First reading of Lorine Niedecker's 'Popcorn-can cover' (2)
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
— Lorine Niedecker
Popping with a flurry of consonantal k sounds (“Popcorn-can cover”) that settle down in the poem’s successive lines (“screwed,” “cold,” and finally, “can’t”), “Popcorn-can cover” reminds me that Niedecker’s is a poetry of pressure. Not only the pressure of brevity that her condensed and compressed poetics subjects its words to, but also the pressure of what Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry, calls “everyday existence.” Niedecker’s poetry is full of everyday difficulties and stresses, from workplace politics and small-town gossip to the burdens of familial and personal relationships. How Niedecker’s poetry pragmatically deals with such pressures is, for me, one of its most striking qualities. The wry humor of Niedecker’s verbal play — particularly her adroit double entendres and puns, and the advantages she takes of verb/noun indeterminacies — is hers alone, as is the empathy and insight that she yields with such economic means. Like the foodstuff that “Popcorn-can cover” tangentially evokes, Niedecker’s poetry is expansive by the constraints she puts on it.
As I read it, “Popcorn-can cover” obliquely evokes a familiar theme in Niedecker’s writing: the pressures of property and ownership and the responsibilities of maintenance, upkeep, and repair that come with them. The poem, however, would imply that property does not necessarily mean wealth. Limited means and financial constraint is tacit in the thrifty, makeshift use of a can lid screwed (another instance of pressure) to cover a hole in a deteriorating wall. Niedecker’s apposite choice of the word “mouse” leads me to presume the wall in question is part of a house (and not a shed or outhouse). As synecdoche for the wild world outside, Niedecker’s rodentian verb suggests that what the cold threatens to invade is its opposite, or other: the domestic and interior.
Operating in the poem as noun and verb (rodent and colloquialism), “mouse” seems typically Niedecker. Indeed, the force of the poem rests on this little word that, the more I consider it, assumes quite noxious qualities. To “penetrate” or “bite” — or, perhaps, even “muscle in” — are more explicitly forceful verbs for describing the invasive nature of a cold draught. By contrast, “mouse” implies timidity (as well as stealth and pliancy). Yet, despite such timorousness, mice are also pestilent destructive infiltrators that can quickly upset the equilibrium of a household. Therefore, force, the poem seems to say, need not be brute. It can also be mousey — surreptitious and erosive — gnawing and nibbling away at a thing with severe incremental consequences. Perhaps the effects of such force can be seen in the poem’s indented fourth line, which, as well as recalling the breach in the wall, suggests an equivalent lacuna in the poem’s own structural integrity (and the assonance in “over,” “hole,” “so,” and “cold” providing a pertinent acoustic corollary).
I frequently (as I have done so above) fall back on the word “wry” to describe Niedecker’s slant humor, taking it as the apposite word for conveying the ironic detachment and underplayed (but knowing) wit that keeps her language sharp and observations incisive. Looking the word up in the OED, the “wry” seems especially salient for “Popcorn-can cover” as an older meaning of the word is “to cover up or over” and “to cover (a thing, or person) so as to protect, keep warm, or conceal.” The covering of the hole in Niedecker’s poem is, then, perhaps wry in both senses: a wry reflection on combatting and contending with nature’s tenacious encroachment on what we arrogantly assume to be exclusively human domains. Keeping out the cold and vermin is, the poem intimates, like trying to keep Blackhawk Island’s recurrent flood waters at bay: futile. We can’t, Niedecker seems to suggest, cover over such inevitabilities.
Considering that “Popcorn-can cover” was included in a category of poems that Niedecker entitled “In Exchange for Haiku,” the wry indent in the fourth line might also approximate — or be Niedecker’s “exchange” for — the kireji (cutting word) of haiku. By my counting, the poem exceeds the seventeen-syllable haiku form by two. Evidently, it also abandons the familiar Western three-line five-seven-five division. The poem’s reference to the cold, however, does show some fidelity to the season word (kigo) of haiku. Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes on the significance of Niedecker’s affinities for haiku in her illuminating essay, “Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances.” At the risk of simply reiterating some of DuBlessis’s claims, what strikes me about “Popcorn-can cover” is how it makes no grand claims or statements and eschews any of the sententious (Zententious) profundity that more generic Anglophone renderings of haiku succumb to. Instead, like the plain language of Bashō and Buson, we are given in simple down to earth language a paradox: if the kireji of haiku provides a sense of closure, the wry intentions of Niedecker’s poem leaves that possibility open to question.
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Ross Hair, a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia, is the author of Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present (Liverpool University Press, 2016), Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2010), and coeditor of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed Through Music (Routledge, 2016).