Sunday, June 19, 2011

Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud

Online here. (Same link as last time, first poem on the page. Formatting is slightly different in the book; no italics in the first line.)

I skipped ahead to check out the famous prizewinning sonnet. n judges at Eratosphere can't be wrong, can they? Well, maybe they can be, but they weren't this time. Lovely sonnet.

The title was a puzzler for me. I learned, using Google, that one can purchase mud from the Dead Sea in the form of skin cream. So that's what our narrator must be opening a jar of. But there's a secondary meaning too: dead sea mud is sea mud that is dead--a corpse that calls back sorrowful memories.

The plot is simple: our narrator opens the jar of mud, and the smell takes her back to an unhappy scene from her childhood at in an infirmary in Kent.

The form of the sonnet mirrors its content in an interesting way. L1 opens the jar, introduces its smell, and transitions immediately to a scene in which the narrator is six years old (told in the historical present). The line ends with "awash", which takes the reader straight into the scene. After the revelation of the narrator's age in L1, there's no more scene-setting for the rest of the octave. Instead, the poem launches straight into the scene of a cold, lonely child, tormented by her peers. The explanation comes in the sestet: only in L9 do we learn that this scene takes place in an infirmary, and it takes until L11 for Kent to show up. Lines 13 and 14 form a rhyming couplet, in which the narrator finally closes the jar. (This couplet definitely bears quoting:
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.
) So poem is shaped like the experience of being hit by a vivid memory, and then working one's way back to the present. The final couplet seals things up neatly, like the lid being screwed back onto a jar.

Other things I enjoyed about this poem: the alliteration on L3, the slight misdirection in the break between L4 and L5 (and ugh, horrid little boys didn't change a bit between Griffiths' childhood and mine), "stone-faced as Coliseum arches" on L12 (can't really argue with the contention that Coliseum arches are stone-faced, can you?), and the elision between the feeling of salt in your nose and the feeling of crying.


  1. Oh my I enjoyed that (and the preceding interview, which I just read - such good advice). The poem was done with a wonderful lack of sentiment, hammered home with lovely hard b's and p's and a few d's and t's thrown in for good measure, just to match those stone faced "Sisters" and mean boys and girls.

  2. the poem online, and feel it was rather written to order. Pinching girls, cruel boys, horrid nuns. I do like the very specific and evocative detail of "beetle shoes." Must she identity what the salt Represents in the last line? The poem already smells of self-pity.

  3. Laurie: I was so happy to read her remark that's it's normal to make a fool of yourself sometimes when critting. What a huge relief.

    Jee: I guess it is a little bit self-pitying, isn't it? I was so busy concentrating on the craft that I didn't notice. Still, everybody needs a whinge once in a while. And "Stalag Kent" shows that she's able to poke fun at herself (albeit in questionable taste).

  4. I love her as a mythological character of pixel poetry. This is indeed a great poem. Your deconstruction, Featherless. Quite nice.