Sunday Poetry with Sarah Dowling
Today on Sunday Poetry we have Sarah Dowling, author of Down and the forthcoming Entering Sappho, on the inspiration behind the innovative formatting in her poem “THE SAFE M-HM”. And be sure to sign up for the Sunday Poetry Newsletter so you never miss a post!
THE SAFE M-HM
Can I boy under you honey
Can you tell everyone I should brush against this maroon
starlight and save the robe Can I bury the songs and the
morning the grey sunshine the fire and what I sometimes
prey and what you right now
how I honey
I remember my mum telling me about how one time, when she was a child, she was listening to her own mum talking to someone on the phone. My mum realized that her mum wasn’t paying any attention to the person she was talking to, because she kept making the same three sounds, in the same order, over and over again. The way I remember it, the point of the story was to describe the realization that adults aren’t always truthful. I was also struck, though, by the way this story combined gentleness and exasperation. It offered such a clear portrait of that specific emotional burden: being completely zoned out while giving someone the impression of being heard and supported. In my mum’s description of that conversation, I saw something about how little and how much it takes to do the work of making others feel good.
This poem is the first in a short sequence called “The Safe M-Hm” that appears near the end of DOWN. I wasn’t thinking about long-ago phone calls when I wrote it, but I did have two voices in mind. One (on the left) nervously spirals through most every image that appears in the book, asking jagged, anxious questions and begging to be closer. The other (on the right) exists only as sound and tone—it never uses any real words.
Sometimes poetry is thought of as a “between” art: like a phone call, it travels on a voice from one body to another. This voice-y conception of poetry makes us think of the speaker as the sure, certain thing in poem. At times, we think of poems as distillations of the speaker’s essence, as the purest expression of what that person is. This leaves the addressee as little more than a target, a mere occasion or opportunity for someone else to talk.
Here, I wanted to try something different, to highlight the between-ness. The sticky “honey” that holds this poem together and makes it work is not the speaker alone. The speaker’s fraught ramblings make sense only within the structure of the addressee’s affirmative m-hms. The two voices “brush against” and “bury” into one another, but not because the poem represents some utopic state of sexual equality. Actually, there’s a fair bit of tension, and it’s coming from both voices.
I don’t think tension is a bad thing. The tension comes from the fact that the voices in this poem aren’t following the usual paths or directions. Instead of moving along surely from speaker to addressee, this poem jags back and forth, moving in pleasure and annoyance, in confusion and interruption, in careful reassurance and zoned-out mutterings. The work of making someone feel good is right there on the surface, as frenzy and as vague distraction. Right where anyone looking can see it; right where it should be.
Sarah Dowling is the author of the poetry collections DOWN and Security Posture, and the scholarly book Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood under Settler Colonialism. Sarah lives in Toronto. Coach House Books will publish her new collection, Entering Sappho, this fall.