Three poems by Dane Holt
In ’Tammy Wynette’ Dane Holt uses the neat trick of making one word stand in for another. The line “A storm of bad men could not dampen / Tammy Wynette’s spirit. I mean / her hair” sets up the last line, and means he can get away with using the word ‘spirit’ as the last word in the poem without making us feel as if he’s reaching for the abstract or weighty; quite some feat. He’s enjoying playing with tone here – a robust declaration (” ‘Stand By Your Man’ / is, to my ears, the best vocal performance”) is swiftly undercut (“of the worst lyric”) and then tumbles into an honest personal admission (“which goes to show / something. I don’t know.”) The poem is a mosaic of statements out of which meaning seems to arise, like a jigsaw where you don’t really see the image properly until the final piece has been placed.
In ‘Jowitt’ Holt plays with notions of time and determinism. The narrator knows what will happen in the future, yet seems powerless to stop it, or even to speak out. By using simple language and repetition, Holt manages to create a sense of everything moving very slowly when something terrible happens. The syntax in the poem is complex in places, and we get a feeling that the narrator – and even the poet, perhaps – is trying to figure something out. Again, we have a killer last line which develops a whole other level of implication. On the surface the poem deals with two tragedies – that of the bird, and that of Jowitt – but perhaps another lurks beneath these.
‘A Line from Merwin’ deals with the death of the narrator’s mother, and the nurse who “carried the dose of mercy” to her. It’s a 14 line poem. Is it a sonnet? Well, it is quite sonnet-y; it has the movement and the development of a sonnet, the focus on one moment in time, and a neat half-rhyme at the end (anything / nothing). Again, Holt takes small things – hands on a steering wheel, a cigarette burning ‘like a single autumn” and imbues them with meaning. It’s a poignant poem, full of questions, and providing few answers. “The answer can be nothing”.
The only records found in my grandmother’s attic
were by scorned women for scorned women
written by men. ‘Stand By Your Man’
is, to my ears, the best vocal performance
of the worst lyric, which goes to show
something. I don’t know. Something
about how saying one thing so
exactly to someone intent on hearing
the opposite is art. Once and only once
my grandmother told my father
‘you don’t know what I go through
having to live with your father.’
A storm of bad men could not dampen
Tammy Wynette’s spirit. I mean
her hair. I refuse to listen
to that song without crying, or at least
without the taste of hairspray in my mouth.
I had two grandmothers but only
one grandfather. The record I have of the other
is the day he died and the day
of his funeral. My mother missed it.
She looked like Tammy Wynette
when she told me this.
Except for her hair. I mean her spirit.
We will stop working because a bird
will find its way into the warehouse.
Back and forth it will fly through
the rafters, its delicate skull again
and again coming up against the
opposite of all it ever understood.
Jowitt, the young team leader, will
arrive with the ladder he will fall
from. Everything that happens
seems to happen in a future tense,
therefore doesn’t happen at all.
I can’t explain. Jowitt arrives
with the ladder he will fall from.
I can’t tell him I know this.
There’s another team leader, Paul,
but Paul will not be there when Jowitt falls
and dies. The people there are people
who don’t like him much but not
enough to see this happen, his body
collapsed like that. Like that. Ok,
back to work. I wish he’d say
something else or else everything
the bird now understands of sky
and air and boundary and narrative
collapses instead the bird’s delicate skull.
The bird always finds its way into the warehouse.
Jowitt climbs the ladder and always falls.
I’m innocent by no means.
A Line from Merwin
W. S. Merwin writes ‘I could do anything’ about the year
both his parents died. What do you make of that? I wonder
what the nurse who carried the dose of mercy to our mother
did for the rest of her shift, if she paused to think about
her hands on the steering wheel. We could do nothing
for our mother. I held her pulse at arm’s length. I couldn’t
smoke, not for fear I’d miss the instant one breath
failed to follow another, but for fear the smell of smoke
would make my sister think our father’s ghost was there
to collect his wife. The part of me that wishes I was that ghost
is not the part of me that wants to get through this cigarette
alive. This cigarette burns like a single autumn. I could
do anything. I could do anything. I could do anything.
What do you make of that? The answer can be nothing.