Marilyn Chin surprised as West champion—but it shouldn’t be a surprise, really.
The best thing a poem can do for you is make someone fall in love with you who otherwise wouldn’t.
(And you are not there when they read your poem. You are missing.)
The poem does not know what power it has, but as G. Lessing said, poetry and painting “represent absent things as present.”
To miss someone is to be in love with them. There is no greater subjective test. Art portrays the “missing,” the “absent,” and so unrequited love, or love with an obstacle, may be the greatest poetical topic.
This is to state the obvious, but we avoid the obvious at our peril. In this contest to see who plays Ben Mazer for the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship, Stephen Dunn brings his usual reflective capacity; his poem is rueful and there. Marilyn Chin brings absence to her poem.
First, Stephen Dunn’s poem, “The Slow Surge,” and then Marilyn Chin’s “Unrequited Love:”
THE SLOW SURGE
How sweetly disappeared the silky distraction
of her clothes, and before that the delicacy
with which she stepped out of her shoes.
Can one ever unlearn what one knows?
In postcoital calm I was at home
in the great, minor world
of flesh, languor, and whispery talk.
Soon, I knew, the slow surge of dawn
would give way to rush hour and chores.
It would be hard to ignore the ugliness—
the already brutal century,
the cold, spireless malls—everything the mind
lets in after lovemaking has run its course,
when even a breast that excited you so
is merely companionable, a place to rest your hand.
Because you stared into the black lakes of her eyes,
you shall drown in them.
Because you tasted the persimmon on her lips,
you shall dig your moist grave.
Her rope of black hair does not signify a ladder of escape,
but of capture,
the warm flesh of her arms and thighs—not cradles of comfort,
but of despair.
She shall always be waiting for you in an empty room
overlooking the sea.
She shall always sit this way, her back towards you,
her shoulders bare,
her silk kimono in manifolds around her waist—
blue as the changeless sea.
You sit prostrate before her, bruise your forehead,
chant the Dharmas.
Five thousand years together in the same four-and-a-half-mat room,
and she has not learned to love you.
Dunn’s poem is a complaint, a common sense and almost a petty one, contrasting love-making with its aftermath. We can argue with Dunn’s poem, unfortunately. We can say: if we really had a good lovemaking session and we are really in love, even the mall will look beautiful to us! The argument itself is not the point—the fact that we can argue with the poem is the point. True, one cannot argue with a breast that no longer seems sexy. But one can argue with the body of Dunn’s poem, with the premise of Dunn’s poem. This is not a matter of picking at this or that flaw. All poems have these little flaws, but we speak of being able to argue with the poem’s general thrust.
We cannot argue with Marilyn Chin’s poem. We cannot ‘bring it closer’ with argument. We always miss what’s there.
Chin’s poem is—the winner. To say anything more would be to anticipate objections which the poem itself has carefully suppressed.
Chin 68 Dunn 66
MARILYN CHIN IS GOING TO THE FINAL!