Showdown: Shanna Compton's "Two Friends, One Occasion" vs. Ernest Borgnine
Two Friends, One Occasion
by Shanna Compton
We swapped bicycles
to make it last.
What legs we had.
We were regular guys.
We went to bed
to keep it longer.
our lazy game.
We could forget
love. We could forget
his wife’s lawyer.
We wanted women.
We wanted much.
This poem by Shanna Compton was my first favorite poem in what is now one of my new favorite journals, Court Green. It is in Court Green 2 (a fantastic issue that you should order and read). While there are many other poems in the journal that I think are fantastic (Rachel Mortiz’s, Aaron Belz’s, Anna Moschovakis’ just off the top of my head), I’m still loving this poem because it has a particular aesthetic effect that I find so wonderful in Compton’s poetry. The experience of the poem is not the language, line and form on the page, rather this language sets up some space in me that is then filled in beyond the poem as object. In her best poems the poem itself is a conduit to an aesthetic event. This is not, however, in any way epiphanic, no wannabe zazen experience.
The deadpan language and syntax of this poem resist a readerly investment, yet from this limited palette and these concise prosodic parameters Compton comes up with a poem that both invite empathy and is full of surprises. “We met.” is about as straightforward and neutral statement about a relationship that one can make. The second line brings the poem into childhood, but the third line immediately undercuts that with a grasping tension. “What adoration” introduces the erotic elements of the poem, but in a way that makes me question it as well, there is a non-bootyful reading of this adoration available. But who would want that?
The second stanza tells us that they’re both guys and consummates the relationship. It seems to be a casual affair of sex. Nothing too shocking here. It is a game. OK, we’ve all been there. But the "to keep it longer" is disruptive. What is this "it"? Is this line a dick joke? The last two lines contain two of the only adjectives in the poem. In a poem this tight that is obviously important and the lines draw attention to the act of speaking. The adjectives move the speaker away from the experiences to speakignabout the experiences. Then I start to think about who is speaking—it is a we, but I can’t see this chanted, it’s not surreal. It is an I speaking as a we.
The third stanza drops the wife-bomb, making this relationship work on an entirely different level. “We wanted women” is so deadpan that it provides multiple readings. “We wanted much” while more abstract is also more direct. The unsayable nature of what they wanted is inarticulated in “much.” But it isn’t “they” it is “he.” There is an other character with a wife. The speaker can’t even express his individual It makes me want to cry.
The language of this seems to be straightforward, but upon further readings you can see a desperation below the surface. The assertion of “We were regular guys” could be just that, this is what guys can do. But after the last line of the poem rereading this line sounds too assertive, perhaps this speaker is trapped within an masculinity.
OK, I could continue this kind of reader-response thing, but I’m not so interested in that. What I’m interested in is what Compton is up to in her poems, which seems to be to create a set of language that will be read quickly and somewhat neutrally in order for an event to happen after the reading of the poem. The way she crafts a poem has a deceptively simple quality to a first read. But this poem is so full of multiple readings and tensions. The poem results from the poem on the page. Not that it makes you ponder it later, nor is the last line an O. Henry twist of irony, the thing that I look for in reading a poem, that aesthetic event, happens after the reading.
When we’re talking Ernest Borgnine what we’re really talking about is Ernest Borgnine in Poseidon Adventure. The gruff, pig-headed, muscle-bound cop who is crazy in love with his ex-prostitute wife. Did I mention muscle-bound? I couldn’t find a good picture on line to demonstrate this, but he was ripped!
The thing about Borgnine is that he is so active and contorted on screen that watching him is a unique kind of experience. While Gene Hackman smoothly (for the most part) negotiates his way through the awful, awful dialogue of the film, Borgnine is a sweaty, dirty, flexing, twisting, screaming package of energy. While his acting in the film is bad by my standards (sorry Ernest, loved your work in Sky Wolf), he is a wonder on the screen. Maybe it’s because I just read Deleuze’s book on Bacon, but he seems to contain a violence in him that is not malevolent toward anyone but a violence of experience. He mouth opens too wide, his biceps flex too much, he hunches in his linesman’s stance of a posture.
Man, this is tough. To give Shanna a fair shot I should focus on just one scene in the film. Say the scene where Hackman splits off to find the engine room and Borgnine and Hackman make their famous "15 Minute Deal."
It's still tough.
Compton's poem is damn good.
Borgnine is so very Borgnine.
OK, I have to call it on irony. Inevitably talking about Ernest Borgnine involves a serious slathering of irony, and I just can't award this one to the ironic champ.
Shanna Compton's "Two Friends, One Occasion" Wins!!!
Borgnine packs a mean punch, but he doesn't have the staying power. he was drooping after the fifth round, dead on his feet by the ninth. He's still too strong (and muscular!) of a fighter for Compton to get in a KO punch but the judges were clear on this one.
In less combative news Zachary Schomburg, the man with the man suit made of poems, will be reading today at 4PM at Sur Tango on P St. The address is somethingsomethingsomething P St. If you are in Lincoln and you are not there, it is beacuase you are being square.