This week’s poem & video:
“When a Roadside Altar Speaks,” poem by Dimitri Reyes
“When a Roadside Altar Speaks,” video poem by Yuval Nitzan & Dimitri Reyes
Are you up for a deep poem exploration? If yes then put on your hardhat with the headlamp on it and get ready to go “poem-lunking” (yep, my newly coined word for close reading).
Today I want to talk about a poem featured in the Dispatches From 2020 folio from CavanKerry’s own Marketing & Communications Director, Dimitri Reyes. Particularly, how his poem, “When a Roadside Altar Speaks” uses indirectness as a rhetorical strategy in which it, as Emily Dickinson once famously wrote, “Tell[s] all the truth but tell[s] it slant.” This can be a very powerful strategy; if used well, it compels a reader to travel into the poem’s deep, possibly dark, spaces. In this case, indirectness allows for a direct and passionate political statement to be made in a way that invites both listening and responding. Remember, good poems want to engage the reader in a two-sided conversation.
This week’s note will be quite free-form because I want to suggest a few ways in which you might approach a poem. It will also be incomplete (i.e. I’ll concentrate on the opening and closing lines) because it would take a much longer note to do a comprehensive analysis of “When a Roadside Altar Speaks” … which means you’ll still have a lot of poem to explore on your own!
Let’s begin with first impressions:
- The title, which is the real beginning to any poem, sets up an anthropomorphic situation: an object (or collection of objects in this case) will be speaking as if it were human. Right away, that catches my eye. What is gained by having an object speak? What is lost? I, having lived in NJ for most of my life, know what a “roadside altar” is … but maybe you don’t … which would add another level of mystery to an already mysterious title.
- Short lines. While you would think short lines make a poem move faster, the opposite is true because of the little pause that happens between lines. If you honor the lineation of the poem then those pauses must be taken into account.
- The lines in the second half are less regularly placed on the page than in the first half. I wonder if the change in form signals an emotional change? Maybe some kind of disintegration happens in the second half?
- Lots of space. Space between stanzas also slows down the pace of the poem. In this poem, space between stanzas might also indicate a moment when the speaker is pausing to gather their thoughts.
Here’s the link to the award-winning video poem.
Dimitri does a great job of honoring his own line & stanza breaks.
Now let’s go a bit deeper:
Dimitri, understanding that some images were regionally/ experientially specific, included a handful of notes with his submission to this project, which he allowed us to post here. After you’ve watched the video, reread the poem while taking his notes into consideration.
On my first reading I “got” the overall sense of the poem but that wasn’t enough. The poem called me back; it said, “No, pay closer attention to what I’m saying.” When I did, here’s some of what I heard:
- I love how the poem begins with a sound that comes out of the blue. But what is the source of the sound? Given the context of a “roadside altar,” I hear the “pop … pop … pop” as gunshots. But I can’t be certain, can I?
- What does the “ – – -“ mean? Not silence but wordless—I first wrote “soundless,” but it does have a sound albeit a non-human one. Seems to be a transition of some kind.
- The dots started to connect in my mind: if I go with the idea of “gunshots” then maybe I can take the leap that “- – -“ indicates a person’s heart flatlining, a person in the split-second transition between life and death? Which makes sense because the roadside altar, the substitute (in a sense) for the person takes over speaking in the next stanza.
- I love how the altar announces it will speak “fluently” and “in a few words.” A fluent roadside altar. A little tongue-in-cheek? But, maybe, on a more serious note, the altar can speak more “fluently” than the victim? Or more fluently about the overall situation because of its point of view …
- Which leads me to the lines about the sneakers. Again because of my NJ background I immediately thought of sneakers thrown over utility wires. Except, remember my earlier question about what is gained by having an altar as speaker? Well, one huge gain is a different point of view. The altar, which sits on the ground, only sees sneakers on the ground. Because children and young adults often wear sneakers, “many feet” = “many young people.” I don’t know why, but these sneakers seem to be running, right?
- Oh … and … wait … maybe the gunshot victim is also a young person and, considering other references of place and cultural community sprinkled through the poem, a person of color.
Whew. Exploring the opening eight lines took time but now the full horror of the narrative has been excavated: this roadside altar commemorates the homicide of a young person. The altar seems to be telling a reverse-narrative. Maybe telling us its origin story?
Which leads me to the end of the poem where something quite marvelous happens.
It begins with the line “That it’s okay to sell my Civic.” Huh? Roadside altars don’t own cars. What’s going on here? Remember I said earlier that the “- – -“ was a transitional moment in which the altar took over as the voice for the unknown person in the first two lines? Well, with this line, the altar returns the voice to the victim. Again, thinking in terms of how to get us to listen, it’s a brilliant move. The altar as narrator added a slight distancing which pulled me into the poem … at this moment the altar steps aside and the victim speaks. And oh, though the victim was old enough to own a car, at the moment of death, he sounds so so young.
The final seven lines are devastatingly raw and vulnerable. Honestly, I can’t even transcribe them because they hurt my heart. If I were reading this poem to an audience, then, at this point, my voice would be buried in tears. Not only does this poem get me to listen to another’s experience, it gets me to feel another’s experience. Listening. Empathizing. Couldn’t we use more of them nowadays?
Our poem-lunking expedition is finished for the week but I hope you spend more time with this powerful poem.
As of now, I have no idea what poem-cave we’ll be exploring next time.
Without a doubt some poem or another will grab my arm and say, “Listen to me.”