Devoted blog readers: don’t forget that the Blue Pencil Prize is up for grabs! The next four readers who find mistakes we missed during our multilevel proofreading process win the coveted blue Col-Erase pencil as well as their choice of a free issue, thermos, or sling pack. You know you want to make beautiful beryl marks on the newspaper crossword, your post-it-note reminders to SELF, and your collection of unsent, tear-stained love letters to Scott Bakula.
Talk of color makes us think of new CR volunteer S. Whitney Holmes or, as we know her, Whit. She can carry off hot-pink tights with a lime-green dress while, in the selfsame conversation, touting University of Alabama football and mourning the loss of the handmade Mexican tortillas prevalent in Chicago, from which she hails. We’ve promised to take her on a taquería tour of Cincinnati, and in return she’s agreed to shuttle us around in the City of Big Shoulders during the AWP conference. The last time she was in the office, she displayed what can only be termed elephant acumen: She spoke of prehensile trunks, matriarchy, 22-month pachyderm pregnancies and greeting ceremonies. At first we didn’t understand her outsized obsession, but then we realized Whitney had read and reread Ryan J. Browne’s poem “Theory of must” from our newest issue, which made a heavy, somewhat roundish impression on her.
S. Whitney Holmes: A theory’s individual principles may be proven, but a theory, by definition, is unproven, no matter how accepted it might be. Ryan J. Browne’s “Theory of must”—when read as a theory in this sense—surrenders individual lines and ideas to understanding and provability, but the poem as a whole retains a strangeness that puts one in mind of Yeats’s assertion that “what can be explained is not poetry.”
“Theory of must” is the kind of poem that traps the reader between trust and understanding, a poem that makes you want to know. I trust the confident, instructive tone with which the piece begins—“This is what the body does. Becomes/ the backbone, the ribs, the chest, the tusks”—and yet by the end of the second line I question my understanding of the poem’s world (tusks?). At one point I found myself looking up the word must, which lead me to musth, a condition of the male elephant marked by aggression, unpredictable behavior, and heightened testosterone. Ah, yes—tusks! That explains it! And then I Googled “elephants”—did you know they can hear across long distances through haptic sensors in their feet? In trying to know the world of the poem, I ended up looking to the world outside it.
There are lots of ways of knowing in this poem that are scientific, provable, recognizable with a little investigation. But no matter how many entry points I find in its lines, I return to the state of delightful not-knowing—or perhaps, more accurately, visceral knowing—both because of the emotional resonance the work evokes, and because the poem directly asks: “For the others/ of this earth know me in all the other ways.”