As through marble or the lining of
certain fish split open and scooped
clean, this is the blue vein
that rides, where the flesh is even
whiter than the rest of her …
These lines begin the poem “Blue” by Carl Phillips, who must be one of the most syntactically innovative—and challenging—poets working today. Is split open a command, or does it describe certain fish? Until we reach the word scooped, it’s tough to say.
In discussing temporary ambiguities like this one, psycholinguists use the delightful, even poetic, term “garden-path.” The term refers to both the process of committing to an incorrect parse and the incorrect parse itself: a reader garden-paths down a garden-path when she interprets split open as a command. Once she encounters scoop, she’ll have to form a new interpretation, or “recover.” But recovery, it turns out, is tricky business, and it isn’t always complete. Readers are sometimes content to cling to both interpretations—even when they are not compatible with one another—simultaneously.
This is, of course, precisely the point. Phillips wants his readers to garden-path, to consider and reconsider and keep in delicate balance different, often jarring, interpretations. Perhaps the ace up Phillips’s sleeve is his heavy reliance on the poetic technique called enjambment. Phillips doesn’t end each line in a sensible place, like after a comma or a period or even a phrase—places that might allow a reader to get her bearings before moving on. Rather, Phillips’s line breaks hack through sentences and even prepositional phrases (e.g., lining of / certain fish). It is quite likely that enjambment increases a readers’ probability of garden-pathing, decreases the probability of full recovery, or both.
Why might this be the case? A bit of background: psycholinguists know that prose readers typically engage in something called “wrap-up” processes after they’ve finished a clause or sentence. Wrap-up processes, marked by a slowdown in reading time following a comma or period, are generally attributed to the securing of a final interpretation of that clause or sentence as we update our understanding of the text as a whole to reflect the new information that has been gleaned.
In poetry, clauses and sentences are “units of meaning,” but so is the line itself. If readers engage in somewhat similar wrap-up processes at the end of each poetic line, then a reader sent down a garden-path may “secure” this incorrect interpretation more doggedly than he otherwise might. After reading a line like that rides, where the flesh is even, for instance, he might not only interpret even as a modifier of flesh but also integrate this interpretation into his understanding of the poem as a whole before moving onto the next line.
Phillips, tricky fellow, makes this particular premature commitment especially enticing because flesh can be, well, even. There are even-fleshed sheep and even-fleshed cows and, according to the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy, bullocks “very short in the legs and evenly fleshed throughout.” Even if this admittedly archaic connection does not spring to mind, even still makes sense as a modifier for flesh: it means smooth, flat, equably distributed, and flesh can be all of these things. Our reader may yet recover, at least to some degree, but not before waving his fists at the page, and knocking over his coffee in the process.
But do poetry readers engage in wrap-up processes after each line of text (in this or other poems)? What effect does this have on the eventual interpretations that readers form? Neither psychologists nor literary scholars have adequately addressed these questions, so only time will tell. But at the very least we can all agree that Phillips does not let us off easily. Perhaps no good poet does.