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Friday, April 3, 2015

Contributor Spotlight: Sarah Pemberton Strong

My poem “Mobile” was inspired by a baby gift for my newborn daughter—a mechanical crib mobile sent by a well-meaning relative I’d never met. This mobile, with its toxic-smelling plastic ponies and its beepy, teeth-grinding rendition of a piece of music I was fond of, struck me at first as the very nadir of technological achievement. As the poem says, whenever I looked at it—and smelled the chemicals coming off the plastic—it made me think of  “asthma attacks and Chinese factory workers.” In an earlier draft, the poem went on to ask, “Why would anyone give a naked infant / such a complicated dance of suffering?” Although those lines didn’t make it into the final version, once I had posed that question, I wanted to try to answer it, or at least investigate it. That investigation comprises a large part of the pleasure poetry gives me—the experience of embarking on a quest I hadn’t intended to sign up for.

As my mind jumped around trying to answer the question I’d posed myself, I discovered the discursive narrative that is the poem’s form. I wanted “Mobile” to read the way people actually think, leaping from one idea to the next with lightning speed. As I worked on the piece, however, a tension developed between the heap of details I was accumulating and my desire to make a poem that, despite its content, still had a clear formal shape. To create that shape, I had to search out connections between the different images and discard those that didn’t serve the emerging structure. The Blue Danube Waltz led me to the real Danube river, down through a good deal of European history, and then back out to a performance I once attended, where there was

a man sitting alone on the edge
of the stage that was the twentieth century,
plucking the notes of the waltz on a classical guitar
with such exquisite tension between
the sweeping music of the river
and the tiny punctuated pattern of human feet
that the people in the sparse and hurried
lunch-hour audience put down their cell phones and wept.

The memory of how deeply affected I’d been by the music, which up until then I’d associated with ice-skating rinks and Bugs Bunny cartoons, gave me a response to my original question: Why would anyone give a defenseless infant such a mobile? Why would anyone want to buy it? Why ponies? Why the Blue Danube? Perhaps a powerful wish for something genuinely nourishing—a beautiful piece of music, or the sight of horses running—was buried inside this flimsy piece of mass-produced junk, still alive in there and straining to be heard.

When I began “Mobile” in the autumn of 2013, I had no idea how it might relate to other poems I was writing. Now, a year and a half later, I see that this poem’s concerns are connected to a larger work, and that a good deal of what I’ve been writing this last year keeps returning to the same themes: the effect of our human habits of consumption, the relationship between what we crave and what we aspire to, and the tension between our fantasies of returning to some sort of utopian, Edenic state and the likelihood that, if granted one, we might destroy it through our own transient cravings as we “rise up from the earth’s breast / and crane our necks over the grasses, distracted / by a glimpse of shiny things.”


Strong's poem, "Mobile," appeared in Issue 55 of Hayden's Ferry Review.

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