Sep 192014

An essay on revising “The Willow-Switch” from epic to acerbic

The Willow-Switch

He spat the words. "Go get it." 

I approached tree-fringe and felt
The willow, green and supple,
Lay knots across my knuckles,
My throat a knot of guilt.

I've forgotten what misdeed
Left me standing blank,
My father at my back,
His breath as loud as bees.

I returned in tears and dread.
The willow-wand I held
Waved more fishing-rod than flail
Passing hand to hand.

I determined not to flinch, 
Not to give my Dad an inch. 
I thought only of the flensing switch, 
How it would lay into my fear 

And tear. And tear.

This is a good example of revising down to detail to create the meat of feeling in the reader. The original draft of the poem presented here is the result of a lot of its own revisions, but the sense of a story told only from the child’s point of view, out his fear and resentment, is all over the poem. The story is a bit oversold, with the father playing the villain’s part, his teeth black with tobacco. Who wouldn’t hate this beast?

In the revision, the father is a main actor, but is not held as exclusively blameworthy of the event transcribed by the poem. In the revision, the speaker remembers feeling a “knot of guilt,” even if the reason for the punishment has faded. In the original, the reason for the memory loss is part accidental, and part active repression. The child, now grown, doesn’t want to revisit what seems to be some horrific event–and there is no real blame attached to the speaker; he’s innocent as daisies. While fine enough, the reader disengages with every loss of emotional complexity. Details allow the readers to bring their own response to any given scenario. If the author is able to hang back, yet be deeply re-engaged with the experience the poem relates, he can have some of the perspective of a director of a play sitting in the back row of the theater, waving his arms at the scene, the ultimate spectator.

On rereading the original version of the poem out loud, I found myself getting miffed at the whiny sense of victimhood that the speaker was demonstrating. Now, I don’t like to be mean to kids any more than the next guy, but this kid was both bawling and blameless; too much protestation left a whiff of suspicion in me as a reader. So, since I liked the poem–and love being done with things–I hesitated to start a wholesale revision. Instead, my editor’s eye began to look for details that just didn’t add up. And, instead of glossing over them with a friendly “eh, so what, it’ll do” attitude, I let the inconsistencies prickle. The editorial itch began to build. Well, goddamnit, what was that business about the Dad undoing his belt? This is a poem about getting switched on the backside, not being spanked with a belt. I had had doubts about it before, and let concision win the decision, leaving the final detail as agnostically simple as I could manage with the bland line “Belt unhitched.” But now, simmering with my editor’s misanthropy, that compromise wasn’t enough. I’d have to deal with that detail if I wanted to lazily continue letting the poem wallow in its welts. I unhitched my editor’s belt, and got down to work.
As it turned out, one of the last things I was able to usefully address was the first thing that had prompted me to edit the thing: the belt detail. It was late in shrinking this poem down that I came up with the “knot of guilt,” like a scarf tied too-tight, as the rip-rhyme for the simple “felt” and as the replacement for that dangling “belt.”

The first detail I excised, to bring the poem back into the main relationship of the moment it creates, and away from a cozy sense of joining in the reader’s condemnation of the punishing father, was each of the “tobaccoy teeth.” The kid in the poem would be well-used to his father’s tobacco use, and probably thinks blackened teeth look cool. The sense of menace in this detail is completely adult, imposed retrospectively by the speaker. So, snip-snip went the editing shears. In a trice I was left with a single line in place of an entire stanza:

He spat the words. "Go get it."

Being bit of an inveterate formalist, I thought I should balance out any singleness at the start of the poem with a one-line stanza at the end. I took a look, and it seemed that luck was on my side–the last stanza was already a single line. With the poem losing space for excursions and digressions (after all, I’m no high-flown Dickinson with her cochineal wheels and zipping trips to Tunisia “an easy morning’s ride”), I saw that the whole retrospective stuff about the photobook, which I had been at such pains to embellish with savory verbal details like “Kept bald by fresh erasures” just had to get deleted. Down came the red pen, and washed the spider out! I still had “What had prompted censure / Has faded to a blank” which itself had been an edit of moving from an abstraction of “pain” toward some more specific, though still unnamed, occasion for punishment via willow-switch.

I played with eliminating the whole idea of not remembering the reason for the punishment. Just stay in the moment; let that be enough. That’s the thought that had me finally untangle the second stanza from its belt-nightmare. That belt had grown as troublesome as a wig-fitting for Rapunzel. I imagined approaching the willow tree as a child about to be punished. I clipped “hair” out of the description as too fanciful and romantic for a kid whose main experience of hair is smelling the barber’s aftershave, and threw the lifeline to the waves as too literary for the slim poem to save. This second stanza felt great now–forthright–but it was only three, maybe two, lines long! Perhaps I could trim the periwigs of the other stanzas down to three, or maybe four, lines apiece. That way, if I had to, I could reabsorb that harsh first one-line stanza into the body of the poem.

The third stanza was already down to two lines, and hung on only because it added a mystery to the reason for the punishment. And that’s how things long ago recalled as an adult often feel–significant, sharply etched in memory, but with the reason for it all faded grey, a dead appendage. I decided to shut the father up, take away his petty advice to “stop crying.” After all, most dads aren’t “The Great Santini,” and his speech made the poem too much about him.

Now I had the bones of a good poem.


The Willow Switch [DRAFT]

He spat the words.  "Get it."
His blue-black chaw a seethe
Between tobaccoy teeth.
Dad repeated, "Get it.
Or you'll get the belt."

Like hair the willow switches
Hung, laying their supple
Knots along lifeline and knuckle;
While, lightly, his leather-stitched
Belt unhitched.

What had prompted censure
Has faded to a blank
In my life's photobook--
A dead spot bored in circumstance,
Kept bald by fresh erasures.

I walked back in tears and dread,
The willow-switch flailing
Limber as a monkey's tail
That I handed to his hand.
"Get over now, son," he said.

"And stop crying."  Then and there,
I determined not to flinch,
Not to give my fear an inch.
I thought only of the flensing switch,
How it would lay into my fear

And tear.  And tear.

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