Ode to the Pea Coat Button, Ed Wickliffe

Ode to the Pea Coat Button
 
I spotted a tiny vagrant in my closet. It was a button on the floor.
A stray attachment to something useful lay there, among scuffed shoes
and the tumbleweeds of cat hair. I knelt over that forlorn button
as if to hear the last words of a tragic victim, or maybe news
 
that a Martian gondolier gone mad was paddling wildly
through red sand in the channels, and—
 
his load of startled tourists was spilling from the stern.
Help me, squeaked the button in its tiny voice, I’m from a dying world.
—Aren’t we all? I agreed. And the gondolier was gone. Like that.
 
Then like a finder of antiquities, I plucked the wrecked button from its trouble, I hushed
its dust away with a careful
 
breath and
from that moment, the button’s threadbare eyes fixed on me the gaze
of a man gone spare in the sail and drunk in the boots ashore. Another tourist
was missing from the cruise.
 
I had met this button elsewhere, I was sure. Somewhere once it knew a prouder time,
had worn a finery of thread all down its days of travel and exertion. Indeed
it had performed what needed to be done
to be a proper button.
 
I reassured that meager stranger that I knew just how it felt. I too had traveled
far in my camel youth, plying trade of buttonhole caravans
on the desert of a shirt. I too had peered beyond the billow of poplin dune
in its silver age, the threads of my fittings worn to nothing.
 
And when at last, one day the spin of planets brings me home,
my resource gauge on zero, I, too, dear button. Yes.
Dear button, I will pop the final stay and fly a thousand miles.
Listen for me. I will call to you in the tumbleweeds.

_______________
Ed Wickliffe

 

Review by Frederick Pollack

“Ode to the Pea Coat Button” observes what I consider the primary rule of narrative poetry: subordination of all other metaphor to the central metaphor, which is the incident itself. To say this is not to imply that the language is colorless: we see tumbleweeds of cat hair. The diction and the play of images are swift, musical:

I too had traveled
far in my camel youth, playing trade of buttonhole caravans
on the desert of a shirt. I too had peered beyond the billow of poplin dune
in its silver age, the threads of my fittings worn to nothing.

As in Mather’s “Synthesis,” layers of being overlap; but here they acknowledge each other. The speaker encounters a loose button on the floor of his closet. It is a “vagrant,” as “forlorn” as a Martian gondolier gone mad … paddling wildly / through red sand in the channels … // his load of startled tourists … spilling from the stern. Introducing this figure risks diffuseness, but the image is justified by the ensuing dialogue. I’m from a dying world, squeaks the button, and the speaker replies Aren’t we all? At which point the gondola (briefly) disappears, and one fears that the speaker will somehow spurn, refuse, the button. But he grows swiftly into identifying with it (see the passage quoted above). Neither figure is emotionally monochrome. Once the speaker picks up the button, hush[ing] / its dust away, the button’s “gaze” becomes that of a man gone spare in the sail and drunk in the boots ashore. And at the end the speaker both shares and rebels against the button’s dereliction: I will pop the final stay and fly a thousand miles. The following (and final) line – Listen for me. I will call to you in the tumbleweeds – retrieves the image of cat-hair from the beginning. It unifies the poem; but one might wish it could be dropped, so as to end with that defiant flight. There are poems whose ease and brio make me feel graceless; “Ode to the Pea Coat Button” is one.

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