Sometimes a poem works by implying a story, suggesting in a few speakable or singable words what a fictional prose narrative might stretch over dozens or hundreds of pages. That is part of the thrill provided by a classic anonymous quatrain:
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
Instead of detailed description of the two characters -- the mission or circumstance that separates the couple, their garments and relatives and dwellings and histories -- we have this rapid movement from the yearned-for wind and rain, leaping from the exclamation or prayer ("Christ") to the even more yearned-for reuniting in bed. The poem skims across the high points of what a novel or movie would build up carefully, at length.
It's not hard to imagine the 12-page short story, thick with characters' names and scenes and dialogue, that would be a comparable alternative to "Cape," by Dana Goodyear, from her first book Honey and Junk. Instead of the streets in Wellfleet or Hyannis, or descriptions of red-nosed drunken uncles in swimming trunks, we receive a flash of essences:
Take me to your sleeping porch!
Cross-breeze. Swiss dot. View.
We'll try for some rude
do what young people do.
Or, I'll point out scenery,
the more expensive property.
A slurry beach.
An empty breach.
Thick, eggish water breaking
on the boring, boring shore.
Is everything defective here?
There are men downstairs who think
that gin's a breakfast drink.
I mean to say: It's May.
Let's find an outdoor shower.
The speed generates an impatience that dramatizes "boring, boring" and "defective" without lingering over them. The desire to escape from timeworn social structures of pleasure zips ahead to the conclusion.
Speed produces not impatience, but a sense of explosive fate -- destiny compressed in terrible domestic moments -- in a striking short poem from the "New Poems" section of Jean Valentine's Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003:
spills the half-gallon of milk on the floor.
The milk is all over the floor, the table,
the chairs, the books, the dinner, the windows
-- Mother and son are gone happy.
The father to work.
The sister to marriage.
The girl is still spilling
white negative shining
out of one life into another life.
The spill goes beyond the anecdotal and the rational, covering the books, the dinner, the windows, spilling over into the dispersal of a family into events, into the brilliant negations and persistences ("white negative shining") of time itself.
The isolation of brevity heightens the aura of each word and thing. Like the "eggish water" in Goodyear's poem, the "milk-house" has a suggestive shimmer; it makes me think of the peaked triangular roof at the top of a cardboard milk carton -- the little protective roof that in the normal course of things gets torn open.
(Dana Goodyear's poem "Cape" is from his book "Honey and Junk." Norton. Copyright © 2005 by Dana Goodyear. Jean Valentine's poem "The girl" is from his "Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003." Wesleyan Univ. Copyright © 2004 by Jean Valentine.)