Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nineteen. On innocence.

Elizabeth Alexander's poem is about the summer she spent as a nineteen year old in Culpepper. She ate all white food, and tried to act like an adult through her relationship with a married Vietnam vet. She wanted to know what the war was like, and though he never gave her satisfying answers, she always smiled at what he said. In the end, she gets a peak into the effects his experience as a soldier had on him.

Out of this chapter, Nineteen was my favorite poem. Its details of the summer a naive youth lost innocence, written in hindsight by her older and wiser self, give me shivers.

On innocence:
The food in Culpepper was all white. White is a color of purity but also monotony. I don't believe Alexander was very street-smart or that her town was particularly exciting. So having a manly war vet around must have been a thrill, and she didn't know any better than to give in (or to look into whether he was married). Even though she was 19, she "snuck" around with him and refers to herself as the "baby," considering the "men" completely separate. She "tiptoed" with her lover when they were together but always returned to the city with "a garbage bag of dirty clothes." All of these details highlight how young she was, even for her age. I picture a child who sneaks out of bed to get a cookie, or a clueless preteen sheepishly bringing laundry for her mother to do.

Then there is a break in the poem. The very next line reminds us that she is 19, and even though she paints herself as so childish, she's taken a big step as this is her first summer away from home. Then she goes on to describe the man. He persuades her he is desirable, saying "'the ladies love my hair.'" If they want him, she should too, right? The focus of his life is marijuana, which he learned all about in Vietnam. He brings his son to her, but she doesn't even think of a mother. I think that's really interesting, the egocentrism natural to youth doesn't even let her see what's clearly before her. It reminded me of when you're in elementary school, and you could never imagine your teachers having lives other than that in the classroom, so seeing them in the mall or a restaurant blew your mind. This section ends with the man saying (not asking), "Can I steal a kiss?" It stood out so clearly in my mind that he has the power over this poor dumb girl and he knows it. He is stating a question, so it's not really a question; it's a command. Also, the choice of the word "steal" emphasized that he's taking something he shouldn't (I thought of the old phrase: robbing the cradle). He could have used the word "have" or "get," but something about steal seems to better fit his intentions and matter-of-fact viewpoint of Alexander.

The last of the poem's three sections starts with Alexander trying to glamorize the war through her lover; turn it into something romantic (a borderline offensive thing to do to any war vet). But he doesn't seem to care, because he can ignore her questions and still have sex with her. Then, in the mornings, she would "creep" away, like a submissive dog too scared to leave its cruel master. She still ate her white food, but started feeling that everything could be ruined forever (the thinking of an angsty teen). In the last lines, the rain freaks her lover out, as it reminds him of Vietnam. I think by this point in the poem, Alexander begins to understand that she's not where she wants to be or with who she should be. She is maturing and learning, but her lover is forever haunted by the past, letting it take a hold of him by blurring the present with marijuana and meaningless sex. The poem as a whole is her journey through the summer (three sections = 3 months of June, July, and August) as she grows and learns from this man, ultimately gaining enough knowledge to get wise and get out apparently.

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