Category Archives: Repetition

The Wild Iris

WildIrisImageThe Wild Iris, Louise Glück

Annotation by Sarah E. Miller

            From the beginning of Louise Glück ’s The Wild Iris there is a questioning that begins in the reader; is this flower life or human life? The cycling of her poems from flower to human to seasons to relationship to religion-reigning-over-it-all creates a deep and arduous sadness about the entire book.  Glück achieves this by employing repetition on various levels.

Everything in this book cycles and grows. Through a successful use of repetition, Glück creates a deepened picture of grief and the other side of grief, the moment when one can finally breathe. The poem title “Matins” is repeated throughout the book, usually in twos. It sets a tone of darkness turning to light, a nighttime prayer that ends at dawn. The poems titled “Matins” serve as a sort of break throughout. They are a more human response to the nature call and they are severely honest:  “…it is a bitter thing to be the disposable animal, a bitter thing.” The “Matins” also prove to be familiar to the reader, something we’ve all heard and felt at another time in life, “What is my heart to you/that you must break it over and over/like a plantsman testing/his new species?”

In addition to the repetition of titles, Glück uses questions in the body of the poems. There is not a single poem that goes without asking questions, either outright or implied. At times the question is directly posed to the reader, something that must be answered; in other poems it feels more stream of conscious, especially when Glück uses a dash in place of a question mark. The questions are actively pulling the reader into this world and giving human quality among the abundance of nature. In “Snowdrops,” Glück begins with a human question and delves back into nature, “Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know/what despair is; then/winter should have meaning for you.” Again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” she utilizes a question we might ask one another but one that is meant for nature, “Trapped in the earth/wouldn’t you too want to go/to heaven? I live/in a lady’s garden. Forgive me, lady/longing has taken my grace.”

Finally, Glück uses repetition at the word level: grief, blue, you, stars, and earth are found throughout the book. This repetition could easily become mundane and give less weight to each word as it is repeated.  However, Glück employs each word to hold deeper meaning each time it is used. For example, the word “grief” is sometimes stacked so closely to itself that the poem begins to take on the weight of the word. In “Violets,” the word is used and defined repeatedly, “…we do not grieve/as you grieve, dear/suffering master; you/are no more lost/than we are, under/the hawthorn tree, the hawthorn holding…” In just two poems later, Glück is using the word grief again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” as a connection between nature and life, “…I too desire/knowledge of paradise—and now/your grief, a naked stem/reaching the porch window.” Moreover, she places these words in surprising contexts, such as nestled in a monologue from a flower, suddenly giving human quality to nature. Often the flower and plant subjects are grieving their lot in life but they always receive another chance to live and blossom. This notion is often set against the notion of human mortality, highlighting the sometimes ridiculousness of human life. At times it feels as if the flowers are condemning human emotion as in “The Red Poppy,” “I am speaking now/the way you do. I speak/because I am shattered.”

Employing nature, particularly flowers, would seem too “obvious” a choice for the subject of poetry; however, Glück breaks out of stereotypical uses of these tropes through crafty timing and placement of repetition, often of simple diction.   As poets, we often think of repetition as being limited to a poem or only on the word or sound level, but Glück shows us how to think of and use a wider range of repetition without the fear of being redundant or unoriginal across a body of work.

Waiting for the King of Spain

Waiting for the King of Spain by Diane Wakoski

Annotation byLisa Cheby

Maybe it is my own addiction to an “M.,” or my own sense of longing and waiting for my own King of Spain to move from figment of my imagination to corporeal being by my side that fascinates me about this book that revels in and examines and tries to transcend longing and obsession with ending longing. Wakoski engages a confessional voice – the speaker is often talking directly to someone, named or unnamed, that is not present and whose absence inspires longing and contemplation – in search for courage and love. Though that statement makes this book sound prosaic and sappy, it is not. It his honest and beautiful. I must stop and breathe deeply after each of her poems to bask in that darkness and the momentary release from my own addictive patterns. Because thoughts are addictive. Our mind goes to places for a feel-good fix, even if the lack of fulfillment of those thoughts ultimately brings disappointment or sadness. Wakoski recreates this fluctuation between the high and the fall through line breaks that surprise, but don’t leap, and repetition.

First, I was caught by her intentionality of line breaks. However, rather than turning or leaping, as is commonly found in modern verse, Wakoski’s breaks work more like punchlines, not in humor, but in the revelation of more than what was first apparent. She turns not out, but back in, over and over and over again. In “Burning My Bridges Behind Me,” the speaker contemplates the traits of her ideal mate, “Who from a burning bridge/ and a mountain / could forge some new metal / giving passage across the gap / into my life” (45). Here, with the bridge image built and etched into the readers mind we are hanging on a gap and rather than turning that to a new thought or image, than leaping somewhere new, Wakoski brings us back to the internal, the abstract, both surprising and deepening the image. The gorge to be bridged is internal, is the solitary life. At times, as in “The Fear of Dropping the Violin,” this break and punchline is self-deprecating, the confession of the reality of the speaker’s situation: “for my leaving is so common, / surely no one could cry over it” (59) or “Like a battleship/ my life goes on” (60). In these we feel the weight of the speaker’s journey inward to make sense and meaning of her life. There is a sort of deadpanness to this reality that cannot be jumped over or away from.

