#21: ‘like a pistol in her pocket’

Seven years ago, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award changed my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog probably couldn’t have existed without the encouragement, support and community to which I was given access as a Foyle winner, and I am deeply indebted to the award not only for the continuing role it has played in my own success (whatever that means) as a writer, but also for the attentiveness it allowed me to develop as a reader of the kinds of poetry being written now.

Today, on National Poetry Day, this year’s fifteen winners were announced; fifteen young writers who are about to have a horizon-expanding experience of which I am retrospectively and unreasonably jealous. In tribute to the part that the Foyle competition played in my life, I’m giving this week’s entry over to the winning poem which spoke to me most powerfully – Ian Burnette’s ‘Dutch Baby’, a tense and tender portrait of an abrupt induction into adulthood.

Dutch Baby
by Ian Burnette

In the bakery, my girl
grips a pregnancy test

like a pistol in her pocket.
The baker hands her

the key to the restroom
and leaves. In the back

there’s a small window
where he watches

men and women and
children—I don’t mind,

I’ve learned I can’t
protect anyone by now.

The raspberry danish
in the pastry cabinet

is the baker’s daughter,
I’ve decided—bruised

purple and swaddled
in puff rope. I imagine

the baker coming back
from his window, filling

my empty hands.
Here’s yeast, here’s flour,

fruit and sugar and water—
make more of her.

*

The considerable threat in this poem emerges in part from its sense of normality, present even in its very grammar – its simple, present-tense, often monosyllabic sentences. The bakery, with its restroom and its pastry cabinet, evokes the warm sense of domesticity and community provided by a traditional (family) business, and the gently-possessive description ‘my girl’ points back to a wholesome teen America, reminiscent of romantic comedy. It is this context which the pregnancy test (even before its result is visible) is about to explode, with a volley of popping plosives. Who is this ‘pistol’ pointed at – the father, the lover, or the ‘girl’ herself? Does she ‘grip’ in fear, or tenacious self-defence?

Burnette skilfully controls the levels of knowledge within the poem – it isn’t fully clear if the baker knows what his daughter is doing in the restroom, or if his window-watching habit (‘children’ last, an unsettling afterthought) is as sinister as the speaker seems to assume. He seems too young for apathy, and we don’t know if his failures of ‘protection’ have a significance beyond the sexual. And where is he within the scene – on the other side of the window, looking in, thus little better than the father-voyeur? Or inside, tapping his toes by the pastry cabinet, nervously waiting for his hands to be filled? When it comes to the bruising of an edible commodity (two images of male-on-female violence and control), ‘I’ve decided’ seems an oddly glib choice of verb. As with the victim in Larkin’s ‘Deceptions‘, it’s hard to know how uneasy to feel about the male’s ‘imagine’d agency within, or ownership of, a narrative of female suffering. Here, also, we shift into the past – ‘I’ve learned’… ‘I’ve decided’ – as Burnett takes us away from the restroom and its uncomfortably intimate suspense into a space of distanced reflection which the female character is currently unable to access.

Perhaps the bruising refers less to domestic assault than to the image of a difficult birth; certainly ‘swaddled/in puff rope’ implies the painful reception of a new-born, one who enters into a world of suffocating restriction. Against this vision of a possible future, the speaker’s ’empty hands’ return us to his prior powerlessness; the ‘filling’ also suggests a kind of surrogate pregnancy for which the ‘daughter’ is present only as a sugary embryo, created by two generations of men within a masculine receptacle. ‘Make more of her’ indicates a desire for replacement – implies, even, a fatherly concern that this new daughter should be treated better than the last – but doesn’t answer the question of where the first has got to within the final movement of the poem. There is a tenderness to this moment of reconstruction, even if the end result will be something flimsy and comestible. We don’t know quite what the yeast will rise into, or how the situation in the poem will resolve. ‘Make more of her’, an imperative, reaches outward to us as readers – it is our job now to build up the narrative, to fill in the gaps Burnette leaves open.

*

To read more about the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and read the full list of 2013’s winners please go to http://www.foyleyoungpoets.org.

scallop-shell

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