I’ll be honest: I’m not usually much of a fan of prose poems. I like lineation, form, structure. Give me meter, syllabics, some rules to cling to—if I want a poem that looks like a chunky little square of prose, I prefer a sonnet.
But four years ago, I attended a reading in an old train depot in Montana that changed my mind about prose poems forever. Melissa Kwasny had already published two books of poems at the time, Archival Birds and Thistle, both of which I’d enjoyed very much (particularly Thistle, a book where each poem is titled after a wild plant and reads like the journal of the most sensual, lyric, and passionate botanist you can imagine). These first two books didn’t contain prose poems, and when I heard Kwasny reading from her new work that night—reading poems in a voice so adamant in its particularities that it gave me chills—I assumed that the new poems were similarly written with line breaks and in stanzas. However, at the end of the reading the audience was given copies of a few of the unpublished poems she’d read that evening, carefully printed on square pieces of heavy, cream paper, and I was startled to discover that the poems were in prose.
One of the poems that was handed out that night, “Sparrow,” I’ve come to love especially, and I’ve posted it on my refrigerator door where each time I read that opening phrase, “The dawns are numbered, as I am,” I still get gooseflesh. “Sparrow” (which was first published in the Boston Review and can be
found here) does what any good poem must do in that its voice is immediately and uniquely captivating. I often say that my favorite poems are poems of authority, where the speaker’s conviction—whether of the emotional, political, or intellectual variety—is clear from the beginning and holds steady throughout. A poetic voice can possess many types of conviction, and in “Sparrow” Kwasny’s speaker is
authoritatively resigned: it is firm acquiescence we encounter from the first phrase to the last, and to bring such strength and fervor to the language of resignation is an admirable feat.
In part, this voice is accomplished through passionate syntax. Without the tricks of line and stanza (which can aid by placing emphasis on certain words or breaking a phrase in a way that might create a double meaning), the pacing provided by syntax becomes everything. Kwasny uses sentence length to create the rhythms of fevered speech, of felt recitation. Fragments and compressed phrases alternate with long-winded sentences that reel out line after line, creating speed, tempo, and a climax that sits at the very center of the poem:
Clack of dried pea pods, cloud of mosquitoes, one can have too many roses in the house. The world is loud, anguished by its processes.
Kwasny’s speaker is also striking because of the variety of diction she employs. While the poem starts in a place of delicate language (“My name is small, a garden-mint, a sprig to decorate a plate.”), it nears the end with some of my favorite lines, ones that slip out the side of the mouth:
My family is rough. I wish I could smooth them. I have been lucky. Not married out to trash men.
This is a voice willing to travel across different ideas and versions of the self, to concede multiple identities and indulge their demands. It strikes me as a female voice in that it is constantly being asked to change and accommodate, and it resists even as it complies.
The book of prose poems in which “Sparrow” appears is now finally out (The Nine Senses, published this year by Milkweed Editions), and I’ve been able to see again how Kwasny’s voice holds up on the page without lineation. Those first prose poems of hers that I’d heard—when she was first testing the form, playing with all its freedoms and constraints—had not been a fluke, a success simply because I’d been able to hear her read them aloud, helped along by the rhythms and inflections of her mouth forming the words. On the contrary, as I read through the collection on my own, I discovered that though I could no longer remember the sound of Kwasny’s spoken voice, there was a clarity and strength to the voice on the page. It was present in each of the poems—willful, headstrong—and I fell in love with it.
This voice belongs to a woman, and it is fierce, a voice where the “I” of the poem becomes the “I” in my own heart, where the “we” that appears immediately turns to my own flesh, not because of its universality but its distinct and unarguable particularity.