Original poem reprinted online here: "On. On. Stop. Stop" by Saskia Hamilton
Originally read: March 1, 2013
More information about the Poet: Saskia Hamilton
The punctuation in the title foreshadows something in the poem, but taken by itself, the title seems too post modern. A period after each word -- why should I pause after each word, and why is does the title have repetition of "on" and "stop"? I think, at first, the title didn't make me hopeful. The contents and technique in the poem though brought me in.
The first sentence plays with the idea of the present and the past:
"In the old recording of the birthday party,
the voices of the living and the dead
instruct twelve absent friends
on the reliable luxury of gratitude"
Past me wrote in the box to remind myself that "this poem is viewed in the now." And at first, I wondered who are these dead people? Why are some guests absent? I think this is important to note about this first sentence -- the reader is seeing how the speaker views the past -- a bit too sure, a bit of instant recognition that this person has died recently or I haven't seen this person in a while.
In the first sentence, there's a struggle between the past and the present -- and not like the "oh the past is going to haunt me" past, rather "how can I stop interpreting the past the way I do" or "how far of a bias do I have with the past."
Also the first sentence seems like a third person perspective so there's the outsider (observation) versus insider (interpretation [note: not judgment which focuses on emotion]) perspective.
And the perspective shifts to "We" in the next couple of lines. I don't know who the other person is, even after rereading this poem several times. I can guess that it's the attempted compromise between the current and the past, but I find the shift into first person more relevant at this stage. The shift into first person solidifies the speaker being vested into the past and present situation -- observant past, escapist present.
Now to the "we" part. This line:
" [...] We
take one another's hands and follow their lead
past the garden wall, out to the land
still stripped by winter"
So there's the play of line breaks (lead / past) which refocuses the poem as the present speaker going back. But I don't know, again, if "we" is more of a physical representation (hand) or a metaphorical one. In any case, the present speaker and the other is recreating the past by mimicking, "the timbre of the voices," and then the outside influences given special attention and appropriated with the past "sounds of traffic."
And here, the poem brings in this rhetorical question, "Is it the size or the scale of the past / on the small reels of the cassette?" I'm iffy here at this point. I was going along with how the poem layers the past and the present as a slim film that's forced upon by the speaker as though the focus shifts to the mind of the speaker rather than the past itself. The rhetorical question reinforces that idea rather than plays with it. However, if the rhetorical question was the last line, I think the poem would come off as too artificial when, I think, the speaker is trying to be a bit sincere in trying to reconcile the past and present.
The attention, though, shifts onto gift giving, and how a new pot is then redefined as a treasure which is redefined as currency. This sequence works better to show the attempt to reconcile the past and present through redefinition (which the speaker has already been doing).
The "currency" turn interests me because of the use of "denominations." Past me, looked up the term and wrote the three definitions: religious group, destination, one of a series of kind. Then this poem turns into more of a spiritual poem (which is hinted with the dichotomy of the present and the past, and with the first sentence). Wait. Not turn, adds more of the spiritual into the poem without being too obvious and what's at stake for the speaker...and I still don't know who the other refers to.