Un- is the prefix of negation. Its identity is opposition, its power, reversal. Finish, on the other hand, signals completion, achievement, and conclusion. Self-help books proselytize the benefits of list-making, how completing daily tasks will make me fitter, happier, more productive. And yet, as a writer, I know that to finish a poem is not to achieve perfection, but to accept it for what it is. Often I am asked how I know when a poem is done. And I think people want to hear that there is an ideal poetic form that can be achieved with enough revision and effort. But the mundane truth about art is that you decide when a piece is finished. Or, an external constraint decides for you. Say you’re up for tenure and need to publish to keep your job. Or you’re Keats and you run out of paper and die an early death. Which is to say that to finish, to be finished, is not a romantic, miraculous achievement, but a construct we impose upon our lives to produce some semblance of progress. And hey, that’s okay!
American culture is so infused with a disdain toward the unfinished—you’re called a quitter or labeled lazy and unmotivated. Often you’re called weak. But truthfully, to not finish, to remain unfinished, is to foreground process over product—a precept that ungirds many creative viewpoints and pedagogical strategies. However, the poems in this issue do not represent the whole-hearted embrace of the unfinished, nor the pragmatism of the finished, but rather the productive tension between un and finished. This tension is where the poet who loves to loaf in the grass meets the one hustling between part-time jobs and writing on her lunch break. The poems in this issue expose this tension, the potential and the anxiety present in the unfinished. They wrestle with the finality of death, the specter of memory, and the desire to change that which is not yet done.
This quality of the unfinished appears in both the form and content of these poems. In his description of the Janet B. McCabe prize-winning poem by Maggie Blake Bailey, finalist judge Shane McCrae says: “The first time I read ‘Elizabeth Asks,’ I thought it was unfinished…I thought ‘There has to be more.’ And there is more, and the more is each person’s life as it is borne both from and by the poem’s last line forward….The feeling you get that it’s unfinished is how you know it’s true.” Dwelling in the space of incompletion also characterizes the atmosphere of expectation that pervades Blake’s poem “Mary Remembers,” in which the anticipation of what’s to come (the hopeful completion of a pregnancy) leaves Mary and Elizabeth “anchored together /…reciting our stations of ache and hope.” Together, they dwell in this space of not-yet, fighting back the anxiety of the unknown by taking turns carrying that burden for each other.
Amanda Hawkins’s “Bookend Quote from Bro. Yao” acknowledges yet resists completion, both formally and conceptually. The first and last lines of the poem are quotes that seek to contain it, to give it a quality of wholeness, while the content of those lines refuses this concept altogether and instead affirms the necessity of recursivity: “Every morning brings some new thing.” Rather than moving beyond grief, loss becomes the fertile ground from which each new beginning springs. Hawkins’s second poem, “Elegy at the Crocker” is an ekphrastic exploration into the purpose of art itself. The ambiguity of the title—is the painting elegiac or does the poet turn it into elegy—presses the reader into the same depth that the speaker experiences while looking at the painting and longing for “nothing / but the purest black.” The contrast of light and dark, of “cherries like lanterns” and “berries like knobbed black holes,” pulls the speaker into a place of dwelling, “a dark that was a gathered / depth in which to sink,” without offering resolution.
Emily Ransdell’s poem “All These Months Since Your Diagnosis” exists in the liminal space between grief and acceptance, diagnosis and…whatever comes after. The speaker of this poem keeps the uncertain future at bay by reading the past for signs of what’s to come. The poem turns to the near future, reciting the known variables made real by repetition: “Now it’s December…Our friends will gather / for Christmas dinner like always….I’ll bring the same champagne as last year.” However, what is left unsaid here is what the you will bring and whether there is still a you at all. In Ransdell’s poem “Seasonal Work,” a small town swells with commerce from the tourists and workers who will leave at the end of the summer bearing pristine memories of the local culture. The speaker looks back on her youthful excursions with nostalgia tempered by the knowledge brought with age. Back then, she and her friends worked all day and visited the local bars all night, believing themselves to be beyond the construct of the tourist sheen, when really they had become tourists of another sort: “Shoulder to shoulder we drank all summer, / oblivious to their losses lined up like empty glasses.” Come August, the town and job would become a story they might tell later, like the trinkets tourists would bring back as proof of their experiences. For the “locals” however, the seasons would keep changing and the losses mounting.
Jen Stewart Fueston and Dante Di Stefano both reflect on the future that will or will not come to fruition in the form of a child. Fueston’s “Trying to Conceive” attempts to mark the time through tests, vials, and pills, seeking some indication of what is beginning or ending: “There was not / even a you to not be, so nothing / has been lost at all.” The speaker tries to accept the lack present in everything: “What / finally comes to being comes with shadows, carries with it all the absences / that rest in everything.” Di Stefano’s “Reading Langston Hughes to Our Unborn Child” clings to images of an always unfolding future of possibility, as such optimism and hope is necessary to bring any child into this world. The child’s future is teeming with the type of potential that allows us to believe the future might be better than the present: “You will carry a country inside you.…I will compose you / a nation made of hem and horizon.”
