Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 14, 2006

What is a prose poem? Who knows? Usually, the term is defined in contrast to poems written in lines that printers call "ragged right." Instead, maybe it should be defined in contrast to conventional prose narratives. For example, here is Elizabeth Bishop's translation of "Brazilian Tragedy," a prose poem by Manuel Bandeira. The speed and compression displayed here make most novels (or, for that matter, most movies) seem unbearably slow. The place-names advance the story in a few seconds, whereas conventional narrative might take hours :

Misael, civil servant in the Ministry of Labor, 63 years old,

Knew Maria Elvira of the Grotto: prostitute, syphilitic, with ulcerated fingers, a pawned wedding ring and teeth in the last stages of decay.

Misael took Maria out of "the life," installed her in a two-storey house in Junction City, paid for the doctor, dentist, manicurist. . . . He gave her everything she wanted.

When Maria Elvira discovered she had a pretty mouth, she immediately took a boy-friend.

Misael didn't want a scandal. He could have beaten her, shot her, or stabbed her. He did none of these: they moved.

They lived like that for three years.

Each time Maria Elvira took a new boy-friend, they moved.

The lovers lived in Junction City. Boulder. On General Pedra Street, The Sties. The Brickyards. Glendale. Pay Dirt. On Marquês de Sapucaí Street in Villa Isabel. Niterói.

Euphoria. In Junction City again, on Clapp Street. All Saints. Carousel. Edgewood. The Mines. Soldiers Home . . .

Finally, in Constitution Street, where Misael, bereft of sense and reason, killed her with six shots, and the police found her stretched out, supine, dressed in blue organdy.

The blue organdy and the sounds and overtones of the neighborhoods, with each new place meaning the drama of another boyfriend -- that deft, mysterious creation of feeling from a few words is . . . poetry.

Sometimes, the comparison should be not with narrative prose, but with the conventions of essay or nonfiction. The freedom to leap from place to place without stopping for signposts or instructions makes a difference. Here is another prose poem of that "essayistic" kind, "Theory of Insomnia," from Jeffrey Skinner's recent book Salt Water Amnesia :

Dreams back up where the stream is blocked for whatever reason. What comes is lucid but unbidden: How that bartender looked at you thirty years ago when you ran out of money and begged a drink. How he held that look as he filled your glass. You discover there are no empty hours of night -- each minute in fact is dense, expansive -- the air itself might be folded and stacked in the closet. Shelves of books like lost friends whose problems bore you. Your own problem: how to let go of consciousness. What is death, divorce, illness, even drunkenness, to that? In the window you watch a giant hand hold the moon beneath the horizon, like a head beneath the waves. The ocean is pounding in your temples, pressing heavily against your back. And though you know this can't go on forever, it goes on forever.

The movement from dreams to stream, or from the air folded like sheets to the shelves of books, or from the moon to the head forced underwater to the insomniac's headache: That movement, too, is poetry.

(Elizabeth Bishop's translation of Manuel Bandeira's poem "Brazilian Tragedy" is from "The Complete Poems: 1927-1979," Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Jeffrey Skinner's poem "Theory of Insomnia" is from his book "Salt Water Amnesia," Ausable. Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Skinner.)

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