Fall 2016

Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright


Verbal Binary Presence

in Early Childhood Development,

that Infamously Difficult

Poetic Form the Villanelle,

and the Spiritual Quotidian

David Huddle


In the womb it’s neither no nor yes. 


You do, however, gather physical strength. You are, however, unprepared for the binary presence that awaits you on the shores of the amniotic sea in which you swim.


Yes of course to the miraculous sweetness in those first post-partum hours of your mother’s breast.  Yes to the nipple, yes to the results of sucking, yes even to how your kneading hands nudge the milk toward your ravenous mouth, but alas, no--oh saddest of no’s--to your waking later to the cries of your newborn peers lined up on either side of you.  No in your mouth, no in your belly.  No, the tight swaddling that disallows the waving of your arms, the kicking of your legs.  No, your calls that go unanswered.  No’s cruel pedagogy.


Yes, your family’s adoring voices, yes, especially, your mother’s singing, yes when they lift you to a shoulder to pat your back.  Yes to the burp.


No, they put back in your crib.  No, they walk away.  No, the darkness in which they leave you.  A no to cancel out the whole history of yes. 


Sleep, however, that sneaky yes--somehow it takes you in its arms.





Friend and sister practitioner, Barbara Greenberg, once explained to me that the villanelle’s first refrain line is the mother, while the second refrain (which is the third line of the poem) is the father.  Thus consider the first stanza of her villanelle “The Braid”:


Like a black flame it hugs her spine.

Or like an eel.  Or like a sword.

I’d kill with it if it were mine.


The first refrain line generates the poem, brings it into the world.  The second refrain line turns the poem mean and destructive.  The first describes; the second gives attitude, takes on a mission.  Yes, like a black flame it hugs her spine.  No, I’d kill with it if it were mine.  So as the poem proceeds, an argument progresses, becoming more and more intense, moving toward hysteria.  Until in the nineteenth line the father’s final assertion puts an end to argument and shuts the poem down:


I wore one once not half so fine.

Mine only straggled like a weed.

Like a black flame hers hugs her spine.


Or like a thick melodic line.

Or like a tragic plot…  I would,

I’d kill with it if it were mine.


Or like a vein, a vein of iron.

Or like a tongue.  Or like a wound.

Like a black flame it hugs her spine.


Or like an x.  Or like a nine.

Or like the word within the word.

I’d kill with it if it were mine.


Like innocence, like auld lang syne,

Like fairy tales, like western wind.

Like a black flame, it hugs her spine.

I’d kill with it if it were mine.


Each stanza’s middle lines that intervene between the two refrain lines support the insistent yes.  In this case the supporting yes is in those lines’ continuing to offer imaginative suggestions for what the braid resembles--thus generating new similes and moving the poem forward).  So the form’s basic argument--regardless of poem’s content--always goes this way:  

yes yes no  

yes yes no 

yes yes yes  

yes yes no  

yes yes yes  

yes yes yes no.

Our inevitable conclusion must be that no matter that the yeses outnumber the no’s fifteen to four, no is the last word.  No has its way no matter how much noise yes makes. 


Even though the content of my own villanelle, “Curmudgeon’s Song,” has nothing in common with Barbara Greenberg’s “The Braid,” the two poems make the same basic noise; they carry out the same kids-in-the-sandpile yes-no debate, and they reach the same authoritarian conclusion:


From a distance I hear something soft, sung

as though someone knew half the words, was shy.

I want a song this spring against hate.  The young


go out to loll in the grass, their coats flung

aside, forgotten as winter, and I

go walking toward what’s so softly sung. 


I almost lose it.  I hurry among

crowds of laughers, dazed gazers at the sky.

This spring I want a song against hate.  The young


get in my way, their bright colored packs slung

across their backs, careless of passers-by,

while far head I can barely hear it, sung


so sweetly words shape themselves on my tongue.

Wait! I know that song.  I can tell you why

in spring you sing against hate. Oh, the young


don’t know this.  Did I tell you that I’ve rung

bells in May, that I’ve known I wouldn’t die?

