What Can We Steal from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye”?

Title of Work and its Form: “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye,” poem
Author: Aimee Nezhukumatathil (on Twitter @aimeenez)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appears in Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s collection At the Drive-In Volcano.  (Available now from Tupelo Press!)  You can also find the poem on the Poetry Foundation web site.  It’s right here.

Bonuses:  Ms. Nezhukumatathil is everywhere!  Here is an interview she did with fellow GWS subject Roxane Gay.  Learn about Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s philosophy on poetry in her interview with the Poetry Society of America.  And here is an interview she did with Flyway, a site dedicated to writing influenced by nature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Poetic Forms

Discussion:
The poem features a first-person narrator who is directly addressing the man with whom she is attending an auction.  While the auctioneer “rackets” on, the narrator considers what will happen in two days when she sees her lover off at the airport.  She will feel a sense of loss and will miss him greatly, a sadness that colors the time she is spending with him.

What do you notice first about the poem?  Okay, okay, the beautiful imagery.  What do you notice next?  The poem is a villanelle, a kind of poem that follows the following rules:

  • The poem must have nineteen lines.
  • The poem must consist of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza).
  • The first and third lines of each tercet must have the same rhyme; this rhyme is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.

You might think that writing in a strict form could stifle your creativity, but look what the form does for Ms. Nezhukumatathil.  The recurring image of the man’s corduroy jacket becomes a sad refrain; the woman remembers the smell and texture of the jacket, the kind of visceral sensory input that we crave from those we love.  The use of a poetic form also forms a structure that the reader can use to understand your poem.  If you knew about villanelles before I told you about it, then you understood that the ending couplet would be coming up and would not be shocked by the turn that Ms. Nezhukumatathil makes in the quatrain.

Ms. Nezhukumatathil is following in the footsteps of countless great poets by writing a villanelle; you’ve probably read Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  The familiarity of the form allows you to not only compare your work to the others that came before, but also allows your reader to relax into your piece in the same way they did upon reading the Thomas.

What is that turn in the final quatrain?  Ms. Nezhukumatathil begins the poem in the dramatic present, as the woman and man go to the auction.  In the third tercet, the narrator launches into a bit of a daydream; she thinks about taking him to the airport and kissing him goodbye and making love to him.  The third-to-last line represents a return to the dramatic present.  Isn’t this a perfectly natural depiction of time spent with a lover who must soon leave?  No matter where you go or what you do, the specter of the departure looms over everything!

Uh oh.  It looks as though Ms. Nezhukumatathil broke a rule of writing.  The third stanza mixes up the tenses a little bit.  The narrator, who is at an auction in the dramatic present, says that she “will” drive the gentleman to the airport.  In the next sentence she mentions that “lines sear” her cheek when they hug.  She didn’t say “will!”  Is this confusing?  Of course not.  That phrase “lines sear” is much more powerful the way Ms. Nezhukumatathil cast it.  You sear meat on a grill and you sear yourself onto the heart of someone you love.

Ms. Nezhukumatathil hooked me with her beautiful images.  (Gosh, the part about fingering the rim of the coffee cup is sad and sweet!)  She also hooked me because there’s a part of her poem I didn’t understand.  Some folks are scared of poetry because they claim not to be able to understand any of it and some poetry is intentionally opaque.  Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s poem, however, is “hard to understand” in one place and in a good way.  The rest of the poem is clear as crystal, but I am hung up on “how it haunts me still—what I bid—lost, sacked/ and wrapped for other girls.”  The “confusion” that I have is really a point of analysis.  I get to decide what the lines mean because the rest of the poem provides the context I need to come up with something interesting.

What Should We Steal?

  • Adopt a strict form to force you to be creative in other ways.  Sometimes writers are daunted by having too many choices.  Writing a piece that adheres to a pre-established form can help winnow down all of those choices, allowing you to shine in the places in the form that are untouched by the rules.
  • Break grammatical rules, but only when you have a reason to do so.  We follow the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful.  We break the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful.
  • Offer opaque statements…once in a while.  A little mystery or confusion can be good for a reader…but only a little bit.  Don’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding of the piece as a whole.

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