How Line Lengths and Breaks Might Convey Voice

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So the other day, I went back to a poem I had started about Callisto, Xena’s arch-nemesis. This one is about episode 2.7 Intimate Stranger, where Xena and Callisto get their bodies switched by one of the gods, primarily because Lucy Lawless had broken her pelvic bones in a fall from a horse she was practicing stunts on for the Tonight Show. It was a great choice, not only because it is always fun to see characters we know switch (Enver Gjokaj is a genius at this; check out the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse), but because it pointed out how similar these two women are. With the right (or wrong, really) set of circumstances, they actually could have been each other: Callisto the warlord who set a village afire that would turn the orphan Xena into a psychopath. We like them better as they are, because let’s face it, Callisto is the BDVE (Best Damn Villain Ever), with her creepy line delivery and spidery physicality.

So anyway, I wrote version 1.0 below and did not think much about it. But then I was looking at the previous poem I wrote about Callisto, with the first two lines:

“As children we come to experiences bone to bone,

with no kind skin to muffle the uproar. Imagine:”

I realized that the new poem was at least a full inch thinner, 2 1/2 inches, than the old one, which has line lengths of 3 1/2 inches. Well, the thing is, at 5’ 8” and 120 pounds, one of the first things you notice about Hudson Leick is how thin she is, an impression fostered by her costume being even more revealing than Xena’s, especially at her midsection.

Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself: X. Reflects on C., v.1.0

In the night season, I dream memories

Misremembered, death in the form of

My perfect nemesis, a woman born

In the fire that killed her family. She is

Me. And I did create her as she claims,

Though it was not my hand that lit

The spark that tore her world away.

She revels in her pain. I did that

Once, as she does, and spread it

Far and wide: if I suffer, so too must

Everyone. I will wring out the world

Like a map weeping blood. I am

Her now, our minds and bodies

Switched by the gods in their infinite

Unfairness. My enemy is me. I look

In the river and the body that I know

Does not look back. She promised

Once to take away everything

I loved, my friends, family, horse,

Reputation, everything it took me

So many years to win back.

Now in her body I must race

Against time, again, to stop her.

Both of us suffer from my monumental

Guilt. Like a crashing wave, once

It starts, there is no stopping it.

So then I thought about a poem I wrote many years ago titled Cancer Barbie, using the image of a Barbie whose hair as been loved off, a là The Velveteen Rabbit, to talk about cancer as I have seen friends experience it. Given that the image is Barbie, the shape of the poem really matters, so I tried to make a poem about Barbie look like Barbie, to wit:

Cancer Barbie

for Jackie, Anita, Judy

Some

little girl

has loved

this doll

completely, loved her

long blonde hair

right off

just the

way these

chemicals

coursing

through

your body

love you down

to the very follicle

love you right

all

the

way

down

to

your

roots.

 …

At first, I thought I could do a similar thing by centering what I have here as version 2.0, but it ended up looking like, depending on how generous you want to be, a stubby gingerbread man or something my cat coughed up. So forget the centering. What the erratic breaks and short line lengths do is to make the voice of the speaker, in this case Xena inside Callisto’s body, sound more erratic. I can’t decide if the body you are in should decide your voice or if it is only the mind. In that case, I should go with Version 1.0 for this, but if I find a way to write a poem using Callisto’s voice, regardless of which body she is in, I will totally use this style. So let me know: which do you prefer, version 1.0 or 2.0 and why?

Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself: X. Reflects on C., v.2.0

In the night season, I dream

memories misremembered,

death in the form of

my perfect nemesis, a woman

born in the fire

that killed her family. She is

me. And I did create her

as she claims, though it was not

my hand that lit the spark

that tore her world away.

She revels in her pain. I did that

once, as she does,

and spread it far

and wide: if I suffer, so too

must everyone.

I will wring out the world

like a map weeping blood.

I am her now, our minds

and bodies switched by the gods

in their infinite

unfairness. My enemy is me.

I look in the river and the body

that I know does not look back.

She promised once to take away

everything I loved,

my friends, family, horse,

reputation, everything it took me

so many years to win back.

Now in her body I must race

against time, again,

to stop her. Both of us suffer

from my monumental

guilt. Like a crashing wave,

once it starts, there

is no stopping it.

 …

Spilecki, Susan.   “Cancer Barbie,” Midwest Poetry Review. Summer 2002.

2 comments on “How Line Lengths and Breaks Might Convey Voice

  1. PJS says:

    Callisto makes me think of Glory.

    Like

  2. The psychotic ones are always the best!

    Like

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