But why this distance, this thing softly sung

so far away?  In spring I hate the young.




3.  No so random, various, and numerous one hardly knows (ha!)  where to start.  Yes the stars but no the black space that surrounds them.  Silence the looming no that waits for the yes of music to reach its conclusion.  Brief yes of early childhood segues into the ten thousand no’s of disillusionment in growing up and the humiliating no’s of old age.  The data demonstrates yes to be temporary, no to be permanent.


I’m obsessed with the disastrous Republicans.  The national no.  Once upon a time America was the great yes to oppressed people all over the world; Tea Party America means to turn its back on all those folks and many more.  But maybe this is our national truth anyway.  Bear in mind our genocidal efforts toward indigenous people.  Bear in mind the Trail of Tears.  Bear in mind slavery.  Bear in mind lynchings.  Bear in mind Abu Ghraib, the US Army kill team in Afghanistan, the Quran-burning Terry Jones in Florida, the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church, the Charleston Church shooting of nine Black people, the plethora of videos of white policemen shooting unarmed Black men, the new voter oppression laws in North Carolina and many other states, and the astonishing high support for a Republican presidential candidate whose campaign who openly lies, displays his ignorance, and preaches the gospel of hatred.  Probably we were always the nation of no and it’s only now that we’re coming out into the open.  2016 may be the year when the USA says no to its most cherished values.


When I hold forth on politics--and especially when I’m doing it silently or aloud in the solitude of my house--I remind myself of my grandmother who was infected with a powerful hatred of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and with racism and other-phobia in general.  Though my views are the opposite of Grandmama Huddle’s, I’m similarly poisoned.  I could be listening to music, reading literature, meditating, doing volunteer work, taking a walk, watching birds, writing, chatting with friends and/or family.  Instead, I’m allowing a monstrous no to gnaw on my spirit.  I’m becoming the bitter old woman who sat alone for hours at her kitchen table staring out her window.  Simmering in her hatreds.  No personified.



4. Yes:  The one person who loved me most fanatically--who, when I was a little boy and walked across the field to visit her, in lieu of giving me a hug, reamed out my ears with a wet washcloth; who when I was fourteen and fifteen and always in need of spending money, snuck me ten and twenty dollar bills; who when I was almost old enough to have a grown-up conversation would sit with me, chatting about school and my friends, in her darkening living room until long after dark; and who when I was seventeen and desperately desired a six-hundred dollar tenor saxophone lent me the money to buy it--was my Grandmama Huddle.


No:  In my entire life the most intense hater I’ve known personally was my Grandmama Huddle.


No:  With whom I have much in common.



5.  The yes of my mother and father’s love-making many years ago put me here this morning with my computer in my lap sitting at my desk at 34 North Williams Street, Burlington, Vermont 05401, my little brain light flickering with its effort to make language appear on the screen before me.  Yes.  To make the language yield some sense.  Yes.  But the no of my sooner or later arriving death will shut me down.  A single no to cancel out a billion-billion yeses. 


No the default, the ongoing condition, the inevitable, irrefutable, inescapable conclusion. 


Yes the wish.  No the fact.


As every villanelle acknowledges, yes yes yes no.


Nothing to change that. 


But always the tantalizing choice to act.


This month I turned 74.  Have I not lived long enough under that brutal dictator, the villanelle?  Are there not other forms, and aren’t almost all of them more forgiving and less dark?


Therefore, this:


What’s the Best Death You Can Imagine?

In my sleep of course or at least at home

& maybe with Lindsey & Bess & Molly

close by so I can say goodbye and tell them

how much I love them and that I’m sorry

I didn’t do better by them. I don’t

want to die in a hospital unless

there’s no other way.  I’d prefer not

to be in pain, I want it to happen fast,

& then I want everybody who’s cared

about me to know I had more than enough

life, a ton of good times, way more than my share

of love, & few regrets.  Forgive this truth--

I’ve never really dreaded death. In the art

we love endings are always the best part.




Which is to say, no, no, no, of course no, now, always, and forever!  Meanwhile yes.

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