I Tackle the Pantoum!

I wanted to learn more about poetry from the eight-week seminar I’m taking at WriterHouse, and I certainly have moved beyond my college acumen at iambic pentameter. Last week it was the “persona poem” entering my lexicon. This week it’s the “pantoum.”

The text we’re using for this seminar is Ordinary Genius, by the poet Kim Addonizio. It’s full of reflections on creativity and exercises and prompts to stimulate the reader’s creativity. Much of what she offers in this book can be useful to prose writers as well. For example, Addonizio described one of her favorite exercises to enhance creativity: Wherever she is, she makes a conscious effort to observe and notice three specific things, which she writes down. They may not show up tangibly in a poem, but the concept each observation evokes will.

The reading for week five of the seminar contained many different exercises and prompts, including the “pantoum,” which is a fifteenth-century Malaysian verse form later adopted by Western writers. A pantoum consists of quatrains (four-line stanzas), and lines two and four of the first stanza become lines one and three of the next stanza, and so on until the final stanza, whose last line is the first line of the poem.

Confused? So was I, but Addonizio provided her poem, “Aquarium Eel,” as an example, as well as other pantoums by Charles Baudelaire, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, and Anne Waldman. I was intrigued enough to give the pantoum a try.

Another part of the reading included a chapter on “Race, Class, and Privilege,” with prompts to encourage us to either explore our ethnicity or reflect on our white privilege. Ever since Thomas Duncan was the first person to be diagnosed with ebola after coming to the United States, I’ve been fascinated by a man from Liberia who shares not only my last name but also the first name of an uncle. Rather naively, I wondered how the name Duncan came to Liberia; then, a forehead smack later, I realized I knew exactly how.

Slaves were often known by their masters’ surnames, and Duncans in Virginia in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries owned slaves. I’ll never know for certain, but from Mr. Duncan’s surname it’s likely some of those slaves freed from Duncan land migrated to the new country of Liberia. Unlike some others in my “clan,” I see that as enhancing the family name: Duncans helped to build America, and Duncans helped to build Liberia. And yes, I understand as well there is a possibility Mr. Duncan and I share DNA. I won’t excuse the reason for that; that would be specious. I do, however, embrace family no matter the color of the skin.

Mr. Duncan likely contracted ebola when he drove an ill woman to a hospital not long before he took a plane to Texas to be with his fiance. He could have refused to help a sick woman, probably someone he suspected had ebola, but he didn’t. In that moment, I knew he and I were family. I knew as well I would have to write about him someday.

So, bearing in mind this is a very, very rough draft of my pantoum, here’s what I wrote for my cousin, Thomas Eric Duncan:

Brown Warrior

I know what our name means.
I’ll always wonder if you knew.
After all, “brown warrior” fits you,
But the battle was already lost.

I’ll always wonder if you knew,
When you went to hospital,
The battle was already lost.
Hero became villain after death.

When you went to hospital,
Did you have the will to survive?
Hero became villain after death,
And how did our name get to Liberia?

Did you have the will to survive?
You helped the sick, who never asked
How did our name get to Liberia.
I know the distasteful answer.

You helped the sick, who never asked
If you were frightened of them.
I know the distasteful answer
Why in death you were feared.

If you were frightened of them,
Those who couldn’t save your life,
Why in death were you feared?
Were you Thomas or Mr. Duncan?

Those who tried to save your life
Didn’t think of you as just a name.
You were Thomas or Mr. Duncan.
I know what our name means.

~~~

As usual, I’d be interested in what real poets think, and suggestions for improvement are always welcome.

I live for your constructive comments.

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