Catherine Chandler's Poetry Blog

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Commentary on "Coming to Terms"

Interior with a Young Woman Sweeping, Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1899

Following my recent posting about its having won a Laureate's Choice Award, I've received a few requests to reprint "Coming to Terms" on my blog.

Before I do, however, I'd like to reprint part of A.E. Stallings' commentary on the poem. Ms. Stallings was the final judge for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award in 2010. Her full commentary is available in Measure, Volume VI, Issue 1, 2011, pages 32-33.

It took a while to come to terms with the excellence of "Coming to Terms," partly because it "displays" so well the art that conceals art: the art of concealing loss being one of the themes. But I was immediately taken with the assured voice and the charming full rhymes of "panel" and "channel." The poet also has a way of leveraging diction so that it contributes to the full meaning without overdoing it. 

I am interested in how poems dispense information over time and space. "Coming to Terms" trusts the reader to work out the facts over the course of the sonnet. At first, we are only mildly concerned that the house is "empty"-- a number of possibilities suggest themselves. Country western music being the music of lost love and mature concerns does not resolve our uneasiness. Even the week in which to "heal and convalesce" could be after, say, a C-section. But the peeling away of the ceiling stars, the unweaving of the year of making the christening dress -- a bold choice, as one actually sees the unraveling of the knitted garment itself (I am put in mind here of the Psalmist's "You knitted me in my mother's womb") -- comes upon us with devastating knowledge, and ripples back to the title. A full-term still-birth or miscarriage?

The sestet is also pregnant with wordplay, the "premises" that must be rearranged being both the speaker's physical surroundings and mental calculations. The abrupt enjambments here suggest both frenetic activity and a mind at sea with grief. ("Scour" is another one of the poet's careful word choices -- a suggestion of scrubbing clean as well as searching.)  The flatness and coolness of the close is a little risky ("ordinary" is our poetic age's "terrible"), but ultimately earned, as we see the speaker preparing a mask to meet the faces it must meet, and to tidy heartbreak away.

To answer the question posed above, the poem is based on my miscarriage in March 1977. It took  thirty-three years to portray this experience properly in words.

Coming to Terms

I put aside my white smocked cotton blouse,
my pants with the elastic belly panel.
The only music in the empty house
strains from a distant country western channel.
My breasts are weeping. I’ve been given leave—
a week in which to heal and convalesce.
I peel away the ceiling stars; unweave
the year I’d entered on your christening dress.

I rearrange my premises—perverse
assumptions!—gather unripe figs; throw out
the bloodied bedclothes; scour the universe
in search of you. And God. And go about
my business as my crooked smile displays
the artful look of ordinary days.

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