On the walk up Comox St. to the market on Saturdays, I pass by an apartment window with a row of twelve Queen Elizabeth II figurines on display, each holding a black purse, each waving that magesterial wave with a white gloved hand. The queens are roughly six inches tall, solar powered, and their bobbly hands never tire.
The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself writes Robert Hass in his essay “Listening and Making,” and it’s true, one doesn’t have to go far to discern some pattern or other, and anyways, we humans are hard-wired to sniff them out. Yet, down the row, the queen second to the end wears not blue but yellow, and holds a white purse. She is ever so slightly fancier than all the others. Hass continues: Repetition makes us feel secure and variation makes us feel free. This queen in yellow is the unexpected twist that makes the whole spectacle so compelling. A disruption to any pattern causes a disorientation necessary to our human existence. In art, as in life, it’s this shift out of the pattern (to return moments later, or immediately) that reminds us we’re alive.
Repetition is spontaneous, impels a reader forward or demands attention, inundates or decimates. In poetry (and stories too) it is one of those internal structures that fades into the background so even close readers might miss it entirely. Like the giant pillar running up the center of a pagoda (we know it’s there but can’t see it), repetition is one of those invisible elements that gives the whole structure its strength.
I am enamoured with the repetitive mode. At the level of language, I’m drawn to the simple recurrence of words. Matthew Rohrer pays particular attention to repetition in his poem “A Little Rain,”
Everything beneath the roof
of trees is sticky
from the trees.
The trees have gifted the ground with their stickiness, and the word trees is a gift too, a kind of trade within these two short lines. This kind of repetition creates a tiny, satisfying circuit. Further on in the poem he writes:
comes from lions. It goes
back to water.
How simple, to describe a fountain in this way. In poems like this, not only is the sonic experience of the word a presence, but the image too, like a too-bright light flashing across the eyelids long after the eyes have closed.
Here’s a few lines from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Jumping Ahead”:
If only I'd understood that loneliness
was just loneliness, only loneliness
and nothing more.
The sound of loneliness is like a little bell that tinkles in my ear in a sad way. The texture of the word has a little downward slope, and the echo here describes the experience of the feeling so precisely. But by repeating the word, Ruefle has also totally obliterated its influence. That four beat “and nothing more,” along with the sudden absence of the word, renders the feeling of loneliness useless, literally reducing it to nothing.
A final example: Here is a list of repetitions from Brenda Shaughnessy’s 36-line poem “I Have A Time Machine”: But, but, travel, time, time, next, next, zipping, zipping, window, fish, fish, the past, sometimes, sometimes, myself, myself, me, me, explode, explosion, mother, mother’s mother’s mother, fish, window, travelling, time, the past. I stare in awe at the mastery, I circle and re-circle the words. Like a queen on display in a window, the poem waves metronomically at me, a little smug. She has gotten away with something but I can’t tell what.
The act of writing is to enter into the repetitive mode. I sit at the kitchen table at roughly the same time every day (or once a week, or twice a week). I have a cup of coffee, some poems to read, my notebook. I sit sit sit. To be in the moment of writing, open to possibility, to the strange tacks the imagination may take, is brave. To let the pattern be disrupted, and then to drag that pattern back into existence, is hard work. But the ritual of writing is fortifying. By invoking a necessary repetitive practice one gains access to the imagination. It is here where the pattern is disrupted, and the real transformation takes place. Eventually, it will resume: dishes in the sink, emails to answer. But for a time, a new rhythm is discovered.
What these experiences must touch in us is the rhythm of our own individuation. That’s Hass again. I love the tail end of this line: the rhythm of our own individuation. Feeling alive, feeling safe, a back and forth so human it’s innate in us. The part rhythm plays in the work of the imagination can’t be ignored. I’m reminded of a Dean Young poem, “Romanticism 101” that concludes with the lines:
Then I realized repetition could be an ending.
Then I realized repetition could be an ending.
The queens wave each time I pass. The world stops, then starts again. Yes, for sure I’m alive.
Hass, Robert. “Listening and Making,” from 20th Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. The Ecco Press, New Jersey.1984. pp. 107 – 133. Print.
Rohrer, Matthew. “A little rain,” from Surrounded by Friends. Wave Books, Seattle. 2015. pp. 8. Print.
Ruefle, Mary. “Jumping Ahead,”* from Trances of the Blast. Wave Books, Seattle. 2014. pp. 62 – 63. Print.
Shaughnessy, Brenda. “I Have a Time Machine,” from The New Yorker, July 20, 2015. Online.
*With thanks to Curtis AuCoin for reminding me about those Mary Ruefle lines.
Sheryda Warrener lives in Vancouver, where she teaches poetry at the University of British Columbia. Her poems have appeared in Arc, The Malahat Review, Event, and the Believer, among other journals. She is the author of Hard Feelings (Snare/Invisible 2010), and a new collection of poems Floating Is Everything, from Nightwood Editions.