One pleasure of poetry is in speed of movement. Another is in the slow curve of the mind in response to that speed: We gradually embrace, in the dreamy slow motion of thought, the meaning of each quick gesture. The word "quick" includes among its meanings the ideas "alive" and "sensitive." And the word "ponder" connotes heaviness. The poem is quick, in all senses, and we enjoy pondering it.
For instance, we may read a poem like William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" or Frank O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings" many times, deliberately relishing at our leisure each tricky phrase or lightning-cut of transition.
A new first book, Jason Schneiderman's Sublimation Point, has the fast thinker's brilliance, where the rapid movement is both funny and, like so much comedy, quick-stepping, a teasing dance of avoidance and engagement with fear -- in this poem, fear of a medical diagnosis:
The Disease Collector
Odd word: culture, as though this swab cared
About art and music, loved the opera,
Saw the Ballet Russe when Nijinsky still bared
His chest, could quote the illuminata
In the original Italian. As though this petri dish
Were a center of learning, and parents wished
For their children to go there, like Harvard or Yale,
As though a positive answer would not pale
My cheeks, or force me to wholly rearrange
My life around pills and doctor's visits;
Force me to find old lovers and tricks,
Warn that their bodies may too grow strange;
To play the old game of who gave it to whom,
Gently lowering voices, alone in one's room.
The poem whisks along from the two senses of "culture" to Nijinsky to Harvard and then, as the last six lines begin, to the personal pronoun "me" and the equally personal emotion. That feeling, evaded then confronted, is expressed partly by pace and swift changes of direction. Here is another example of that expressive quickness:
The one day of my life I had a girlfriend
was the first time someone asked me point blank
if I was gay. I was happy, thought Jennifer could end
something vague I was heading for. Trent tanked
that theory. Trent was curious and joking. I think
I could even have said yes, but I didn't want fag inked
into my life yet. There would have been therapy,
problems -- I was fourteen and at a school with Christian enmity
between the fundamentalists, Catholics and Mormons.
The person to feel bad for in this poem is Jennifer.
I never saw her after the awkward moment I asked her
out. It was the last day of the eighth grade. She'd written
that she loved me in my yearbook. I thought I had to
ask her out. Jennifer, I'm sorry. It wasn't you.
This time, the personal "I" is in the first line, and the hinge comes before the last five lines, with the surprise of addressing us readers about "this poem" and then addressing "Jennifer." "It wasn't you" means both "it was not your fault" and "you weren't who I wanted." These poems follow the rhyme scheme of the sonnet, but the tradition this young poet most significantly keeps alive in them is the great poetic tradition of wit as serious means. In such writing, wit -- as the old expression has it -- cuts to the quick. (Jason Schneiderman's poems are from his book, "Sublimation Point." Four Way. Copyright © 2004 by Jason Schneiderman.)