The Black Back-Ups

book by Kate Rushin’s

annotation by Lisa McCool-Grime

Although I’d read this book once before and was moved by its content, I happily returned to it as part of a larger craft-oriented study on the impact of the short line. Rushin wildly varies line length throughout the book and within single poems, but in all cases, she seems to be using what June Jordan calls “vertical rhythm”. In June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, June Jordan includes an essay discussing the manipulation of syntax and musical devices around the line break in order to create a vertical rhythm that either rushes the reader down the page or slows the reader at the end of each line. As an example of the latter, at the ninth stanza of The Bridge Poem, Rushin moves from longer but varied lines to a consistently short line:

Of having
To remind you
To breathe
Before you
Your own
Fool self

The pattern of rhythm established by the earlier longer lines gives these short lines in stanza nine a lot of space. I feel indignant, pregnant pauses at each break. The poem has built to this peak by using average-length and long lines to list all the things the narrator is sick of and here, at the ninth stanza, she is out of breath and out of patience with her listing. It is worth noting that, where she can, Rushin uses the line break in this poem to work with syntactical structure. Since the way we receive information is impacted by how our language organizes itself, working with the syntactical structure allows us as readers (or listeners) to pause without confusion. So the emotional force of the poem paired with short lines broken naturally with syntax, slows a reader down. In contrast Rushin does the exact opposite of this in other poems to create a fast pace, breaking against the syntax. In “Family Tree”, she breaks after prepositions: “A long line of / Uppity Irate Black Women” and “A coupon and one dollar to / Nabisco Shredded Wheat”. In these cases, the break against the syntax naturally rushes readers along because we want to finish the thought begun with the phrase. What I find particularly interesting is that I can hear these breaks as a unit of breath for a performance poet. In fact, it is typical for performance poets to affect a pause after a conjunction or a preposition. I now see that the consequences are similar—both keep the audience anxious for what comes next. The reader quickly reads on. The listener anxiously listens for the next line. This is particularly important for slam poets whose scores are related to how engaged the listener is during the performance. Choosing to break against natural syntax helps to up the suspense level of the work.

Whether slowing down or speeding up, Rushin’s carefully controlled, carefully varied dance between line break and syntax creates that vertical rhythm.

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