3 posts

“The Water Turned Her Skin Sky.”

While reading the November 2019 issue of Poetry, I came across a poem that lends a bit of magical realism to its grammar. Though some readers might object to using words in unusual ways, I find it refreshing to read and one of the chief joys of poetry.

The poem is “América” by Sarah María Medina, a newcomer to the magazine whose work has appeared in Prelude, Black Warrior Review, and Poetry Northwest. I will only share the first third or so of the poem to illustrate a few moves that look simple but are actually not (if you’re the one trying to think of them, anyway).

Alas, the HTML does not allow me to reflect the visual aspects of the poem, as each line is indented by various degrees in double-spaced succession. See if you can pick out the words that come across as more “poetic” than most:


From “América” by Sarah María Medina

The river was deep & wide.
Wild girls grew along
the riverbanks. Wild strawberries grew
among the wet grass. A girl tramped barefoot.
Her tips arrowed. The tracks wept
in the distance. She scavenged
wild strawberries. The river water stung her mouth.
The water turned her skin sky. Alone
the girl knelt to sift water
through her fingers. There was once a dock
with a wooden boat. Once a general.
Once a sister. Once a mother who hid
behind the general. Once a machete.
Once a girl who swallowed salt.
She held the resonance of chromatic
harmony. The quiet of faded mist…


The first unusual word is “arrowed” in L5. Arrow is a well-known noun, but less often seen as a verb. That said, Merriam-Webster provides three definitions of “arrow” when used as a verb, the first being the intransitive version, “to move fast and straight like an arrow in flight.”

What I like about the usage is its subject “tips.” This word immediately brings arrows to mind, even though it is referencing the tips of the girl’s feet. Good poetry enlists words in refreshing ways. It gives the reader pause, and any time a reader pauses for a good reason, the poem can be said to be “working.”

Directly thereafter we get “The tracks wept / in the distance.” (L5/6)  Personification works best when it works twice. Yes, it is a poetic device, and yes, we don’t often think of tracks as weeping, but when you consider looking back at your own tracks over any damp grounds and how the soft the imprints look wetter due to your weight, you see the appropriateness of “wept” as a predicate for “tracks.”

Finally, in L8, we get “The water turned her skin sky.” Again, the reader pauses at the unusual word pairings. Water? Turning skin “sky”? You might first fear that the poor girl is turning blue, but it makes more sense to see the girl as one with the natural world she apparently lives in each day. River water, sky, girl. And a “double” is scored in that we get alliteration “skin” slides into “sky.”

At this point in the poem, a narrative tempo begins to pick up. Anaphora is used in a series of “Once…” lines presaging story. And story you will get. One that might help answer the accent aigu found in the title.

If you’re interested, you can find the complete poem in a copy of the magazine for sale or at the public library. Meanwhile, as a reader and a writer, note and consider how language is used in unusual, thus effective, ways as you read poems. Grammar is important, yes. But it is never a tyrant in the Kingdom of Poetry. Poetic license and creativity provide the checks and balances. And thankfully, the rule the realm.


Meghan McCain Makes Good (and Uses Some Time-Honored Writers’ Tools)

Watching Meghan McCain’s eulogy for her father, John McCain, has refreshed me in an unexpected manner this weekend—as a writer, as an American, and as a man. As a man, I’ll say this: When we are dust, ash, or worm motel, may we all have children who can sing our praises so well before a gathering of family, friends, and well-wishers.

The word “eulogy” is often confused with “elegy,” a word poets are familiar with. A check with my good friends Merriam and Webster clears this up:

“Both elegy and eulogy may be used about writing or speech in remembrance of a person who has passed away, and this semantic overlap creates the potential for confusion. Elegy (which may be traced to the Greek word elegos, “song of mourning”) commonly refers to a song or poem lamenting one who is dead; the word may also refer somewhat figuratively to a nostalgic poem, or to a kind of musical composition. While eulogy is also commonly found referring to words about the deceased, its basic meaning, both in English and in the Greek language from which it was borrowed, is “praise.” Formed from the Greek roots eu “good” and logos “speech,” a eulogy is an encomium given for one who is either living or dead. If you are praising your partner’s unsurpassed beauty or commending the virtues of the deceased at a funeral, you are delivering a eulogy; if you are composing a lamenting reminiscence about a person who has long since passed, you are writing an elegy.”

Meghan’s 17-minute eulogy managed to be both eloquent and emotional, mixing elements from the speech writer’s (and poet’s) toolbox and techniques of persuasion espoused by Aristotle so long ago. As writers reading the full text of her words here, we can see that she has learned the value of anaphora especially—the effective use of repetition coming at listeners in waves. As for the persuasion, both ethos (her character as well as her father’s) and pathos (the leavening of biography with rising emotion) are seen in abundance.

Also on display here is the power of anecdote. Nothing illustrates an abstract point better than a concrete example. Note the story of the horse, especially—how Meghan broke her collarbone falling off of one, how her father took her to the hospital, and how he then took her home and put her back on that horse’s back.

The contrasting technique of antithesis was highlighted, too, when Meghan McCain said, “We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”

And, of course, by the line this eulogy will most be remembered for: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

To be honest, I was never much impressed with John McCain’s politics and didn’t vote for him when he ran for president. As an American, though, I was much impressed with the example he set once in the grip of terminal cancer. McCain the former prisoner was  captive again, this time by the take-no-prisoners brain cancer called glioblastoma (the same that took down his friend across the aisle, Ted Kennedy). But he fought, not only the disease, but the disease he perceived to be spreading across America.

For that, McCain gained my respect. Thus, I found myself inexplicably teary-eyed watching Meghan’s eulogy. What was the source, I wondered? Obviously the man’s death and the family’s loss played into it, but a little self-searching brought up more.

I was mourning the passing of another America, one I’m not sure will return, given the goings on not only here but across the world where authoritarian regimes are popping up like poisonous mushrooms. With the electoral college-elected president out of the news cycle and out on a golf course, watching the proceedings of this funeral this weekend was fresh air. It returned a sense of sanity and patriotism that many hadn’t breathed in two years.

That’s something. And that’s proof that a eulogy—like any piece of good writing—can have effects beyond their stated purpose.



The Lovely Vice of Rhetorical Devices


With the Thanksgiving weekend coming to a close (seems like an ordinary Sunday to ME, anyway), let us give thanks for rhetorical devices. Have you ever stopped to think of your favorite? Have you ever wondered which one you use the most? Have you ever realized that these devices are often the lifeblood of what you write and read?

In case you haven’t guessed, I have a special place in my heart (the right aorta, I think it is) for anaphora. In his reference book, A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch tells us it comes from the Greek for “a carrying up or back” and goes on to define it as “the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of a series of phrases, lines, or sentences.” He goes on to say, “The words accumulate mysterious power and resonance through repetition.”

Emilia Phillips, writing an article called “Repeat After Me” in Ploughshares’ Week in Review newsletter, finds a bit of science in anaphora’s magic, too. She writes, “In her Poetry Foundation article ‘Adventures in Anaphora,’ poet and creative writing educator Rebecca Hazelton writes, ‘Humans are pattern-seeking animals, pre-tuned to the music of language. We are pleased when we hear patterns in language, perking our ears in recognition, and can be both vexed and delighted when those patterns are broken.’”

Admit it. You love a pattern. You probably picked one out as a gift on a shirt or dress over this endless Black Friday shopping weekend.

Think of that pattern as language. Think of it as sound. Think of it as a refrain you begin to subconsciously hum. Something like “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep” — a case where the repetition extends beyond the beginning but seems not only reasonable but just right.

So…what rhetorical device are YOU thankful for?