There’s something gloriously melodramatic here. It’s almost a love poem, but love not for a woman, more for her particular physical “imperfection”. And from that, the speaker imagines the character of the waitress, which could be accurate or way off the mark. He seems sure that her life has changed for the better, but how sure can he be? Is he allowing his expectation to sway his perception?
The loose swing of her chatter is opposed by the speaker’s disappointment at her metamorphosis. You get the sense that he’d never express this to her. This delicate balance gives the poem a bittersweet taste. It’s clearly a poem of identity, but it’s not only the waitress who’s explored in this regard; it’s also the speaker and/or the poet – what kind of person speculates at such length about someone he seemingly knows only at a distance?
The poem itself has a “loose swing”, I think. It zips along at ease, studded with a few gems, such as the thin river and the idea that the waitress has become her own sister. Its ending surprised me, and it ends abruptly, potentially leaving the reader with the feeling that the speaker/poet is a different person to who we imagined throughout – transformed by the journey of writing the poem, as if it, too, is some kind of smoothening out.
Waitress I Never Knew
Harelipped you were beautiful,
loon-lonely eyes and lithe
shape split by the veering, renegade
lip. Asymmetrical, utterly
stirring. After the surgery I wasn’t
even sure it was you, so nearly
regular your mouth, just a hint
of up-pull, so flashing
your look. You seemed younger, less
sad, less sure, too, as if you
had become your own little sister.
How I wanted that wildly rising
line still to be there. I had no right.
I know your life is better now,
hear it in the loose swing of your chatter.
But your glance – more flit
than flash. Something has been smoothed
away I loved. At least one self
wrenched from bed by thugs you never
knew, hustled off, never seen
again. Now it is left to find out
what was lost in that line
you were born with, what became
of the disappeared, what grace
resides in that thin river you
no longer have to cross,
and where it may be found again,
and why I worry so.
(Reprinted from Falling Body with permission from Salmon Poetry)
My four collections of poems are Straddle, out in 2015 from Salmon Poetry, Falling Body and The Middleman, also from Salmon, and Cycling in Plato’s Cave, from Fomite Press in the U.S.A. My poems have also appeared in many journals and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. I’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. Born and raised in Montreal, I’ve lived in Burlington, Vermont, for many years. After years as an associate dean at Johnson State College, I now work part-time there, teach a bit, and write as much as possible. My website address is http://dcavanagh.net.
Your poem is concerned with finding beauty in what society would typically deem ugly. Do you think society is too concerned with notions of beauty and ugliness, and is beauty important to poetry in any way?
It’s not, or not only, that society is too concerned with notions of beauty and ugliness, but that society is too concerned with conventional and clichéd notions of beauty and ugliness. Air-brushed models, both women and men, are rarely beautiful in my view. Beauty has something to do with personality, uniqueness, or the rightness of something in its setting. An aster in sunlight against a rock, a young girl playing classical violin on a street corner, blue paint peeling on a rusty fence… Beauty itself, and the appreciation of beauty, is part of the glory of being alive, so yes, it is crucially important to poetry. I could quote Keats here on truth being beauty, beauty being truth, but really all you need to do is look around to know how important beauty is to our everyday lives and wellbeing.
I find the grammar and the line breaks particularly interesting in this poem, particularly the first line and “Asymmetrical, utterly// stirring”. Can you comment on the choices you made in this regard, especially the somewhat unnatural-sounding line breaks?
Well, the poem has a regular structure, with four-line stanzas, lines of about the same length, with every other line indented. The “unnatural-sounding” line beaks you mention (enjambments) cut against that regular structure and keep the poem moving from line to line, stanza to stanza. They keep those stanzas from feeling too regular or static, just as the stanza forms keep the line breaks from seeming too odd or chaotic, or so I hope. Maybe more important, the poem is about the relationship between the ordinary and the unusual, between symmetry and the asymetrical, the after and the before expressed in the face of the waitress. It’s appropriate that the form of the poem should mirror the coming together of the regular and the irregular.
This is very obviously a poem of observation, but would you say that observation in some form is common to all poetry? How does it feature in your own poetry in general?
Most poems depend on keen observation, by the poet and by the reader as well. Poems ask us and help us to pay close attention. They ask and help us to look at the surface that takes us below the surface -- something often missing from our fast-paced daily lives that too often call on us not to look or feel deeply but to glance over and keep moving. I wish I were better at paying close attention.
The cause for worry wasn’t clear to me at the end. Could you elaborate on what exactly you were getting at there?
That last line does come out of the blue, and it is somewhat mysterious. It’s mysterious for the narrator, too. On one level, he’s simply worried about the waitress. Maybe he has had a sudden sense that something has been or might be “lost” in his own life, too, as a result of things that have been “smoothed away” or made “nearly regular.” I don’t want to say much more. The feeling is clear, I hope, of deep concern, and of the need to understand.
Why do you write?
More mystery. It’s an impossible question, though there are partial answers: Because it makes me feel more alive than just about anything else, because something in me needs to express what I see or feel or experience and give it a form in words, because writing things down makes me experience them more fully, because it makes me feel better.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
My advice would be: No one can give you any advice that will help. You’re on your own. Seriously, though, I don’t know. After many years I’m still feeling my way along, and most writers I know feel the same way. But if forced to reply, I might offer three bits that I try to tell myself over and over: Pay close attention to the life you’re living; read, read, read other poets’ work; write a lot, daily if possible.