First reading of Lorine Niedecker's 'Popcorn-can cover' (4)

Xavier Kalck

Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
       so the cold
can’t mouse in
          — Lorine Niedecker

First, first readings disclosure: I studied Lorine Niedecker’s work for my PhD on Objectivist poets and, as it happens, I’m planning on returning to her poetry very soon for another project. So my first reading of this poem took place well over a decade ago. Should I try to recollect, or should my reading it now come first? I should add that between rereading it upon being solicited, and my writing this today, I don’t know how many times I’ve reread it. Or have I? Niedecker’s five line poem is easy enough to memorize — perhaps I am confusing silent reading and silent remembering.

I start counting. I know a haiku when I see one, but I don’t quite see one. The poem is playful — one of the requirements — and I spot a season — another possible sign of one — but this is not the typical (Western) seventeen syllable tercet (five, seven, five). Mind you, line one does have five syllables, and if I count “Popcorn” as two words, the poem is made up of seventeen words. The coincidence may be worth investigating, but then I must look beyond this one text at Niedecker’s other poems once collected under the heading, “In Exchange for Haiku.” I must also look at the different sequence of poems in which it appears in Jenny Penberthy’s edition of Niedecker’s work. However, I would be exchanging this haiku-like poem for a haiku sequence, which makes for a different reading. When reading short poems in a sequence, do they still count as short?

I keep counting, and listening. The mimetic argument is extremely convincing. I can see the popcorn-can and its cover because I can hear a consonantal popping sound and notice pervasive assonances in /o/ — a direct echo of the corn (at once the word and the thing) that is no longer there under the repurposed cover. But something troubles me and I make a note. The material quality of the poem, its precise and vivid linguistic resources, seems figuratively and so pleasurably to suggest the presence of the popcorn-can, but in fact, there is no popcorn here anymore and even the popcorn-can is no longer there, only its cover.

I look again. I can’t, not quite yet. The bigger picture obscures the actual one. I have to wonder, am I looking at a product of Imagism? This poem seems concrete, simple and based on direct observation. Is it Objectivist? There is sense of clarity countered by ellipsis as sound abstracts the image from its context, so yes as well. What about Surrealism? A trivial domestic object is endowed with uncanny — pun intended — (possibly sexual) significance, associated with distinct specularity (it seems I am looking at an interiorized interior). The list could go on. Does the sense of rural poverty implied in the makeshift device make it a rural poem? Does the colloquial tone and familiar item make it folk poetry? Is it odd that such a variety of concerns can be combined in such a tiny poem? I could try an analogy and say that Niedecker’s poetic strategies of condensation (prosodic, syntactic, and semantic condensation) are related to the ways in which she condenses a great many poetic traditions and influences. I am not convinced by that analogy.

I could also just stop, call it representative and call it a day. It would be ill-advised since this is only one poem, yet precisely because I am dealing with a single poem it is terribly tempting to single it out as consequently quintessential. If I cannot choose what this poem is, I can always try to conflate sense with signature.

As I reread the poem (for the seventeenth time?), I begin to understand it differently and notice something is wrong. It doesn’t work! I now hear such helplessness in the conjunction “so” — so you really thought that would keep the cold away? Look at the indented line, how the cold already bites into the poem. Any humorous note attached to the contraption or to the metaphoric rodent seems vastly outweighed by the sound of a cry conveyed by the systematic variations in /o/. Not some wailing wind, just the cold wind through the hole in the wall — a muted and solitary howl, distributed across the poem and heard through the hole for the mouse in the wall.

Let’s try this cold reading, if you will, and push it a little further. In retrospect, screwing the popcorn-can cover to the wall reads as a hyperbole that connotes an excessive and in the end useless effort. The popcorn-can cover itself is pointless as an insulator, and evokes something ill-fitting in the first place: if it is so thin that you can put screws through it, did it ever do a good job as a popcorn-can cover? The image conjured up by the verb “mouse” argues in favor of this reading. First, the cover might keep a mouse away, but not the cold. Secondly, although the inventive construct, “mouse in,” does not make this immediately apparent, if the cold is the subject of the verb “mouse,” then the speaker is the mouse, by which I mean the prey, since to mouse means to hunt for and catch mice, or to bite, gnaw or tear at, as a cat does a mouse, or the cold does a person, as well as to search for and to prowl. In other words, the cold will get you. The sense of contagious poetic empowerment from reading such a perfectly efficient cluster of words was a (mouse) trap. No matter how tightly screwed on the cover might be, it will not do the trick, although it may seem to for a while. Perhaps that’s it. No matter how tight the poem’s structure might be, its artfulness provides only temporary cover from the cold.

I wonder how much of this is also a kind of provocation meant to stop the reader cold, to see if you can mouse along on your own and find something useful, some improvised solution for the hole in the wall, the text, your life. Read on and you could warm to this too, against the cold.

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Xavier Kalck lectures in American literature and translation studies at Paris Sorbonne University. He edited a collection of poems by British poet Anthony Barnett, Miscanthus (Shearsman 2005), and is the author of Muted Strings: Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (PUF 2015) and the forthcoming George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace (Peter Lang).