Original poem reprinted online here: "Briefcases" by Stephen Dunn
Originally read: April 2, 2013
More information about the Poet: Stephen Dunn
With a line like, "I kept it like love / until I couldn't be kept anymore." A part of me thought I would discard this poem as overly sentimental (which I do too often) and then move to a different type of poem. However, in this instance, and for that day, I decided to print this poem out and look more into how the devices work in this poem.
There are puns, sentimentality, playing with white space, consistent quatrains, a slight sense of the absurd, narrative elements, role reversals brought about through similes, and I think that's it. Why do I list all these techniques out now? Well, this is the major and interesting thing about the poem -- the poem is unapologetic on the sentiment. This is how the speaker is feeling, and more importantly, the absurdity it takes to keep this feeling.
What am I writing? Is this piece a meta-poetics piece about how sentiment is remembered and used in poetry? Or is this piece a sincere narrative of a man struggling on how to deal with death through retaining the senses of nostalgia. Actually, it could be one, or the other, or both -- that's the scheme. I don't mean to use scheme as a negative term, rather that (like all schemes) the reader ("investor") puts in more than what's stated in the poem emotionally and/or rationally and the result is more of a reflection of the reader than an understanding of the speaker.
Isn't that how Poetry works though? Like I know. I'm just trying to hash through the experience I have with every poem I want to write about.
For example, the title, "Briefcases" could be a pun of "brief cases" where there's a narrative episodic feel to the poem where the speaker is in different scenes of remorse which starts out with how the speaker's father died, but look at this line:
Fifteen years ago I found my father's
No seriously look at it. The key word here is "father's" which is in the possessive. But there's the assumption that "ah the speaker's talking about the briefcase. If read out loud, the possesive can be taken as plural which foreshadows the death of the "father-in-law" in stanza 2.
I think here's a good place to write about the spacing. Note how the second and third lines eek out just a bit, then come back left adjusted. This could represent steps or slight distances or whatever physical imagery comes to play with the subject matter. What do I take from the "whatever," well there's the didactic stanzas 4 and 5 in which the speaker states his opinion on newer brief cases, "made for men living fast-forward / or those attaché cases that match / your raincoat and spring open."
These lines are so absurd in so many levels. Notice the reaffirmation of the speaker delving into the past with the judgement of "men living fast-forward" but also note the placement of "match" and "spring" in which carries multiple meanings -- seasons having a "salute / and a click of heels" feel -- a "kitschy" feel or "match" as in made fore the person but springs open to expose the kitschy, the insincere. I think I'm digging too far with these stanzas and it's time to move on.
Then the psychosis of the speaker brings a sense of an overly attached narrator whose character has been built up through the episodes, snippets of thoughts in the stanzas. I think this line speaks blurs the meta-poetics, the speaker, and reader interpretation:
[...] I'm going
to put an ad in the paper, "Wanted:
Old briefcase, accordion style,"
and I won't care
whose father it belonged to
The line breaks are important to note because they serve as a catalyst for interpretation. From a meta-poetics stand point, that emotional cathartic experience of reading about someone else's emotion comes from relationships similar to the readers own: father-son, man-dog, lover-cheating ex-lover. The reader sees the relationships and the interactions, but the people are just archetypes. From the speakers perspective, look how the speaker wants that nostalgia -- pushing away the future, it's the scent of a "father" figure.
And this simile, "Like an adoption / it's sure to feel natural before long--" that simile solidifies that connection, regardless how strained, for that psychotic yearning for the past or maybe this, sentiment in poems becomes natural after a while -- a guess a better way to look at it is that fulfills the readers
If a reader gets far enough and invested in a poem, or any work, then it'll take a lot to take them out of that suspension of disbelief -- even if it is sentimental. But there's is a certain point, and the last stanza pushes it:
something for an empty hand, sentimental
the way keeping is
sentimental, for keeps
sake, with clarity and without tears.
And I think here is where the poem turns more meta-poetic than sentimental. The speaker is self-aware of his psychosis ("going to" instead of "will") and the creation of this poem enough to call out sentimental without being didactic. The call out is more of a question for the reader, not so much the speaker by laying out a simple definition. Sentimental (according to this poem) is to keep something -- nostalgia (physical representation and/or psychological) and without sentiment how much poetry can there be about "letting go," but if a poem focuses too much on the sentiment then there's a huge chance of being unclear and focused on the tears.
Yeah, not the reading probably -- a reflection of what I think.