Saturday, July 29, 2017

Revising Robert Kroetsch

While I genuinely like Robert Kroetsch's "Sounding the Name," (which you may read here, & if no one objects, I'll reproduce it below)  a few tweaks here & there would amplify the emotional impact.

Sounding the Name

In this poem my mother is not dead.
The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.
The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
Our hired man, a neighbor's son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills
near our farm, does not turn from the phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o'clock.  My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not smile
assuring each other (forever) that words are
pretenders.

In this poem my mother is not dead.
She is in the kitchen, finishing the October
canning.  I am helping in the kitchen

I wash the cucumbers.  My mother asks me
to go pick some dill.  The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the gate.

For starters, since the mother's name doesn't appear in the poem, which isn't surprising, considering that most of us don't address our parents by their given names, I'd change the title to "Denials."  Next, I'd scratch the opening line "In this poem my mother is not dead."  As rule of thumb, I don't find it particularly helpful for the writer to identify the genre.  The reader is aware that it's a poem, one would hope, without being told.  On the other hand, by telling the reader, albeit ironically, that "my mother is not dead" in the first line, the poet tips his hand.  Withholding that information until later in the poem would increase its emotional payoff.

The second stanza stands as is, but I have a couple minor tweaks to the third stanza. In the context of the personal revisionist history presented, it makes little sense why the brother & sister would have actually smiled at each other upon learning of their mother's death.  Even if you can explain it, I doubt that anything essential is lost by pushing forward to the next line, where I'd omit "forever." Although it's tempting to rewrite the phrase "words are pretenders," I'm not interested in altering the poet's phrasing or diction.  If I were, I'd suggest using contractions to make the poem sound more conversational.

In the fourth stanza, once again I'd lose "In this poem my mother is not dead."  Instead, I'd begin, "My mother is finishing the October / canning."  I'd leave the fifth stanza pretty much intact, so the revised poem would be:

Denials

The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.
The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
Our hired man, a neighbor's son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills
near our farm, does not turn from the phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o'clock.  My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not assure 
each other that words are pretenders.

My mother is finishing the October
canning.  I am helping in the kitchen.

I wash the cucumbers.  My mother asks me
to pick some dill.  The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the gate.


Note:  The revision of this poem came about via a discussion in my weekly poetry group, to whom, head bowed, hat over heart, I extend my thanks.  For similar posts, check out "Revising 'Theories of Time & Space'" & "Singing Instructions."

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