Poem of the Week | June 27, 2016

This week, we are proud to present a new poem by Alan Felsenthal. Felsenthal cofounded The Song Cave, a small press. With Ben Estes, he edited A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Critical Quarterly, Fence, and Harper’s. His first collection of poems is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.
Author’s note:

I know some poets are embarrassed to rhyme. My father’s cousin believes a poem by definition has to rhyme. One poet I know is embarrassed to have a grandmother, let alone write about her. In “The Problem of Rhyme,” I volunteer as the scapegoat; I’ve written a poem featuring both rhyme and a grandmother, to slake the shame of others.

Learning a new language involves learning new rhymes and homonyms. Maze/maize. Kernel/colonel. Before the Nazis, my grandparents lived in a village that the Rhine flows near. Some rivers rhyme. In German, the Rhine and the Main do, and also touch. Visually, too, rivers rhyme, break, and cross throughout the map.

In his ABC’s, Czesław Miłosz mentions “the Rhine’s lofty soul.” One question in this poem is whether it’s okay to drown in a river unworthy of you. I’m not sure.

We’re quite small; even a mild current could overtake most of us. And though I was taught fragility as a child, this poem speaks otherwise; it is about another inheritance—disquiet and learning through mishearing.


The Problem with Rhyme


The problem of rhyme is not
what grandmother spoke
about when she talked
in her German accent.
What she meant,
the problem of Rhine,
sounded more like rime
frosting the banks.
Perhaps the problem
of Rhine had more to do
with rime than rhyme.
I asked if she confused
the words I used
with other words she knew.
This lapse expanded
with each utterance
the time it takes for what
one means to make pure
sense to the other.
“My mother
grew this stutter,”
she sighed, “I could not
understand it was words
until she died.
The problem with Rhine
is no river here stays
worthy of drowning.
When the righteous
leave a place, the place
is diminished,
and a woman is finished
who does not know
it is her time to swim.
When everywhere is
winter, there is
no time to consider
freezing, only harm
in not staying warm.”