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Essay

George Sipos on Donna Kane's "Surrender"

(How Poems Work, January 2005)
… All these senses now come together and charge almost every word of the last stanza. What are the “thrills” referred to in the first line? They are the induced thrills which spiked drinks are intended for at parties; they are the thrill of being born into the world; they are the thrills of contemplating surrender to love and death. The weak knees of the next lines again harken both to the spiked drink of the first stanza and also to the organic physicality of the second and to the spiritual surrender of the third. “The elegant pause/ in which we drop” similarly brings the sense of all three stanzas together, dropping being appropriate to the effects of the drink, to the act of being born and to the surrender to life’s big
dramas….

p. … All these senses now come together and charge almost every word of the last stanza. What are the “thrills” referred to in the first line? They are the induced thrills which spiked drinks are intended for at parties; they are the thrill of being born into the world; they are the thrills of contemplating surrender to love and death. The weak knees of the next lines again harken both to the spiked drink of the first stanza and also to the organic physicality of the second and to the spiritual surrender of the third. “The elegant pause/ in which we drop” similarly brings the sense of all three stanzas together, dropping being appropriate to the effects of the drink, to the act of being born and to the surrender to life’s big dramas….


At first, the enterprise of this poem seems clear enough: an event in the natural world–snow sliding off a tin roof–gives rise to a series of reflections by the poet about herself, about life, the meanings of death and love, and so on. These reflections are launched by the simile in the last line of the first stanza, which is at first merely startling because of the boldness of its reach. Whether there’s a point to this boldness remains to be seen.
The second stanza starts with an apparently unconnected thought: the contemplation of a state of simplicity before birth, a pre-sensory state in which the self is merely a vague ache in an undefined sugar. The onomatopoeia of “cup becomes/ cup, twig/ twig,” is thrilling because of its mimicry of a pre-linguistic, embryonic condition–but the connection to the first stanza is not yet clear.
The third stanza moves from the beginning to the end of life’s complexity, with the mind turning to thoughts of death and love. But then comes the most important word in the poem: “dissolve”. Of course death and love are forms of dissolution. But so is the amniotic sugar of the previous stanza a dissolved solution; and so is the spiked drink of the first.
All these senses now come together and charge almost every word of the last stanza. What are the “thrills” referred to in the first line? They are the induced thrills which spiked drinks are intended for at parties; they are the thrill of being born into the world; they are the thrills of contemplating surrender to love and death. The weak knees of the next lines again harken both to the spiked drink of the first stanza and also to the organic physicality of the second and to the spiritual surrender of the third. “The elegant pause/ in which we drop” similarly brings the sense of all three stanzas together, dropping being appropriate to the effects of the drink, to the act of being born and to the surrender to life’s big dramas.
But the genius of the poem is that dropping, of course, is the literal thing the snow did from the tin roof back at the beginning. After the journey of the poem through image and thought, we return to original experience: snow sliding and letting go. The last line, “Hands in air”, is not only an intellectual completion that returns the poem to its title (in the way that raising the hands in surrender is a conventional and symbolic gesture), but is literally what a body leaves behind when it falls, mimicking, or mimicked by, snow leaving the edge of a roof.
This poem is characteristic of much of Donna Kane’s work: contemplation arising from the intricate implications of a specific image which makes huge intellectual and emotional leaps but which always remains faithful to the physical reality of the experience with which it began.