Monday, December 19, 2011

Short Take: "Q," Sharon Olds

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Sharon Olds' poem "Q" begins with a delightful bit of free-association alliterative wordplay. The poem implicitly asks what one thinks of when one thinks of the letter Q. Olds begins with words that start with the letter--“questions,” “the Queen,” and “quail,” for example—and then builds a sentence out of Q-word nouns and verbs: “Quailing was part of Q’s/quiddity—the Q quaked/and quivered, it quarrelled [sic] and quashed.” Olds then shifts gears into other associations, such as the letter’s phoneme K and their phonic ties to the Semitic caph and koph. She even provides a commentary on the letter’s appearance with a reference to the “Q face,” i.e., a face with the “tongue lolling out.” One can’t help but smile at Olds’ resourcefulness and humor. But after that, the tone of the poem shifts, and one then cannot help but applaud. Olds moves from humorous effects into a disquieting one. She accomplishes it by transforming alliteration into synecdoche: the letter Q also makes one think of Iraq. The poetic masterstroke, though, is the combination of this synecdoche with the one she creates on top of it. The letter Q is the part that signifies the whole of Iraq, which is the whole that in turn signifies the part of those killed during the country’s invasion and occupation. It’s a brilliant progression, one made all the more potent by the irony of it concluding a piece that appeared to start as a lark. The poem couldn't be shaped more elegantly. It originally appeared in the August 10, 2009 issue of the New Yorker. Editors Amy Gerstler and David Lehman included it in The Best American Poetry 2010.

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