Original poem reprinted online here: "The Conductor" by Jacqueline Berger
Originally read: January 2, 2013
More information about the Poet: Jacqueline Berger
Off the bat, we know what's at stake and what the core of the poem is about, "There's no mention, of course, in the program / that the conductor has Parkinson's,". Usually, I'm unsure about having something like disease or the death of someone or something tragic really in the beginning of any poem. On one hand, the stake is clear and so, as a reader, I know where the narrative is going. One the other hand, as a reader I'm forced to look at the character, poem, technique through the lens of tragedy which I either have to pity the character, poem, technique (forceful emotional blackmail) or interpret actions in the poem as relating to the disease (narrowed interpretations).
I think "putting the tragedy up front" works better as a short poem (Emily Dickenson "I Heard a Buzz Fly When I Died") or riffing on tragic elements for purposes of humor (Not the best example, but Eugene Field "The Little Peach" edit: had to put this poem in here because a really humorous poem about death -- Thomas Hardy "Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave"). In longer poems there's a greater chance, with each word, to go either too sentimental, too emotional, too much asking for pity, being too much of a victim.
However, this poem does some techniques to stave off over-sentimentality. In the middle there's an ambiguous circumstance one of these things is good news and the other bad, "I lived long enough to lose so much / Or maybe he's staving off our sympathy, don't clap because of this." Whichever the reader tries to choose, the voice of the conductor doesn't want any sympathy for his loss or his ability to not be a sympathetic victim. These lines are frank, but the poem had to address the character dealing with Parkinson's rather than the character himself.
There's places where the over-sentimentality goes a bit weird, and in being "weird" the poem doesn't push the emotional blackmail. I'm referring to this simile, "jerky as a boy's [body]" and I write down this as my notes, "'Jerky' is a bit awkward in the poem, yet I'm 50/50 on the simile of the boy On one hand, there's the foreshadowing of youth, on the other, the image is stark and stock at the same time. Like it's the unsurprising way the poem should go." And this is true. With any "tragic" type of poem (or even story) 4/5 times there's going to be a "back to my childhood flashback." I'm not talking about "back when I found out I had the disease" or "How I had to tell my love ones I'm dying," no, the speaker could be 16 and there will most likely be childhood flashback when they were 13.
So it's at the end of the poem where I felt it fell flat. There's good lines -- the ambiguous circumstance, the flow of the poem (which makes unsurprising logical sense). These lines bring in too much sentimentality and pity,
What else can he do,
while his fingers tap theft useless code
while the audience, in rows, rise from their seats,
still clapping, what can he do
but show us who he is,
a man standing too clos e to the edge,
edge no one can call him back from.
The anaphora of "what else can he do" "edge," the audience's inability to do anything but "clap," and the last line, "edge no one can call him back from" really over-victimizes the character. Sure there could be an argument that the speaker of the poem is projecting a victim complex someone for a certain gain -- I haven't found what the speaker would gain from it though since the speaker doesn't really come into the observation. In the end, I write this, "The end is okay, but I feel it reiterates the feeling of vulnerability from both the speaker and the conductor. This end feels like a summary to a narrative than lines of a narrative poem if that makes sense." Previous me is a lot nicer.