John Yau’s “Overnight”

A friend of mine shared this week’s poem – “Overnight” by John Yau – printed off Poets.org’s poem-a-day series (a great resource for poetry for those unfamiliar). I had the distinct of experiencing this poem by first reading it aloud in the coffeeshop where we meet.

[If you’d like to try this out at home – which I highly recommend – scroll down and read the poem, then come back to check out my breakdown]

As I read through it, I immediately engaged with the strict, end-stopped lines. Each line hangs like a mysterious non-sequitur and blurs into the next, echoing the humor and depth found in the spirit of Paul Violi’s own work (to whom the poem is dedicated). The ambiguity in the poem evokes the “red herrings” mentioned in the poem, each line seeming to point somewhere and nowhere all at once.

donkeysAs I continued reading, I quickly began to take note that the choice to have the poem progress in couplets delayed the realization of how Yau repeats lines. About a third of the way, I realized that the poem was a pantoum (typically written in four line stanzas) in open disguise. Near simultaneously as this realization occurred, I began to be struck by the ways the repeated lines began to change the second time around. In particular, the lines, “The shield you were given as a child did not protect you” and “One by one the words leave you, even this one” swing around the second time in a surprising manner.

What I felt when I finished reading to the end of the poem is that I had just read an elegy that tangoed and fenced and pliéd around being an elegy, side-stepping direct somberness and letting the form and purposeful ambiguity of the lines emphasize mortality. As happens sometimes when I read a good poem, I had to catch my breath.

Overnight – John Yau

In memory of Paul Violi (1944-2011)

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it

*

Check out this link to read more of John Yau’s work.

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