the airplane before the flight attendant sternly commanded me to put my tray table up for takeoff. “Nostalgia,” Misha told me at Kundiman that strange, blurry summer I had just returned from nine months spent indescribably elsewhere, “is what makes us Bangalis.” What I love about Vallejo’s poem is what I love about nostalgia: the way the present of what is is always on its way to becoming a longing for the landscape of what was. Similarly, what I love about the line “a star of blood on the surface of muscle” is the line before: “and the race takes shape in my word.”

I have spent my entire life struggling with the shame I felt each time I flinched away from the migrant workers shoving their way to the front of the line. I have spent my entire life writing towards the idea that my own privilege as an upper class Bangladeshi American is what both prevents and allows me to see myself in them, which is why Valléjo, visionary poet of his people, is who I had to seek guidance from.


What I’m trying to say as Misha continues to read aloud to me a poem in Bangla we are trying to translate together is this: maybe intertextuality is an act of nostalgia. “All speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape,” George Oppen wrote. Maybe we begin with the moment we are in so that we can write towards what we wish we could disown, and in doing so, arrive face to face before an old friend we had never forgotten. Or, as Valléjo puts it, “My anxious heart/whispers with I don’t know what recollection.”




2 thoughts on “Craft Note: Duet—Part Two (Ending With A Post By Tarfia Faizullah Ending With A Line By Vallejo)

  1. Judy,

    These are good questions and good points that I’m going to take up in more detail in this week’s post. But I want to say, briefly, that, as you’re teasing out, we may have made the process seem more linear than it usually is. Of course, we all want our poems to surprise us, and the discovery of an ending is the typical surprise—but having a last line in hand doesn’t remove the opportunity for surprise: it just locates it a little earlier in the geography of the poem, even if the arrival of the surprise or discovery marks, if you will, the culmination of the process. When we look back on our poem, we become readers of the poem, and we explain the poem’s logic as readers, which is why, I think, it seems so linear. We’re looking forward to meeting you as well.


  2. I appreciated Jake’s essay and Tarfia’s poem, but the idea of writing toward an ending seems an anathema to me. What I wonder is, how about writing a poem that has a surprise (to the poet) at the end and then titling the poem giving the surprise away? In other words, going backwards toward that end as if you knew it all along? When poets talk about their poems they often sound like they knew what they were doing all along to cover the traces of scary emptiness that actually accompany composition. Or maybe we only can understand our process in retrospect? Look forward to meeting you in JUne.

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