Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Introduction to "Brian, Age Seven"

The poem, for me, comes alive in the second stanza as the “impossible legs” descend from the “ball of his torso.” It’s a picture that we all recognize, I think: a child’s drawn conception of the human figure, of what we look like. Elongated legs, blocky or spherical bodies, wide heads, eyes way up at the top, ears wherever they fall, and somewhere above, perhaps fit neatly into the triangle of a corner, a yellow sun, rays extending in perfect straight lines. “He breathes here,” Doty writes. At the same time, the poem catches fire with a simultaneous reflection of the world (what I recognize already as truth) and reconfiguration of the world (what I learn to see as the truth).

If art is, in some way, a reflection of who we are inside, or even of who we want to be as we reshape the world and ourselves and present them to the world anew, then consider what Brian holds inside: a giant smile, happiness almost uncontained by the borders of his face, and the sheer pleasure that the world might offer if we dare to catch hold of it – the sheer pleasure, for example, of a “towering ice cream” half as tall as Brian himself. “So much delight,” the poem insists. A gift from a soda fountain, but imaged here as “the flag of his own country held high,” as if this should be the visual representation of what we believe in, or who we belong to, of what we’ll fight for, or of what we should pledge allegiance to.

I pledge allegiance to sheer delight.

And I feel okay about that. But, then, the last three lines pull me back, stop me, or stop me and then pull me back. I start to feel like I’m running ahead of the poem. What am I to make of, “He shows us pleasure / And what pleasure resists”? What does pleasure resist? I get the penultimate line – a statement of fact – but what to do with the conclusion? I understand that the towering ice cream, the giant flag, might dwarf, in some ways, the boy himself, but why show us the boy as “frail”? Why “frail beside his relentless standard”? Has the drawing gone too far? Has Brian, in imagining such pleasure, in imagining such an impossibility turned it into something negative? Has the illusion, the human creation (rather than the world’s reality) become too much?

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