The second device Wakoski employs is her use of repetition and recycling of images. It is not just repetition, however, but an obsessive examination and reworking of words, images and phrases, sustained through poems, sections, and, even, the entire book. It is as if she has taken the idea of repetition of a pantoum or villanelle to the level of the book and discarded with the idea of form. This is apparent in the first section where there seems to be a single speaker working to manifest her partner and caught between the one who left, M., a recurring you in the poem, and the ideal King of Spain, who is always there, waiting to appear, but never fully present. Likewise, in the third section, “Fifteen Poems for a Lunar Eclipse None of Us Saw,” she reuses the images of roses, moon, water, blood, Lorca, lips, fingers, and diamonds, like a sestina extended through a series of poems rather than constrained into one form. The images begin to feel like a reoccurring dream. The first poem ends with the phrase, “not the blood a dreamer kissed from my mouth” (75), followed by “blood in mouth/ thick as porridge / and yet I did not feel/ as if I were dying // one kissed the blood away / from my mouth/his own” (76) in the following poem.  Other images are similarly weaved through the other poems. Some, like the diamonds, extend beyond one section and appear through the book.

At other times, it is as if she included multiple drafts of the same poem in the book, creating a sequence of revision and re-visioning of ideas that her mind insists on returning to, for the feel-good fix as well as the need to feel something or understand something, even if it is the pain of longing, loss, and uncertainty. This is best seen in “Harry Moon from my Child’s Anthology of Verse” where entire sections are repeated in new contexts. For instance, the beginning of this long poem contains the image, “I said/ nothing. /Thinking of a girl, riding naked on her zebra,/ wearing only her diamonds” (107), a page later becomes, “I could not say / I was a girl riding naked on a zebra, / wearing only her diamonds. / So I remained silent” (108). Later, the lines change slightly to “Riding naked on my zebra, wearing only / my diamonds. But I could not; / for it was a vision that rescued me” (110). In each, the image is associated with silence, with the inexpressible, but each time, the inability to speak has a different motivation. Finally, the diamonds are turned into “Crystal fragments of my pain,/ cold, stunning. / Now I wish I had real diamonds” (110). Additionally, the images of diamonds are used through other poems, connecting the this idea of re-visioning and working things out between poems and sections of the book.

As I prepare to revise my first manuscript, I want to find images, not just themes, that might strength the emotional energy of the book as a collection, not just poems grouped together. Since many of the poems revolve around similar topics and subjects, perhaps this type of repetition is a way to keep the book dynamic while also feeling holistic.


book by David Hernandez

annotation by Lisa Cheby

David Hernandez’s recent collection, Hoodwinked,  contains deceptively simple poems.  He writes of butterflies, supermarkets, post offices, and David Letterman.   Of this collection, Carol Muske-Dukes writes, “Hernandez is not fooling around, but this book brilliantly fools with our expectations and inability to focus on what’s in front of us.”   Deborah Lechner writes, “David Hernandez writes fearlessly, unapologetically and coherently of the vital subject of inevitable deterioration.”

However, for me, this book is about memory and storytelling, about the fluidity of truth and reality.  He  poses outrageous questions: “Do butterflies have walking dreams?”     And images that make the eye of our brain spin: from “This is how/ every story telephoned from person / to person becomes after each telling / distorted”  leading us to the tunnel of  images reflecting in the barbershop mirrors, “an endless green tunnel” to “Memory is  murky thing/ always changing its mind” from a poem with epigraphs from the murky memoirist, James Frey.  Later, in “Panoramic,” the poem mocks its own memory distilling the 11 stanzas of the first section down to a single stanza filled simply with “something” (really, in two lines he uses the word four times). 

Hernandez achieves this replication of memory’s murkiness and fictionalization through  repetition.  Thus, Hoodwinked, recreates how we speak and remember and retell and, well,  recreate memories that we un-spin and re-spin until we get the story we know or that we want to know.  We see repetition is the books constant return to memory as well as subtle repetition of words and phrases within poems.  The first poem, “Questions About Butterflies,” is a poem of memory from the speaker’s childhood.  In the poem, the phrase “We are” is repeated, as if recreating the memory, affirming the fiction to be truth.  Later, “butterfly” takes over shifting focus from the “We are” to the reality of the memory:  the questions raised by the butterflies.  “Panoramic,” repeats not through direct repetition, but through the evocation of repetition in mocking the inadequacy of memory or retelling, the blurring of details.   Finally, in the last poem, Hernandez leaves us with one last glimpse of repetition, as ghostly as a memory, starting the final poem with “Through a tunnel,” repeating the imagery of the “endless green tunnel” from “Trompe L’Oeil.”

We never really know when the speaker of the poems is telling the truth or asserting desire truth through the assertion of repetition.  Though, as David says in an interview on “How A Poem Happens,” “There’s a presumption that a poem is more meaningful if the poet describes an experience exactly as it happened, and if he were to fiddle with the facts, then the poem is somehow inauthentic. As if simply sticking to the facts will prevent one from sounding disingenuous. I’m more concerned that the poem sounds emotionally true . . . .”   And on that level, there is no attempt to hoodwink his readers.