What Can We Steal From Michael Schmeltzer’s “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For,” poem
Author: Michael Schmeltzer
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was published in the July 2008 issue of the Boxcar Poetry Review.  You can find it here.

Bonuses:  Here are some poems Mr. Schmeltzer had published in the Superstition Review.  Here are some more poems Mr. Schmeltzer published in 42opus.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Painting With Words

Like its title, “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For” is split into three sections.  In the first, the narrator describes a prenatal appointment he attended with a woman who was pregnant with his child.  In the second, Schmeltzer meditates on the titular cholera; the disease is spread by the same water it leeches from the victim.  The third section considers water as a threat and what happens when it is allowed to flow uncontrolled.  There’s a brooding intensity in the poem; Mr. Schmeltzer deals with big ideas and employs confident, reserved language to allow the reader to use both intellect and emotion.

Mr. Schmeltzer isn’t using a specific kind of meter in the poem, but he is still thinking very much about the music made by his lines.  I love the way that he opens the lines with different iambs (metrical feet).

Phrase: Iamb I felt Mr. Schmeltzer used:
Take the Trochee
as an answer Anapest
abandoned Amphibrach
weeks ago Dactyl
when the Trochee
what could Trochee

Mr. Schmeltzer switches up the rhythm of the lines, which attracts the reader’s attention.  When you read an Elizabethan sonnet (all iambic pentameter), the reader doesn’t need to focus on the meter.  Simplicity is far less appropriate in a poem like “Cholera, Drowning…”  Mr. Schmeltzer makes the wise choice to leave many elements of the poem out of balance.  After all, flooding is an imbalance in the water table, cholera is an imbalance in the immune system and so on.

There’s another interesting “imbalance” in the poem.  Look what Mr. Schmeltzer does in the last sentence of each section: there’s a deliberate break between the words. (And it looks like the space decreases in size each time.)  Is this a mistake?  Of course not.  Mr. Schmeltzer is altering your understanding of the poem by influencing the way your brain receives it.  That gap is only three quarters of an inch wide, but requires the reader to pause for just a moment.  This respite allows you that much more time to absorb everything you’ve read in the poem and adds importance to what follows.

And what does follow?  “gradually forgotten,” “too much,” “deluge of language.”  The three phrases serve as a summation of the poem’s theme.  The “key” is made more obvious because Mr. Schmeltzer subtly nudges your subconscious into adding more emphasis to the phrases.

I love Rembrandt for many reasons, but look at the way he uses light to direct your gaze.  Look at his painting called “The Nightwatch:” You could look at this painting for hours, especially if you were standing before the actual canvas.  Your eyes are likely drawn to the gentleman on the right because he’s bathed in light.  Directly parallel is the child, also awash in light.  Next, we likely notice the gentleman between the two…see how Remmy is telling you where to look by using shapes and light?  Mr. Schmeltzer is also “painting,” only with words.

What Should We Steal?

  • Mess with meter to make music and create tone.  You can keep your reader’s attention if he or she is always off-balance.  Nudging the reader to constantly assess your meter can also reinforce the idea that there are even more complicated thoughts to be mined in your work.
  • Paint in the same manner as Rembrandt, only with words.  Direct your reader’s subconscious to the most critical parts of your piece.


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