Janine Certo and Mason Henderson explore family ties, the passing on of history and tradition as a sign of one era ending and another beginning. In Certo’s “The Whip-O-Whirl” the roles of mother and child are reversed, as the speaker cares for her elderly mother, watching her experience a child’s joy on repeat as the whip-o-whirl glides up and down in a seemingly unending loop. The poem refuses to finish, to let this moment end, preserving what it knows will never come again. Henderson’s “In the Hall of the Great North American Mammal” challenges the idea that history leads in an unending arc toward perfection. The speaker notes how artifacts are stuffed and posed to preserve this myth of progress: Weapons are arranged to show how they (and by extension, humans) “grow smarter, sprout / barbs, next claws, next rings woven for throats, / next and next and next.” The speaker contrasts this vision of history with his own received knowledge and “what [he] hid from [his] father,” an aporia that complicates this story of progress and change.
Jake Crist and Jehanne Dubrow’s poems teach us how to read. Crist’s “Observing a Girl Stepping over Worms” attempts to read the “writhing of earthworms” scattered on the pavement after the rain, the “protean / Characters closing up and curling open.” While everyone else rushes past these subtle signs, the speaker considers biosemiotics—that the more-than-human world also signifies in meaningful ways—and the new method of reading it requires: “Such literacy / Requires kneeling, knuckles in mud, the body / Courting clay, mire, stone.” Interpretation here is not a cerebral action that leads to stable meaning, but an unending material labor: “like the monk…He works alone, / Day and night, all week, all month, on and on.” Dubrow’s “Exit Report” dwells in the space of near-completion, constantly revising, re-narrating, and re-interpreting this hinge point. Rather than the mundane preservation of institutional knowledge, this exit report serves as both the poem and the subject of the poem and seeks to rewrite the past rather than simply record it: “In this report, the author will retrieve / her heart from the gods…In this report, / she’ll unchain her wrists from the rock.” Rewriting history by reimagining mythical origin stories, this poem suspends itself in the realm of the unfinished and unwritten.
Kerri Vinson Snell’s “I Carry It with Me” explores the past without attempting to resolve the tangle of memories the speaker carries with her in the present. This poem explores a father’s many forms: “unseen fathers, seldom-touched / fathers—forced embraces” and considers how these forms contribute to the idea of God as a father: “If you / believed that garden alone / in the hymn is symbiotically dependent // upon men…I would believe it too.” However, the poem ends not with the voice of God calling from a garden but “Jim Croce in the transistor radio / next to your ear blaring I got a name.”
Charity Gingerich’s “Watching Smoke Signals in late autumn, with fog and cowboys—:” considers the difficulty of teaching the violence of the past to students who are “so accustomed to casual fires / of victory and camping.” These students “are trying on the cloak of imperialism,” unable to understand their connection to a history in which they are implicated. The speaker is ambivalent about the power of knowledge to change anything as “the frontier,” the symbol and space of appropriation and violence, is created over and over again. “Dear Jonah” by John Sibley Williams also attempts to extract a lesson from history, to find the silver lining of violence and death, but distrusts such easy resolution. This poem is addressed to the man still trapped inside a whale, frozen in time by his own myth, who comes to stand in for the speaker himself. There, “each rib [is] a bow / sawing some music from the hollow / gut of a violin,” making harmony out of decay. Extending this metaphor of music and violence, the speaker notes: “Without / shrapnel, your father’s chest would / simply be another unplayed instrument.” Within the pause of un, the negation of sound, death verges toward song itself, and the poem becomes the bow it needs to be heard.
Berwyn Moore’s “Planting” shows us the power of imagining the many possible futures that have not yet come to fruition. The poem begins: “As if the unplotted earth, its glint / and heave, could refuse // the tiller, the hand that starts and stops / at will. Inevitable wreckage.” Caught between the tension of agency and fate, “gift and curse,” the poem engages the oppositions that produce growth and wonder instead of trying to synthesize them into a coherent whole.
Mark Wagenaar’s “Southern Tongues Coda (Precision Dying) is the final poem in the issue, though it leaves us at the edge of resolution. A coda comes after what we thought was finished. It’s the final word after the final word, which in this case takes the form of death: “ask just about anyone / working with the near-dead, the almost-gone, // they’ll tell you the will / or soul or just plain stubbornness / will keep a person here until they decide to go.” This is not the ghost haunting with its unfinished business, but the still-live body working toward precise articulation in its final moments of utterance. Death is both a process and an event, but one that cannot ever be fully represented. The poem ends by producing the need for its own coda, a final push toward an articulation that requires yet another to supplement it: “Wash the body. Say something.”
Thank you for reading Issue No. 45 along with me. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts about the issue in the comments below or on social media. And, during this time of resolutions, I hope you’ll consider leaving some things unfinished, a few poems incomplete.
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I must change my life, I thought. Is this what Rilke meant? That I should “get healthy?” I should eat better, drink better? I jumped to this conclusion in the aisle at my grocery store.
I've had climate change anxiety since college, but bringing a baby into the universe intensifies it. My anxiety no longer only extends the length of my lifespan. I tell my husband Taylor I regret having a child because I can't stand the thought of Jackson in pain. He holds up our son’s wiggly, plump body. "You really wish he didn't exist?"