Variation is predicated upon pattern: once a pattern is established, it can be varied. Giving shape to chaos is one of the multitude effects of this compositional technique. Whitman gave shape to the chaos of his catalogues through a patterning anaphora; Eliot gave shape to chaos through repetition and rhyme. It is this interplay of structure and chaos that, when managed well, creates authority, tension and beauty.
Consider Langston Hughes’ Dream Variations, a poem which deftly cleaves to a metrical pattern and rhyming structure. Its variation of the line “Dark like me” and “Black like me” subtly disrupts the consistent pattern of rhyme and meter. In a rendition of the blues line, historically unbound to formality, the result is a surge of emotion, a breaking out — as much as is possible — from structure. This breaking free mirrors the speaker’s dilemma of being held by the “white day” and finding a temporary freedom at nightfall.
Each stanza of Morri Creech’s Engine work: variations reframes a memory, though the season and its impressions vary. Stanza i opens with the description of a traditional pastoral setting; even the capitalized first lines draw attention to the poem’s desire to embrace traditional poetic techniques. In ii, the pattern breaks syntactically and the comfort and organization that meter provides gives way to disquiet. Enjambed lines play hesitance against flow (“still haven’t made/A sound all afternoon”), ellipses and dashes show the difficulty of expression within the given confines. Creech skillfully mirrors strophic variation with theme — the birds are disconnected from the fruit, and even the fruit’s location is ambiguous — “on vine, or branch…or bramble”. There is a “frayed edge of recollection” that ravels away to nothing.
In a sentence that defies beginnings, stanza iii begins, “All right.” The speaker grasps at a language that is inept, and in a parallel effort at expression, the engine itself is aurally variant with its stammers and whines. As he grapples with distrust of memory, the tools at his disposal seem to be both too many and too few.
The metrical line eventually breaks on the page, yet the images continue to accumulate; the syntax and line coalesce again in v, and the tone reveals a longing tinged with resignation. The polite constancy of the rhythm returns, only to emphasize previous stanzas’ foiled attempt to break out and seize this now lost and complicated understanding, and the speaker is forced into an unsettling choice.
Engine work: variation
By Morri Creech
June morning. Sunlight flashes through the pines.
Blue jays razz and bicker, perch on a fence post
Back of my grandfather’s yard. His stripped engines
Clutter the lawn. And everywhere the taste
Of scuppernongs, just moments off the vines,
So sour that you would swear the mind has traced
A pathway through the thicket, swear the past
Comes clear again, picked piecemeal from the dust—
Or else it’s late—September—and the shade
Thicker than I recall: those cardinals,
Finches or mockingbirds still haven’t made
A sound all afternoon, though ripe fruit swells
On vine, or branch . . . or bramble. Thus the frayed
Edge of recollection slowly ravels
Away to nothing, until that place is gone
Where the heart would know its object and be known.
All right. Not to begin with those backlit pines,
Those scuppernongs, the jay perched on a branch
Of sweet gum—no, oak, I think. With what, then?
With my grandfather holding a torque wrench
Or ratchet? Some old engine’s stammer and whine
Before it starts or doesn’t—a house finch,
Singing or silent? Language, too, seems wrong,
Though it’s all I have. Grandfather. Scuppernong.
To fix him in some moment, word for word,
That man who taught me gears and cylinders, sweat,
Precision of machinery—the hard
Love of assembling things:
I know the heat
All summer hung like a scrim where pistons fired
And the boy I was watched in the raw sunlight;
Spilled oil rainbowed in its shallow pan.
One birdcall, maybe. Fruit on a trellised vine . . .
Impossible not to change things, move the words
From here to there. It’s late now. Nothing’s settled—
Not engine noise nor the sound of one far bird
The mind sings true. Which version of the world
Should I believe? This morning in the yard
Scuppernongs hang and sweeten. Pine boughs yield
Some fragment of the blue jay’s call, a sound
The resonant air repeats but cannot mend.
This poem appears courtesy of The Waywiser Press (