If it resists me, I know it’s real
A few years ago, I made a crucial change in my manuscript, the kind that returns one’s entire body of work to itself: I set simile aside. I had been struggling with a poem, “Getting Dad Dressed for the Doctor,” in which the speaker experiences two memories simultaneously, one in their time as a queer adult in a cadaver lab, and the titular other, as the bratty closeted queer teen of a dying father. Across months of drafts, the poem was all nerves, no organs: stimulating, but without function. The poem was probably publishable, but it wasn’t transformative. A poem’s truest charge, I think, is to change—its subject, or its speaker, or its reader, or maker. But mine hadn’t.
The poem was a catalog, at first, of explicit simile, rather than focused image—the brain lifted from its chemical vat like some sort of sopping fruit, the protective sock on the cadaver’s arm wriggled up like pantyhose. Lyric, strange, and sonically lucid, the poem sounded transformative, but was not. It engaged only in simile’s most rudimentary capacity: to transport. Carl Phillips has argued that poems should transform—rather than merely transcribe—experience, as transcription squanders a poem’s opportunity to act on the speaker’s interior. It’s transport, though, that feels insidious—offering the sensation of movement via association from one distinct site of semantic meaning to another, while accumulating little interior work. The poet tricks the speaker (and the reader) into believing in a false change: if your location is different, you, too, must be different, right?
My poem was, at first, frenetic. It moved but was not moving. It occurred to me that the speaker needed to stay, despite their resistance, with the dead/dying body’s stark particulars—the vocal cords, the genitals, “that austere/ little duodenum,” so that they
could forgive it.
its spoiled coil. No. Instead,
I cried at the common white cotton tube sock.
It keeps the exposed arms from drying out overnight.
He couldn’t bend too well. I’d had to help him
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker enters the cadaver lab with a tidy, planned grief: this cadaver, composed of fixed and sterile images, will serve as their father’s body. As the images accumulate, however, they thwart that plan. Only after seeing the unanticipated tube sock does the speaker submit to their true grief—the grief of narrative, of having failed their father, first as a bratty daughter, and now under the pretense of the good grieving son. The excision of simile left my speaker with no choice but to be present in the cadaver lab, and thus present with difficult memories. Had I been treating simile as a poetic necessity when, like any other poetic tool, it requires an emotional imperative?
At the time, I was reading for West Branch. My new attunement to simile permeated my reading. I began noticing it everywhere and finding it intolerable. Had simile overtaken contemporary American poetry? I soon realized, however, that my preoccupation with a single poetic tool could prevent me from approaching a poem with openness. Still, my repulsion remained, and I needed to reckon with it. Where my attraction to simile had led me away from my own poem, distracting me from its difficulty, my new aversion to simile could enhance my reading of other’s poems and allow me to hold each to a standard of genuine change. As someone who loves sestinas might feel protective of the form’s capacity, ambivalence about simile could be resituated as an editorial gift.
I read through my submission queue with this spirit of stubborn protectiveness. I would not be seduced by mere beauty! I would refuse to buckle up into simile’s sexy little sports car! When I encountered a poem inundated with simile, my mind recoiled, then revved up. I ended up spending even more time with simile-minded poems—more time than when I had felt neutral about them, craving a poem to prove me wrong, hoping to find one with overwhelming and abundant similes. Instead, I found Jeremy Michael Clark’s “Memory, Flooding Back,” a modest 10-line poem recounting a devastating flood, with just two moments of simile:
of water over the land, like a hand
coaxes a child to sleep. Within hours,
it reached our homes. When the water
seeped through the window, I felt
so confused. How like a child to think
the house had started to cry.
As I sat in my little basement office with its one hopper window, I cried, too, moved specifically by Clark’s similes, both of them tethered to childhood. In the first, the flood is parental, rubbing the back of the land, its child, until it falls asleep. Sound carries like a lullaby, like an omen: breach, sleep, reached, seeped, and the final word, cry, which suggests the unfulfilled rhyme, too elevated a word for a child—weep.
In the second instance of simile, it’s not the land but the speaker who is a child, the flood enlivening their soon-to-be-ruined home, which will cry but cannot be soothed. Where the poem’s expositional ligature—“within hours […]” and “When the water”—literally moves the flood closer to the speaker, simile moves it figuratively inside the speaker’s memory, the narrative of the event, if not traumatic, at least, altering. The second simile positions the speaker apart from the event: “How like a child to think” suggests distance, both tonally and temporally. In the time-stalled space of the line break, the child’s confusion might be expository (where has the water come from?), or anticipatory (what will the water do?), or preparatory (what will I do?). Instead, the closing line—“the house started to cry”—offers vulnerable imagination.
Rather than attaching the simile to the anthropomorphized house—“like a child, the house started to cry,”—Clark makes the simile’s subject the child, ending wholly in the interior, even as he offers a compelling image. Moved toward this moment so quietly, without spectacle, like flood water entering amidst sleep, that final simile allows the poem to deepen its initial pursuit, transforming a poem about a flood into a poem also about imagination’s relationship to emergency and emergency’s aftermath. Clark’s poem cannot work without simile because simile is so imperative to the speaker as to be one of the poem’s very subjects. It is not just a feature, it is a function and fact.
Finding Clark’s simile in my queue saved the queue from my opinion and offered me a standard by which to engage simile, or a question to pose: who is the poem’s particular speaker, and why would simile be, or not be, a part of their specific utterance? This is, of course, a question to be asked of any poetic tool, any single word. But some tools, I know now, are taken for granted when taken as default. Every tool has its imperative. My repulsion toward simile wasn’t due to overuse, or unimaginative comparisons, or the familiar argument about false equivalence. The issue with uninterrogated simile, I realized, is only a symptom of the truer problem of an unexamined, underdeveloped speaker. A half-formed speaker can proceed with style, but will not be transformed. Initially, simile had kept my speaker from experiencing a more complex grief. When I stopped relying on simile to move my speaker, I was compelled to consider who my speaker really was, how they would truly move, and where they were moving from and toward.
A knowledge arose: like any beloved, my speaker was a complete mind and heart with needs, fears, flaws, and a rich inner world. I had known only the facts of their life, because they resembled my own: a transmasculine, queer, identical twin, estranged from their family, the erotic, and their friends. But considering their relationship to simile helped me contextualize their interior condition. Wouldn’t a twin, desperate for a shred of self, resist all likeness, and so, all simile? And if, like love, simile is not in the room, where must the speaker go to experience change? Not only did my particular speaker emerge, so, too, did their trajectory—the way back to likeness was the way back to intimacy. As with that initial cadaver poem, in simile’s absence, I could no longer resist my speaker—which meant, as any poem hopes, that I could no longer resist my own life.
Noah Baldino is a writer and editor from Illinois. Their poems have appeared in Poem-a-Day, Jewish Currents, New England Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Knox College Creative Writing Program and of the Purdue University MFA, Noah has also received support from The Poetry Foundation, The University of Arizona Poetry Center,...