All children are changelings; that’s why skilled
Repairmen are always in demand. But Rosie and her
Great ilk are moody these days,
Ready to head back into the past all
Grandparents share, when things
Seemed fairer and more solid, although
Poorer. People ate
Indistinguishable taupe cubes;
For entertainment they watched flashing lights.
Yet these days every corridor is a flooded
Mangrove swamp, where ancient types despise
Our white-collar competition, our scandalous talk;
The person you expect to be next year
Is less heroic than you are, and more glum,
With fewer talismans. He praises the day even so.
If this world has fallen together by chance
And evolution, she says, it is
A marvel, but if somebody
Designed it, yikes!
Dear shepherd: Do you have a staff?
Dear effortful ones: How far are you wandering home?
Do you prefer paper or plastic homes
For purchase? Can you fit on the head of a match?
There’s a filter on our enjoyments: it kicks in
Between twilight and dearly
Beloved, but perhaps less respectable,
Dawn. The sun shows that
We already owe too much. And still hope prepares
Itself like a bread knife left in bread, like wooden
Models in the kitchen trap,
For the caustic gift of trying
To imagine how it would feel, or what you would
Do, if you were actually
In charge. The enemies
Of the naiads remain on guard
Over 24 hours per day, archaic rules
And halberds at the ready: You must
Listen to them. You must not do as they say.
-- Stephen Burt
Between its authoritative opening and closing lines, “The Task” offers a witty, inventive description of how we live now, and also a prescription for dealing with it. Not incidentally, it’s also a guide for a certain kind of poetics -- one which encapsulates our present psychic and social situation in the poetic means it uses to address that situation.
The situation may be a little grim – “The person you expect to be next year / Is less heroic than you are, and more glum.” And yes, “There’s a filter on our enjoyments,” and “The sun shows that / We already owe too much”; but that doesn’t stop the poet and the reader from enjoying themselves as they skip along through the changes in this kinetic poem.
The succession of elements in the poem – jumps in thought, in language, in details, in who is speaking (“he,” “she,” “you,” “we,” “our”), in who is being spoken to (“Dear shepherd,” “Dear effortful ones”) -- continually surprise. In part it’s because successive elements are original, in the sense that one element doesn’t originate from what precedes in any expected way. To trace only the first part of the poem, children, changelings, repairmen, “ Rosie and her / Great ilk,” grandparents, taupe cubes, flashing lights, and a mangrove swamp pass in rapid succession. The poem perpetually goes somewhere new. On closer examination it can be seen that some phrases do proceed associatively – but they do so with a logic that can be understood only after the fact.
Has the world of the poem (and the world the poem reflects) “fallen together by chance / And evolution”? If so, what “A marvel.” Or “has somebody / Designed it”? If so, “Yikes!” In either case, the poem offers much pleasure in the form of pervasive wit created through shifting, surprising jumps in language, imagery, tone. But pleasure is not the poem’s only point. There is “A Task” to be performed, and the final lines set it out. “The enemies / Of the naiads remain on guard / Over 24 hours per day, archaic rules / And halberds at the ready. You must / Listen to them. You must not do as they say.”
“Archaic rules” and outdated weapons (the “halberds”) are poised at the ready, working overtime (“Over 24 hours per day”). They are “on guard” against the naiads -- water spirits who suggest imagination and myth, flexible and shifting as the element they live in.
These lines are a prescription for how to live, and also, for how to write. Readers and writers must “listen” to rigid outdated strategies (poetic as well as social and psychological), but not in order to obey them – instead, to oppose them. “You must not do as they say.”
I particularly like the way the poem presumes to speak to and for a shared communal reality. In this it hearkens back to the Augustan age, which assumed poetry spoke of and to a public world. This stance reappeared in the twentieth century in, notably, Auden’s work, for one. Here it reappears in a twenty-first-century version, where self and community are in a sense interchangeable, each being equally made up of multiple voices.
-- Pat Carlin