Light of the Interpersonal: Sophie Klahr’s Meet Me Here At Dawn
“Out, vile jelly!” In Shakespeare’s King Lear, these words accompany Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester to mark a point from which there is no return; the cruelty, the betrayals that preceded the act can arguably be undone or made up for, but the horrific removal of the eyeball is permanent. In Sophie Klahr’s debut poetry collection, Meet Me Here at Dawn, the speaker calls back to Lear to mark a point from which the book’s central relationship cannot come back: “Out, heart—fucked limb.”
Meet Me Here at Dawn traces the arc of an affair from its tentative beginnings through its exciting apex and into worry, emotional turmoil, and eventual end. I begin with this allusion to Lear not only to launch into one of the most resonant moments in the collection, but also because light and lack thereof—meaningless without the use of one’s eyes—recur throughout these poems, even finding purchase in the collection’s title.
And I do mean they recur—the word “light” appears 17 times throughout the collection. “Night” does 15 times, “dusk” seven, etc. Tellingly, the “dawn” of the title is never referenced directly in the text; the closest the poet comes is in “Some Notes on Shadows,” where dawn and beginnings are placed aside their natural tradeoffs:
The story goes: my father first held me
one morning at the window of the hospital.
That is a mailbox, he told me,
that is a tree. He did not mention the shadow
and earlier in the poem:
I wept making love to a man old enough
to be my father. When we curved
into sleep, one of us contained
more shadow than the other.
Light is also understanding, knowledge, whereas darkness or shadow infers ignorance, or, given the topic of an affair, hiding such understanding of the truth from another; deceit. “The light is dim nothing’s recognizable,” Klahr writes in “Lesson.” It’s easy to understand thus why light and shadow would play so prominently in this collection whose narrative, while certainly branching into other subjects, focuses most prominently on an extramarital affair. “The steady mistake of strangers / believing me your wife,” as said in the poem “Slant”—the title a clear reference to Emily Dickinson’s “certain Slant of light,” which further affirms light as record and darkness a blank that can be filled in, erroneously or deceitfully, in its opening lines: “which codes the luminous tree at your gate / which broad night renders its own wild leap.”
The Lear reference atop is not the only Shakespeare to imbue Klahr’s verse—the influence of Romeo and Juliet is unmistakable in these pages, referenced multiple times and most notably in “It Was the Nightingale and Not the Lark” (the same poem from which the opening paragraph’s quote is taken). In it, the man says the affair needs to “unplug,” similar to Romeo’s caution upon hearing the morning lark and remarking that they must part before being noticed. Meanwhile the speaker doesn’t want to end it—Juliet’s insistence that the call they heard was in fact the nightingale and that they have a few more hours to spend together.
A romance that does not abide by commonly accepted social parameters creates a clear parallel between the famous play and MMHAD; in R&J, two feuding families who would not accept such a union, and today, the default of monogamy with its associated shame relating to extramarital affairs. By putting the relationship described in these poems in this context, Klahr pulls human longing, eroticism, and emotion free from the easy judgment of social norms, and asks us to reflect on the relations of two people—and all that goes with it, both highs and lows, the gratitude and the embarrassment—in the context only of the two individuals involved.
Indeed, there is a world outside of these poems that is only hinted at and is undoubtedly affected by the actions of their focus, but for better or worse the reader almost never sees it, nor the world outside of these two people at all (“Something-something-terror / jangles across the television: old news,” via “After the War I Dreamt of Nothing but the War”). This sense of incompleteness and space is something Klahr takes advantage of in the poems, right down to their very construction. The poems in MMHAD make good use of white space and the standard left-aligned margins of English poetry. Sometimes Klahr uses varying line lengths for emphasis, as in “50 Ways” where a short line punctures the long line preceding it—which is jittery with scheduling details and rationalization—with the quick blade of realization:
today you said you will call at noon at one and you are in a different time zone maybe you think I am also but now
it is after one everywhere.
The aloneness of that understanding permeates the line, and the white space gives it room to land and fester effectively. Elsewhere, Klahr’s lines are carved to build momentum (and in this case, echoing the closing of a drawer of the stated bureau with its truncating lines):
if you are a man made of birds
if you are a bureau
if chest, if cage
(from “Say When”)
or slow down the poem, as in “Twelve Years Later” that uses one-line stanzas to emphasize the separation felt at the loss of a pregnancy:
I can imagine the baby pooling away from me
like smoke, imagine doctors soft as doves
beating their wings, murmuring, guiding the dark plume
into a bucket. Into a bag. Then afterwards, smoothing
a sheet over me. No, a veil. If there’s such a thing as a soul,
two flickered in me for years. Then one.
Klahr’s gift for tone and image are on full display in Meet Me Here at Dawn, as the poems often remove anything extraneous and allow the poet’s voice to expand and fill the room. In part this is achieved by making the words and sounds of the poem resound in the reader’s body to double down on their meaning; as in “Mercy,” where the passage “Walking onto the shore without a plan, / without my other mouth. / The guttural of Us” draws the reader’s consciousness to the sounds in play and the movement of the mouth needed to produce them. With image, Klahr’s verse is alternatively lush and fiery; in other words, the images are full and saturated in their presentation, but not in an indulgent manner. Rather, one of calcified intensity:
I dream there is a minnow in my body.
I dream its jaw unhinges on my eggs
and swallows every ghost.
(from “Against Desire”)
A recurring metaphor throughout MMHAD involves the speaker’s repeated referencing of herself or those around her as actors in a movie or stage play. Here is where the collection blooms from a depiction of an affair into a tour through the consciousness of one of its participants, as the speaker keeps questioning what it means to play a role, what the difference is between someone acting in a movie and someone simply acting in a manner to hide something from another.
I’ve been trying not to mention your marriage
but they say a gun onstage must go off, so
let’s get to it
and later in the poem,
You lean over your mother, to kiss her goodbye—
a woman on the street yells Get out of the movie
(from “Opening Night”)
Does being in a role excuse one for their actions; does it change how they should feel? The speaker hones in on the effect of observation by another on that role, how others would perceive a relationship of this type: “I note / who turns to judge my grief” in “One Slaughter,” and also:
In class, I draw a man dragging another man
on a leash. I say the background
in this photograph is blurred—
the light is dim nothing’s recognizable.
I ask my students what they feel, seeing this,
and they search my face for the right answer.
Multiple choice: Pity?
I let the camera zoom out, draw,
around the men, a stage—
lavish curtains framing
the scene, an audience in silhouette.
I ask, Is this different?
And, more to the point, the speaker delves into the role of married partner, of husband and wife, and how a sense of belonging is tied into the idea of home, of the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and how they change in marriage:
You asked once if I thought you shouldn’t be married. Perhaps (I think I said) you married the wrong person. To each their poison, their chain, their joy. Their hospital, their someone at home. Dependent, partner, passenger, hostage. To each their cross, their pause.
(from “Do You?”)
Meet Me Here at Dawn does not shy away from these difficult, complex questions, nor does it propose to know all the answers. What it does do is display a raw, emotionally valuable take on the messiness of interpersonal relationships, desires, societal and personal roles, and the search for a sense of belonging that is amorphous but undeniable all the same:
in this scene
one of us is chained, a dog. the other,
a child, pushing food with a stick towards the dog.
we stand in our hunger like a room, forgetting our lines.
it has a purity; each of us believes we are the dog.
(from “Deleted Scene 1 (Method Acting)”)