wringing so much from a poem of couplets, we might have twice as much to say about a poem written in quatrains. I started thinking about it yesterday, how endlessly flexible they seem in the English language, how very nearly a default mode for lyric poetry. They are on the one hand the most rigid of formal choices–historically tried-and-true, the keystone of the sonnet, only four lines, no more no less!–and yet they seem to be the most transparent: when we read a poem of four-line stanzas, we hardly see the form at all. Here’s a little construction that puts the “four” back in formal: the pantoum. I’d thought it was another middle eastern form, but in fact it originated about 600 years ago in the Malay language, in what is now Indonesia. Victor Hugo is credited with introducing it to the West, and it became popular in 19th century French verse. There are just a handful of famous examples in English, including one by that elegant rake, John Ashbery. You can hear Caroline Kizer reading one here:
Rogers & Hammerstein even wrote one for the musical “Flower Drum Song” (“I Am Going to Like It Here”)!
A pantoum can be as long or short as it needs to be, and the 2nd and 4th lines of each stanza are recycled as the 1st and 3rd lines of each following stanza. The final stanza loops back to the first for its as-yet-unrepeated 1st and 3rd lines. These requirements make it difficult to create any sense, and also make a “normal” speech flow challenging. But in the right hands it also creates an incantatory refrain effect. Further, the repeated lines and words tend to take on new meanings in their new contexts. This is especially true in today’s poem, by Belgian-born-and-raised Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Ashbery refers to the meaning of a poem as being not much more than “the time it takes to unroll,” and the time of unrolling is important in this poem: it gets us back to where we started, changed. There’s something haunting and cryptic and autumnal about this piece, which is why, surely, the poet’s name anagrammizes to “a seasonal blear rune.” -ed.
On a platform, I heard someone call out your name: No, Laetitia, no. It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing, but I rushed in, searching for your face. But no Laetitia. No. No one in that car could have been you, but I rushed in, searching for your face: no longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two. No one in that car could have been you. Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen. No longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two: I sometimes go months without remembering you. Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen: I was told not to look. Not to get attached— I sometimes go months without remembering you. Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space. I was told not to look. Not to get attached. It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing. Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space. On a platform, I heard someone calling your name.