The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Please meet Dylan Bargteil. Dylan is an undergraduate physics and math major at University of Maryland. He is Editor-in-Chief of the University’s literary journal Stylus and also an avid musician. He is interested in exploring community building, alternative methods of art distribution and display and motives for creativity and learning.
Here’s the poem by Dylan we published in the Winter 2012 Social Justice issue:
A Brown Spot
My best friend was a mortar man. Now he’s a machine gunner.
The United States Marine Corps killed 1,400 pigs this year.
They shoot the pigs with shotguns and rifles
to train infantry in triage. I imagine that means
trying to hold the pig’s guts in, trying to stop the blood
like plugging a hole in a dam with your finger.
My friend said maybe he learned something from it, he doesn’t know.
I had a dream that he was out on patrol and was shot
in the belly by a sniper. I dreamed his skin—
a plastic bag from a grocer, broken open
from the weight of the fruit inside. The plums tumbling
out. My hand instinctively reaches for them falling through
the air. They bruise so easily.
And here’s what Dylan shared with us about writing that poem:
My work is driven by sensory obsession. My primary approach to writing poetry is to engage as much as I can with how sounds and pacing work on my organs. I test out words by mouthing them to measure the contact between my tongue and hard palate, comparing “scratch” with “rake,” because I want the reader to experience an accurate tactile sensation. Pungencies like the smell of a pickle, the feel of greasy soot on the fingers and the burn of ice ground into a cheek occupy my head until I pull them out with the right transcription. I try for line breaks that move readers from expectation to realization with the subtle surprise of their own dreams or the exact, skipping precision of cooking breakfast in the 15 minutes before they are late to work.
“A Brown Spot” came about as the result of an obsession with the slow elastic rip of plastic grocery bags. It sickened me. I kept thinking about my skin ripping the same way, as it sometimes does around my fingernails. The whole second strophe came together in my mind once I decided what I was actually going to write about, but I hadn’t yet determined the language. I was very particular with the words.
Shooting my character in the stomach was chosen because of the stomach’s vulnerability and tenderness, but the word that best reflects those attributes is “belly.” I “dreamed his skin” rather than imagined it to avoid resonance with the imagining in the first strophe and lend my character sympathy through the positive connotation of dreams or dreaming. Another sympathetic measure comes with the bag being “broken open,” which tempers the violence possible with ripping and tearing. The plum, with its deeply red interior and ripe softness, and the muted sound of the word is the appropriate symbol. The pairing with “tumbling” serves to further mute the plum, since the “um” sound is relatively louder in the second occurrence. In addition, the formation of the “t” in the mouth mirrors an ejection, creating the necessity for the plums to move “out[ward].”
The line break before “out” helps visually create the space that the plums traverse. The line break at “falling through” serves not only to further create space but also to open other possibilities on the next line for the reader (e.g., “the bag,” “my mind”) before they are closed by the quiet shock of settling on one, which I associate with dreams. Similarly, the break at “broken open” fits with the stutters, skips and slowdowns of a dream by delaying the realization of what comes next.
I do not make these careful choices with the goal of the reader recognizing them and thinking that I made the right choices but rather with the goal of the reader never seeing these seams. I want readers to have as natural an experience as possible so that they can feel as though the poem really happened to them in its fullness.
Note: If you missed hearing Dylan read at our recent launch event, you can still catch him on March 3 in Bethesda, MD at our Writer’s Center Social Justice presentation.
10 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil”
dave eb erhardt
all well and good- a sickening poem in the best sense- i think however we as poets are too squeamish abt solutions- drawing morals from our observations,…this seems to be anti war- but it is not explicit- very hard to be explicit- we ask- is it too preachy to draw conclusions in poetry? to moralize and say for example, that republicans or the military industrial complex is a bad thing- the applied physics lab? nsa- from which so many columbian profit? i say, do not shy from indictments where justified- let’s rock the stinking, sinking boat- why not?
i note a book by a sniper is on the best seller list….
I really appreciate the response, as I really enjoy the opportunity for dialogue. I am strongly opposed to war because I think killing human beings is wrong. However, when I read the poem, I can only really see fear and love for my friend. His joining the military is a source of conflict for me, but the fact is that he has come back from his experience with what seems to be a greater appreciation for the lives and rights of all people. I am glad that he had his opportunity to grow and become a stronger person. I don’t think, however, that his growth justifies war.
I assure you I am not squeamish about my opinions. I will use my voice to speak against what I think is wrong (and I am currently planning to do so in April with SOA Watch Days of Action – you should too). That is just not what I meant to do in this poem. Perhaps I will write that poem another day. Perhaps not. My primary concern when writing is whether or not I write a good poem, not whether or not I share my feelings/opinions/thoughts.
dave eb erhardt
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Dylan, yours is a wonderful poem and an equally wonderful commentary on your craft decisions. Re. the poem: I feel that its indictment of war is implicit for the reader to draw; the focus, appropriately, is on the intense empathy of the speaker with the dead person and with the sheer physicality of the death itself. The plums, in all the ripe heaviness, says more to me about the awful vulnerability of a human body (whether in war or not) than any diatribe about the evils of armed combat. I like it that one reader can read the evil of war into the poem and another can read simply (!) the rotten damn shame of getting killed. Of dying, period. I love that the speaker can dare to think about the physicality so specifically and clearly. As for your craft comments, they illustrate in ways useful to virtually any and every poet/writer how (to draw an analogy that’s rooted far back in my dancing past) the pirouettes and arabesques and pas de chats must seem effortless, aerial; don’t let your audience hear the clatter or see the blood.
Thank you so much for your kind compliments. You’ve put the points I was trying express in this piece into succinct clarity.
The more I read it the more I admire your choices. And your ability to articulate them
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