“In the Alcoholic’s Apartment, A Time Machine” by Chelsea Dingham

May 14th, 2018

Clearly, I am a horrible blogger.

But a lovely thing happened to me today, which is that Lisa Mecham stumbled on this old post of mine about her poem “Revising It Into Something I Can Bear,” and she expressed gratitude, and it reminded me that I used to write these little meditations on poems that strike me and I remembered that I meant to make a habit of it. There are so many wonderful poems, so many poets I admire, there is no shortage of poems to examine and learn from. I’m so lucky to be writing now among these fellow poets; I’m so lucky that online journals have evolved as they have, allowing me to be part of the conversation from Switzerland. I subscribe to print journals every year, but without the online journals I would have access to 1/50th of the contemporary poetry that I can access online. I can’t go to the library or engage in journal swaps with friend or buy one-offs at my local bookstore when the table of contents knocks my socks off.

So thank you, internet! Thank you online journals! Thank you print journals that have expanded your online presence! Thank you journals that offer PDF subscriptions! Thank you organizations emailing me a poem every morning!

Which brings me to Chelsea Dingham’s poem “In the Alcoholic’s Apartment, A Time Machine” which was originally published in Diagram and which Verse Daily shared today. There’s such an interesting control of language in this poem, which controls the play and release of emotions. The poem  begins with a straight-forward declarative sentence: “Your mother is dying for real this time.” The declarative sentence, the use of the second person, the beginning in medias res are  powerful techniques borrowed from the best of creative non-fiction; this could be the beginning of a memoir. (I have long believed that memoir and poetry are closer cousins that memoir and fiction, but that is a thought for another post.) But the next sentence, which bridges two lines, moves us into metaphor and resonant sound – the currency of poetry: “You say / coming home is like breaking the bottle in her hands // & swallowing the shatter.”

In the next sentence the speaker enters the poem “I sweep up the glass.” This short sentence makes it clear that the “you” in this poem is not that you that sometimes stands in for an I but a person in relation to the speaker; a lover, spouse, a close friend perhaps. The morning is “cool & calm” and the language and pacing of the poem is calm here, too, quiet like a light rain.

In the third and fourth couplets the poem explodes into rhyme and repeated sound: grey, stay, name, names, grace, favourite, chardonay, exhale, late. Nine repetitions of the long open a in four lines. The repeated rhymes send the poem galloping forward, the pace accelerates as the poem reveals its truth, threatening to slip out of control the way emotions threaten to slip out of control. But then Dingman regains control of the poem by shifting perspective – the I speaker asks a question “Is this escape for you?” – and by returning again to the controlled syntax of a shorter sentence and by a reducing of the repetition of that aching long a. Whereas in the center of the poem we heard that sound nine times in four lines, in the final nine lines of the poem we hear it six times: escape, blame, plated, frame, ashtray, ache. Like the sound of breath slowing down after a period of excitement, like somebody who had been crying uncontrollably regaining composure. The poem ends with two sentences that are grammatically questions but which function as statements, as a move towards acceptance: “In any homecoming, what can we do but echo & ache? / To leave ourselves as one thing & return as another?”

So much of the power in this short poem in conveyed through that control of language, the deployment of sound, rhyme and rhythm. Speaking this poem aloud affects my body, my breathing and pulse accelerate when the language accelerates. The poem enacts the emotion, brings sound into body.