September: and back to school for many of you: how I dreaded those words as a child – and have done so as a teacher for the many years since. Still, it could be worse, far worse, in every way, I know. Is worse. So, gratitude is the order of the day. And what better way to begin this new autumn than with thanks for Plumecontributor DeWitt Henry’s lovely and astute take on (fellow Plume stalwart) John Skoyles’ SPITE FENCE in this issue’s “secret poem”?
The theme of Neighboring has new urgency thanks to the Trump agenda of immigration reform and building a border wall. The classic poem, of course, is Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “good fences make good neighbors.” Perhaps this is why “Spite Fence” is one of my favorites in John Skoyles’ new collection, INSIDE JOB.
The collection has three parts: the first poems about a shadowed childhood and family past (nostalgia), the second about the world in the poet’s middle age (ironic humor), and the third about mortality (grief). All of Skoyles’ poems include these elements, of course.
My neighbor forced his abutter
to raze the warped and rotten fence
because he didn’t want to see
the sagging wood when he saw
on the porch in the morning
having coffee with his wife.
The fence was removed, replaced
with something new, so now
the neighbor has breakfast
facing a row of garden gnomes,
some naked, and a few
of those anatomically correct.
This has the perfect timing and slyness of the well-told joke. There’s hidden laughter of the Frost-wise poet, the intimate complaining of “my neighbor” as related by a conversational boast (“forced his abutter/to raze the warped and rotten fence”) or even in a public zoning committee meeting, and the unspoken but demonstrated response by the abutter by putting up the gnomes: the abutter’s comic spite. Economy and pace is everything. In stressed, regular beats: the key terms, “neighbor” and “abutter,” the nature of the offending fence (“warped,” “rotten,” “sagging”), the neighbor’s domestic tableaux with his wife. Then the rhyming after-effects. The poet’s sudden, wry withholding and suspense in “replaced / with something new,” which sets up the punch-line: another daily breakfast scene, the hilarious, alliterative “garden gnomes,” and that hilarity upped by “some naked,” and then the “few”—which echoes the “something new”—“anatomically correct.” This euphemism sounds like a newspaper or other formal account, rather than the neighbor’s personal words, and leaves the naughty bits to our own naming. In any case, our sympathy, skillfully directed by the poet is with the abutter (a great pun there too, given the gnome butts), who punishes the neighbor for “forcing” the replacement of a fence that protected the abutter from the neighbor’s gaze, self-congratulating pride, and unsolicited opinions.
So goes democracy!—at least for want of mutual regard and tact.
John Skoyles has published six books of poems, A Little Faith; Permanent Change; Definition of the Soul; The Situation; Inside Job and Suddenly It’s Summer: Selected Poems, all with Carnegie-Mellon University Press. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Harvard Review, Slate, Yale Review and The Poetry Anthology, 1912 – 2002, among others. He is also the author of two books of nonfiction, Generous Strangers, a collection of personal essays, several of which were broadcast on public radio; and a memoir, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education. His awards include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as fellowships from the New York and North Carolina Arts Councils. In 2003, he became a member of the Order of the Occult Hand while reviewing books for the Associated Press. He has taught at Southern Methodist University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Warren Wilson College, where he directed the MFA program. He is currently Professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department of Emerson College, and the poetry editor of Ploughshares. He is also a member of the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry, was published by The Permanent Press in 2014. Quale Press published The Nut File, a fiction/nonfiction hybrid in 2017.
DeWitt Henry was the founding editor of Ploughshares. He’s published a novel, two memoirs, a story collection, and several anthologies. He is a Professor Emeritus at Emerson College and serves as a contributing editor to both Woven Tale Press and Solstice magazines. For details see www.dewitthenry.com .
Our cover art this issue is from Graciela Iturbide. Ms. Iturbide studied filmmaking at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos between 1969 and 1972, and worked as an assistant to photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who stimulated her interest in photography. She met Henri Cartier-Bresson while traveling in Europe, and in 1978, was one of the founding members of the Mexican Council of Photography. A major exhibition of her work, “External Encounters, Internal Imaginings: Photographs of Graciela Iturbide,” was presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in addition to retrospectives at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey in Mexico, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A monograph on her work, Graciela Iturbide: Images of the Spirit (1996), accompanied her Philadelphia show. For more — and there is much more! visit her website .
That’s it for now, I think. We’ll resume with news on upcoming readings and such in October, when summer truly is past.