What Can We Steal From Amy Lemmon’s “I take your T-shirt to bed again…”?


Title of Work and its Form: “I take your T-shirt to bed again…,” poem
Author:  Amy Lemmon (on Twitter @aSaintNobody)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in Vitrine: a printed museum and was subsequently chosen for The Best American Poetry 2013 by the great Denise Duhamel and David Lehman.  You can find the poem in the anthology-a book we should all have-but Ms. Lemmon was kind enough to post the poem on her blog.

Bonuses:  It’s no secret that Ms. Duhamel is one of my favorite contemporary poets; check out the poems Ms. Duhamel and Ms. Lemmon wrote together for Superstition Review.  Why not check out Saint Nobody, Ms. Lemmon’s Red Hen Press book?  Want to see the author read her work?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Efficiency

This thirteen-line poem is cast in the first person and the narrator is addressing a lover who won’t return for three days.  (Although I suppose it would be funny if the poem, drenched in beautiful romantic imagery, were about a postal carrier or a clerk at the supermarket.  We never like to say that there’s any one right answer in literature, but it’s safe to say that the narrator is thinking about his or her lover.)  In an attempt to feel closer to the absent lover, the narrator has tried to mimic their scent and fantasizes about the imminent homecoming.

This may be a GWS first: I stole a technique from “I take your T-shirt…” for one of my own poems and the piece was just published in the East Jasmine Review.  I admired the way in which Ms. Lemmon opened her poem:

I take your T-Shirt to bed again…

and by now it has almost lost its scent-

Why did I like the way that Ms. Lemmon ended the title with an ellipsis, how she treated the title like any other sentence?

  1. The move bridges the gap between the title and the body of the poem.  I don’t know about you, but these two elements sometimes seem separated.  Not so in this work.
  2. It can be hard to come up with a title…not so if you kick off a poem with its first line.
  3. The reader is placed into a familiar mindset: he or she is reading a first person story.  When we read that “I,” we are automatically relating in a deeper place as human beings.
  4. The title establishes what kind of poem this will be.  This is not blank verse.  It’s not a sonnet or a villanelle.  Ms. Lemmon lets us know that this is a free verse poem very quickly, answering one of the questions that may be on our minds before we can ease into the enjoyment phase of reading.

In case you are curious, I began my poem, “When you called,” and eased into a sad narrative about a bad parent who calls their child…once in a while.  Feel free to decide for yourself what my work means, but the point is that I think I gained some of the same advantages Ms. Lemmon enjoyed in her poem.

What do you notice about the shape of the poem itself?  Well, the lines get a little bit longer.  What do you notice about the language?  It’s a little less focused than at the beginning of the stanza.  Why?  Well, here’s my interpretation.  After thinking about and pining for his or her lover, the narrator is feeling a great deal of sexual arousal.  If we can keep it real, this state renders most people a little more instinctive and emotional than they are intellectual.  Our communication is not necessarily less effective than when we’re not thinking about sex, but we’re more likely to speak in different tones and in different nonverbal ways.  The poem changes to reflect the altered mental state of its narrator.  What are some of the changes?

  • The last line is the longest in the poem
  • The narrator employs a delightful homonym pair, “pores/pour,” that pleases us in a base instead of intellectual manner
  • The clauses are very short, just like the thoughts most of us have when aroused
  • We see the first use of italics in the poem; typographical tricks are to prose what nonverbal communication is to speaking

The first person narrator’s mindset is very clear because Ms. Lemmon informs our conscious and subconscious about the changes.  The same principle is used in the end of the poem.  An em-dash sends us off into the world, inviting us to come up with our own idea of what happens next for the narrator and the lover in question.  Ms. Lemmon, like Ms. Duhamel, uses language beautifully and fulfills all of the requirements of “literary/smarty-pants” poetry, but keeps her work accessible to folks who may not read poetry very often.  (I happen to teach a lot of these folks; they love poetry but just don’t know it.)  This poem accesses feelings that are deeply held inside us all and uses language in a way we can all understand to depict sexual and romantic longing.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make your title part of the body of the work.  A title can be a summation and a beginning at the same time: an economical and powerful way to start.
  • Alter your lines and sentences to reflect the mental state of the narrator.  If you just went for a two-mile run, you’re not going to be able to rattle off long, complicated sentences very easily.  Nor should your characters.
  • End a work in guided ambiguity.  I have an idea as to what the narrator will do next because Ms. Lemmon gave me so many clues; your idea is equally valid.