“Unplugged” by Nancy Eimers

8 Nov

Most people find poetry difficult.  They see a bunch of words sprawled across the page and they simply don’t know what to do with it.  So much easier the predictability of prose, the clever little fictions we all cherish through their familiarity.  We know how to interact with characters in their straight lines, know the pulses of plot, can feel the tension of something is about to happen.  Poetry gives us none of those things.

Good poetry is not familiar seeming if it’s your first interaction with it.  Yes, there’s the handful of poems that we have heard enough to give them the trappings of familiarity, but that’s through repetition–we have heard them, or at least pieces of them, many times over, and they’ve had the chance to sink into our consciousness.  Good poems require you to go to their place–they are not so eager to explain things to you.  No spoonfeeding here.  So why read them at all?

I have an answer for this one–good poems attempt to put language to things that don’t have language yet.  Great poems create definitions and are the closest thing we have to generating new ideas.  That’s why a good poem should, according to Emily Dickinson,  make you feel as if the top of your head has been taken off.

So, the first poem I”m going through with you is “Unplugged” by Nancy Eimers.  I chose this one partially because reading poetry is much closer to listening to music than reading a novel if you want to get anywhere.

To start with, this poem focuses on the song “Where Did you Sleep Last Night” by Nirvana on the unplugged album.  Now Nirvana, and more specifically Kurt Cobain have become symbols concerning destruction, expression of dark angry feelings, and being chewed up by industry (I’m not talking about within this poem, I’m talking about in the world.)  I’ve always felt a bit mixed about the canonization of Cobain.  I think he was a brilliant musician, don’t get me wrong, but the holding him up as the bellwether of a generation is exactly what undid him in the end.  After all, he was only human, and looking back, wasn’t there some sort of expectation of self-destruction that went along with his story?  I’m all for appreciating his music, but changing him from a person to a symbol radically tears apart the whole point of his legacy.  Oh well, this isn’t really part of the poem, but just my two cents.

In this poem, Eilers doesn’t describe Cobain’s legacy or his life, just the nature of him singing this one song.  Describing it as “all black shriek,”  “stripped down to the wood,” “an act of erasure,” “a mouthless howl.”  Wailing to the point beyond language, beyond anything, completely lost in despair.  All that happens in this poem is that the speaker is hearing this music (which her husband is listening to) and is hearing the fighting in a neighbor’s family.  She and her husband are also fighting.

So imagine the scene, in an apartment, she and her husband not getting along.  Maybe he’s in a room listening to music, loudly, because he’s mad.  What strikes me first is how threatening “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” sound in the middle of a fight like that.  The song is basically about asking a girl where she slept the night before, she responds that she slept in the pines where the sun never shines, she shivered the whole night through.  It repeats over and over “don’t lie to me.”  The verse describes the death of her husband who’s head was found but not the body.

The speaker links this to homelessness, of going away and having nowhere to go, of birds building their nests in dangerous places, and “then a little while, all softnesses that define a human nest are gone…home gone down.”  The fighting next door echoes her feelings–who’s fighting? “I don’t know, everybody, everybody/the woman and man in the song/my husband and me.”

She describes the fight between father and son.  ” a father shouts at his son, thirteen,/who sobs tightly from his frail shoulders all the way down” and later “I can hear the neighbor boy still sobbing/madly into the breast of his family station wagon.”

With all these facts, and knowing the speaker’s emotions (look at all the details she fills into things–she can’t see this boy, she’s imagining him, her descriptions of Cobain’s singing are her feelings, not anything really described in the song) we know that she’s had a fight with her husband, not just some sort of spat, but a terrible fight–the sort of fighting that makes a home not a home anymore, that takes away the safety–the soft edges.

And in a way, this discord is always there, deep down, and the home is a place where the edge of discord is dulled by comforts,  but the discord can get to a point where comfort eventually goes away.  She lists these comforts “low voices, the velvet art/of sleeping faces, long breaths to sleep,/and the long breaths back again.”   It’s interesting that in her despairing state that home is defined very heavily as a place of sleep and quiet.  I doubt that she would always define a home this way, but in this moment, in this state, that is what means home to her.

How unhappy, a reader might say, why focus on such things?  Because there’s an emotional definition that is here, a place where we all might be sooner or later, shaken up and despairing, mourning.  This poem put specific phrasing to homesickness in your home that go far beyond simple feeling statements.  Of course it would be linked to death and destruction.  The hardest part of complex feelings like this is the simple naming of them–by reading this, we get a name and we can empathize with those who are also in this position.

Let’s not forget the central question.  “Unplug the lights in the houses/what becomes of us?”  She repeats it later “unplug the houses, and how dark/do we become?”  If I rephrased this in a less poetic manner, I would interpret it as, “what’s left if you take away everything that has to do with home and family?” In the context of this poem, domestic life becomes the center of our lives not because it is intrinsically important, but because it creates safety, or at least the image of safety, not so much from the outside world, but from ourselves.  Also that a domestic life, a real home, is an incredibly fragile entity that can go away.

I can say that Eimers succeeded in blowing the top of my head off here.  If you want to read it, and more good poems, get her book No Moon.

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