When Chekov famously asserted, “if a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third,” he probably did not intend for his dictum to extend into the realm of poesy. But with the first lines of any poem we begin to establish expectations, a primary ground from which the poem will extend, whether that grounding be in prosody, discourse, or imagery. When Michael McGriff begins his poem “Catfish” with the lines “The catfish have the night, / but I have patience / and a bucket of chicken guts,” he has established a primary ground in the real world. In fact, though deft in its rendering, he has essentially created a scene. The speaker stands on the edge of a river. He is preparing to fish. Because of our knowledge of fishing, however cursory, we know that, with a little luck, a fish may be caught. Already in the first three lines of the poem the expectation has been set. The gun is on the mantle.
A discussion of scene structure may seem strange in an era where the word “narrative” is most often applied as a poetic slur. With the death of the narrator and the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, storytellers often seem to play the role of wallflower at the big poetry party. Luckily, such stricture, much like the villanelle, may breed ingenuity. The opening lines of “Catfish” establish their narrative in four words: catfish, I, chicken guts. The rest of the scene is supplied by the reader. As any good poem, the lines function not only to establish a scene but also the core imagery and the refrain that helps the poem cohere musically. But what of the scene? Will the fish be caught? There is a question that tugs at our curiosity, an anticipation that compels us through the poem.
If “Catfish” had been written a decade ago, perhaps it would continue to develop its narrative thread in a straight forward, temporally bound progression. Instead, the second stanza moves back through time: “The dare growing up: / to swim down with pliers / for the license plates, / corpse bones, a little chrome…” and then continues through memory into discourse. This movement through multiple transitions seems nearly a requirement of the contemporary poem, one of the hallmarks of a poetry that proceeds as much by exceptions as by rules. It is the mix of pattern and slipperiness that makes this poem so satisfying. It is also the manipulation of time that the original scene provides. Almost exactly half way through the poem we return to the shore. The moon “bobs” above the water. The fish, as of yet, is still uncaught. This return to the scene serves to heighten our interest in the narrative. Will the fish surface? The poem swerves away again into metaphor.
If a survey were conducted regarding the reasons why people turn to poetry, I doubt suspense would land very high on the list. There are enough paperback thrillers and action flicks to satisfy our need for drama. But I would argue that poetry creates suspense through a multitude of means, whether that be rhyme scheme, line, rhythm, syntax, motif or an array of other devices. I think, however, we restrict our range as poets if we dismiss narrative as a viable tool for such work. In fact, I wonder if when we say we are “moved” by a poem, if that movement is as much a product of physical displacement as the stirring of emotion. Is the final stanza of “Catfish” satisfying partly because we have left the riverbank and now return? “I chum the water, I thread the barb. / I feel something move in the dark.” There is a wonderful tension here: the poem ending just short of landing its catch, but the narrative complete, grounded, allowing us to re-enter the scene where we look up from the page.
Josh Booton’s first book of poems, The Union of Geometry & Ash, was awarded the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was published by Bear Star Press in 2013. He is the recipient of several grants from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, as well as the Keene Prize in Literature. His poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Poetry Northwest, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Raleigh Review, Iron Horse, Borderlands and elsewhere.