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Prose Poems, Paragraphs, Brief Lyric Nonfiction

By Peggy Shumaker

Brief pieces of prose, meant to stand on their own, capture our attention via compression. In Short Takes, the entries range from a couple of hundred words to a couple of thousand--leaving little space for grand exposition or lengthy character development. And yet the pieces in this volume compel us with their intensity, sustain us with their impact.

Mark Spragg, a novelist and memoirist accustomed to the expanse of three hundred pages, becomes a lyric poet for the two and a half pages of “In Wyoming.” His gritty prose becomes an ode to the unforgiving land and weather of this mostly wild place. “This place is violent, and it is raw,” Spragg writes. “Wyoming is not a land that lends itself to nakedness, or leniency. There is an edge here, living is accomplished on that edge.”

This hymn to harshness sings. Spragg says, “There are precious few songbirds. Raptors ride the updrafts. The hares, voles, mice, skunks, squirrels, rats, shrews, and rabbits exist squinting into sun and wind, their eyes water, their hearts spike in terror when swept by the inevitable shadow of predators. The meadowlark is the state’s bird, but I think of them as hors d’oeuvres, their song a dinner bell.”

An ode in prose, Spragg’s piece ends like this, “…I remain alert. In Wyoming, the price of innocence is high. There is a big wind out there, on its way home to our high plains.”

Spragg’s few words scour us, our faces tight against the wind. We know we’ll end up like the bison whose bones have fallen to earth, bleached rose then white, then fallen finally to dust. This brief piece takes on how it’s possible to live in extremity, how it’s possible to live, period. What’s come before us, what will endure, and the certainty of mortality--all these ideas whip through this piece, cutting as stiff winds.

Naomi Shihab Nye takes on big questions by focusing in on matters of daily life--the only kind we live. In Mint Snowball, her book of paragraphs, Nye's author’s note reads as follows: “I think of these pieces as simple paragraphs rather than 'prose poems,' though a few might sneak into the prose poem category, were they traveling on their own. The paragraph, standing by itself, has a lovely pocket-sized quality. It garnishes the page as mint might garnish a plate. Many people say (foolishly of course) that they “don’t like poetry” but I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t like paragraphs. It would be like disliking five minute increments on the clock.”

Her selection in Short Takes, “Someone I Love,” begins as she gets up at dawn, jetlagged after a long trip, and goes out to water her garden, to feel rooted again to the earth. She’s stunned to discover that someone has destroyed her carefully-cultivated patch of primroses, has marched through it with the handmower, slicing down all the buds about to open. “He must have pushed really hard to get it to go,” Nye tells us. She’s distraught, too stricken to speak of her loss. “…I will not mention this, I am too sad to mention it, this is the pain this year deserves.” That quiet mention of the year, a year of war and upheaval and dehumanizing, throws the whole piece into context. Suddenly we’re not talking about a son failing to notice what matters to a mother. Instead we’re talking about what gets taken away, how we live with loss, how we live with those who hurt us or our loved ones. In the piece, Nye cannot contain her fury, and goes “a little strange.” She confronts her bewildered son. He responds by saying, “I don’t notice flower things like that.

Her piece ends this way: “And it was the season of blooming and understanding. It was the season of pulling weeds in other corners, hiding from the headlines, wondering what it would do if the whole house had been erased or just the books and paintings and what about the whole reckless garden or (and then it gets unthinkable but we make ourselves think it now and then to stay human) the child’s arms and legs, what would I do? If I did not love him, who would I become?”

Nye, whose relatives have lived in a war zone all their lives, makes peace-making a matter of personal responsibility, a matter of conscience. Her piece asks us, how do we live with those who have taken possessions, land, languages, loved ones from us? Until we learn this, we will not know peace.

My own contribution to the Short Takes anthology mixes the lyrical language of poetry with the urgency of a narrative scene. All the poets in this volume give up line breaks. Without that tool so intricate for pacing and emphasis and wordplay and rhythms, sentences swell. Watch how varied sentences work--fragments, bits of dialogue, quick exposition, complex rhythms, and the great gush of language flash flooding.

 

Moving Water, Tucson

Thunderclouds gathered every afternoon during the monsoons. Warm rain felt good on faces lifted to lick water from the sky. We played outside, having sense enough to go out and revel in the rain. We savored the first cool hours since summer hit.

The arroyo behind our house trickled with moving water. Kids gathered to see what it might bring. Tumbleweed, spears of ocotillo, creosote, a doll’s arm, some kid’s fort. Broken bottles, a red sweater. Whatever was nailed down, torn loose.

We stood on edges of sand, waiting for brown walls of water. We could hear it, massive water, not far off. The whole desert might come apart at once, might send horny toads and Gila monsters swirling, wet nightmares clawing both banks of the worst they could imagine and then some.
Under sheet lightning cracking the sky, somebody’s teenaged brother decided to ride the flash flood. He stood on wood in the bottom of the ditch, straddling the puny stream. “Get out, it’s coming,” kids yelled. “GET OUT,” we yelled. The kid bent his knees, held out his arms.

Land turned liquid that fast, water yanked our feet, stole our thongs, pulled in the edges of the arroyo, dragged whole trees root wads and all along, battering rams thrust downstream, anything you left there gone, anything you meant to go back and get, history, water so high you couldn’t touch bottom, water so fast you couldn’t get out of it, water so huge the earth couldn’t take it, water. We couldn’t step back. We had to be there, to see for ourselves. Water in a place where water’s always holy. Water remaking the world.

That kid on plywood, that kid waiting for the flood. He stood and the water lifted him. He stood, his eyes not seeing us. For a moment, we all wanted to be him, to be part of something so wet, so fast, so powerful, so much bigger than ourselves. That kid rode the flash flood inside us, the flash flood outside us. Artist unglued on a scrap of glued wood. For a few drenched seconds, he rode. The water took him, faster than you can believe. He kept his head up. Water you couldn’t see through, water half dirt, water whirling hard. Heavy rain weighed down our clothes. We stepped closer to the crumbling shore, saw him downstream smash against the footbridge at the end of the block. Water held him there, rushing on.

 

Every time I read this piece, someone in the audience asks, “Did he live?” That tells me that 400 words are enough to create a character people can care about, and to tell a story convincing enough so that they want the next piece. The language has drawn them in, as surely as kids standing on the bank of an arroyo spellbound by dangerous floods.

The compression of the brief form, completely familiar to poets and to those who read poetry, gains a fine elasticity in nonfiction. Tone can range from somber to whimsical, lament to praise. Anything writers can do with long forms has parallels in brief forms.

    
 

Peggy Shumaker's most recent book is Blaze, a collaboration with the painter Kesler Woodward. Just Breathe Normally, a lyrical memoir, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2007. She teaches in the low-residency Rainier Writing Workshop. More information can be found at www.peggyshumaker.com.