Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Reading Etheridge Knight

I won't do my review of Kyle Dargan's book today, instead here is one of my essays about "As You Leave Me" by Etheridge Knight. I think this is one of the most beautiful and poignant love poems I have ever read. Etheridge Knight is one of my favorite poets, and this is one his best poems.


Shiny record albums scattered over
the living room floor, reflected light
from the lamp, sharp reflections that hurt
my eyes as I watch you, squatting among the platters,
the beer foam making mustaches on your lips.

And, too,
The shadows on your cheeks from your long lashes
Fascinate me- almost as much as the dimples
In your cheeks, you arms, and your legs.

hum along with Mathis- how you love Mathis!
with his burnished hair and quicksilver voice that dances
among the stars and whirls through canyons
like windblown snow, sometimes I think that Mathis
could take you from me if you could be complete
without me. I glance at my watch. It is now time.

You rise,
silently, and to the bedroom and the paint;
on the lips red, on the eyes black,
and I lean in the doorway and smoke, and see you
grow old before my eyes, and smoke. why do you
chatter while you dress? and smile when you grab
your large leather purse? don’t you know that when you
leave me I walk to the window and watch you? And light
a reefer as I watch you? And I die as I watch you
disappear in the dark streets
to whistle and smile at the johns.

copyright 1979 Etheridge Knight

There are two keys to this poem; the first is how the title sets up the tension, and that tension is developed, then released, the second is the expert use of concrete imagery to show (not tell) the story. After we read the title, the big questions are; who is leaving and why ? The first stanza of the poem (each of the first two stanzas is one complete sentence) opens up with a concrete image i.e. “shiny record albums”, note the adjective (shiny) and how it becomes relevant in the second clause of the sentence, also note how the setting is established right away, the second clause tells us why the records are shiny, building on that image with the reflected light, the third clause shows us that the reflections hurt his eyes, building even further by introducing the object of the speaker’s affections (we will return to this clause later), the next clause shows us she is sitting on the floor, and the last clause introduces a very important image the “beer foam making mustaches”. At the end of the first stanza we have a couple sitting on the floor, drinking beer, listening to records (what kind of records?).
The image introduced in the second stanza (“the shadows on your cheeks”) is the kind of detail only a person deeply in love would be fascinated by, the next image (her dimples) gives us some information about her (she’s got some meat on her bones). At the end of the second stanza we have a speaker who is observant of and fascinated by minute details of her appearance.
The third stanza shows us what type of records they are listening to (Johnny Mathis records), which along with the beer foam mustache confirms the idea of a romantic encounter. This stanza contains the poem’s three comparative images; the metaphor “quicksilver voice that dances among the stars” (Mathis has a great deal of vocal range and is known for singing high notes), and a metaphor modified by a simile, “whirls through canyons like windblown snow”(Mathis’ voice has an ethereal quality). The next clause (sometimes I think . . .) shows us that the speaker feels that this relationship is equally important to both of them. The next image (I glance at my watch), moves the poem towards its crisis point, and the third sentence in this stanza (It is now time), appears to bring the tension to a head. At the end of this stanza we have a tight couple who are enjoying themselves, but now it seems their time together is up, but why?
As the fourth stanza opens, she still hasn’t left. Note how each detailed image moves the story along with maximum efficiency, (rise silently/to the bedroom/the paint/on the lips red/on the eyes black). The fact that the woman puts on her makeup in the bedroom indicates that she probably lives there. Note how the repetition of “smoke” shows his rising level of anxiety. The line “grow old before my eyes”, shows us she is probably no older than twenty. The first sentence of the fourth stanza ends with the speaker leaning in the doorway smoking and watching. Note that the next sentence begins without a capital letter, and is the first of four questions which do so. The first two questions are about concrete details of her actions (chatter/smile) which indicate she is at ease with her actions, a direct contrast to his condition. The third question moves the poet from the doorway to the window, (note the alliteration i.e. walk/window/watch), and the fourth question shows how high his anxiety has gone (he switches from a cigarette to a reefer). Note the alliteration in the last sentence (die/disappear/dark). This last sentence is what makes the poem truly special, as it holds its surprise until the very last word. The tension which has been building is suddenly released, but not quite in the manner we expected. The word “johns” explodes in the mouth like a firecracker. The source of the speaker’s anxiety is now revealed. The problem is not the fact THAT she is leaving, but rather WHY she is leaving. The woman is a prostitute, and is on her way to work. Knight never tells us her occupation, he shows her at it, which I think increases the shock, since she appears to be willingly engaged in this activity. The romantic elements of the encounter, and the fact that the speaker is openly acknowledging his affection for the woman, eliminate the possibility that the speaker is the woman's pimp.
The earlier line “sharp reflections that hurt my eyes as I watch you” appeared to be only concrete details that advanced the story, but if we think of reflections as “contemplative thoughts”, we see that this line foreshadowed the speaker’s predicament at the end of the poem. And although the poem’s tension is released, the speaker’s source of tension is never resolved. This type of partial resolution gives the greatest pleasure. Knight never wastes an image, every detail either propels the story forward, or deepens our understanding of the relationship. Note that despite the speaker’s obvious unease with her profession, he never attempts to stop her, simply suffers quietly. When we think of technical mastery, we tend to think of clever rhymes, dazzling wordplay, complex metaphors, or sizzling similes. The technical mastery in this poem lies in its well chosen concrete imagery, which is also quiet, and easy to overlook.

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