I'm proud to present Thirteen Blackbird's Poem of the Month for August, a compact and highly charged poem by Rae Pater. Rae’s poetry is superb. She has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes , one of the highest awards for poems published in small press poetry journals. Following the poem I give a short explication; and don’t forget to read Rae's bio at the end which includes a link to her poetry.
Song of War
The final wedge is driven
up beneath my breastbone
by my father, from whom I never
thought to look for it.
I seek the red tiger now,
as he bounds through snow -
my arrow, my sword.
Like an ember he burns
my path forward from here
in the wake of the rising sun,
through the cycles of the moon.
I choose not the way of the warrior,
it chooses me.
I make my most perfect bow
and sing to my ancestors
for a good day to die.
Rae Pater’s poem, Song of War, in four tight and varied strophes, expresses in a confident, if not complex voice, the internal struggle to account for the speaker’s deep wounds from a father who has ‘driven up beneath my breastbone,’ a most evocative opening metaphor that arrests the reader up front. The poem is about the speaker’s reaction to this fundamental wound, about a response to an event or a series of events that, ‘like an ember,’ burns her path forward.
The opening strophe is wonderfully geared for sound. You can breathe it out in one short breath, and the three ‘b’s’ in ‘beneath’, ‘breastbone’ and ‘by’ help ease the sudden presentation of the central and most striking metaphor in the poem. The speaker alludes to a wedge which is driven, a forceful act, with intention. Further, it is driven up (the adverbial expression giving even more force) into her breastbone. Here is where we understand, early in the poem, that the injury incurred was great (the breastbone connoting a covering or protection over the heart). It was a good choice not to expand here; we are not given specifics, and thus not tempted to take sides or over-empathize. The tone appears to be softer than what one would imagine with a sexual violation, especially with the qualifier, “from whom I never thought to look for it.” Perhaps this is a divorce, or an unexplained leaving, or a serious falling out. In any event, the tone is set for the central portion of the poem which directs the reader to the speaker’s response.
In the second and third strophe, we’re introduced to the red tiger, a reference to the speaker’s way out of her struggles. Here we see a tone change, and the poem conforms to the central theme (and title) presenting an individual who is not willing to let her wounds accumulate, but rather must take the offensive. She seeks the red tiger, to use its cunning and strength as a means of overcoming ('my arrow, my sword'). And not to mutilate her father, but to cut away the darkness and the personal obstacles in the path of recovery (‘Like an ember he burns/my path forward from here/in the wake of the rising sun,/through the cycles of the moon). The speaker is drawing on some strength that lies outside of herself and marshalling its prowess to attack the demons in her own psyche. The struggle, thus, is focused inward, and keeps the integrity of the poem intact (versus refocusing on the father).
The final strophe adds a twist, and the poem turns, perhaps, on the building realization that the speaker's power to cope does not fully originate from within, but tied to other forces, namely, the innate teaching of ancestral origin. Here we might imagine a mother of native origin, and the speaker finally acknowledging her struggle to cope is inextricably aligned and connected through blood lines.
What’s striking about this poem is that there is so much opportunity for identification, with so little detail given. That’s where the poem shines. It’s not about the injuries, per se, but the struggle to find a battle ground, to find a 'warrior' that will take up the battle; or at least, to acknowledge and understand where that strength comes from.
Rae Pater has been published online and in print. She has three grown children and a cat named Gus. She spends far too much time in front of a computer, and her bio needs some serious work.
Rae edited Verse Libre Quarterly for a year or so, placed first in the NPAC online poetry competition in January 2004, got honourable mention in the IBPC August 2006, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Verse Libra Quarterly in 2003, by Erosha in 2004, and by Sun Rising Press in 2005. Rae has just completed the final year of a B.A in English literature and is currently training as an adult literacy tutor.
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