The following poem by Steven Cramer first appeared in New Ohio Review 6, Fall 2009.
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It got bad; pretty bad; then not
so bad; very bad; then back to bad.
Jesus, let’s let things not get even worse.
A weird fall. Nearly ninety
one day, leaf mold making our house
all red eyes and throats. Don’t think
about Thanksgiving, but hope
for a decent Halloween. Everywhere
gas-powered leaf-blowers growling—
Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.
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The first stanza demonstrates what I feel to be the semicolon’s natural tendency to drain drama out of any expression. The semicolon always seems to need a lift, maybe a cup of coffee, or Zoloft. Whatever the mood may be, a semicolon stunts it, patiently, by increments. It's so drably un-final, just an incomplete full stop without any conviction. It tells you something more needs to be said, but not urgently. Just wait; there’s more; I’ll get there, it seems to say. Maybe I’ve changed my mind, it dithers. Enough of my antipathy toward a perfectly useful punctuation mark, but you must admit that first stanza’s failed efforts at precision feel dispirited, as though the speaker is so worn out by the relentless nuances of badness (“not so bad” is as good as it gets) that he can’t muster the energy to come up with another negative word. And of course we expect something momentous: genocide, icecaps melting, famine… Whereas the only example revealed to the reader is a few bad cases of hayfever. I like being surprised by the mundanity of the condition that worsens. Surely that’s not the only “it” referred to earlier? Maybe; maybe not; but the other accruing bads are probably just as pedestrian. It’s the accumulation without full respite that overwhelms.
The increasing intensity (however wan, however enervated) of the speaker’s dread is marked by the progression of “Jesus” in the third line to “Christ” in the final line, as we move from the figure as man to the figure as deity. Are both names taken in vain? I don’t think so – there’s palpable, prayerful misery behind each utterance, reinforced by the faintly biblical echo in the use of “let” in both lines. Then there’s the lovely low parade of growling w’s in the penultimate line that helps to augur the apparently inevitable worse. But the clincher that makes this poem memorable for me is Cramer’s exquisite syntax in “let’s let things not get even worse” as opposed to the more idiomatic “let’s not let things get even worse.” The latter suggests we have agency; whereas the poem’s syntax reminds us that we have little if any control; all we can do is let things happen and hope for, well – not the worst. Maybe we can’t fully engage in true Thanksgiving, but at least we can have a decent Halloween, scaring ourselves with things that are more dreadful even than our semicoloned lives.
Is this a downer of a poem? Not to my mind: its playfully hyperbolized teeth-gritting has a tonic effect. The tone attained here, in a very short space, reminds me somewhat of Samuel Beckett; of Steven Wright; of Eeyore on a good day.
Steven Cramer is the author of four poetry collections, the most recent being Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande, 2004). He directs the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University.
See you next week, which let’s let be better! --JAR