“Precipice,” Jill Alexander Essbaum

Precipice (from poetryfoundation.org)
Jill Alexander Essbaum

The border
of a thing.

Its edge
or hem.

The selvage,
the skirt,

a perimeter’s
trim.

The blow
of daylight’s

end and
nighttime’s

beginning.
A fence

or a rim,
a margin,

a fringe.
And this:

the grim,
stingy

doorstep
where

the lapse
of passage

happens.
That slim

lip of land,
the liminal

verge
that slips

you past
your brink.

Where
and when

you
blink.

Comment:

It isn’t hard to form a general impression of what this poem means, but there are a few details to begin sorting through. I mainly want to look at this poem because I think the style works. A few of you are writing in a somewhat similar style. You can use one word as an entire line of verse if you like. But notice what else has been accomplished: there’s a fairly tight narrative. The words, while few, bring our attention to the images and those images are ordered. Vowel and consonant sounds complement each other nicely, when they don’t match directly. And the poem’s elegance makes it something one wants to speak out loud. Onto the details:

The “border” becomes distinctly more feminine – perhaps tied to a particular notion of femininity – as the third sentence brings us a “perimeter’s trim.” I remember a father of a rather fundamentalist family telling his daughters (these were grown women, mind you) that they should not wear pants, not ever. Only skirts.

The fourth sentence links the “blow” of “daytime’s end” and “nighttime’s beginning” with that “border” as well as the fifth sentence’s “fence,” “rim,” “margin,” “fringe.” “Blow” indicates this border offends or hurts in some way. “Margin” and “fringe” imply that it begs to be crossed, or that the border is in decay.

Why is the doorstep “stingy?” Is this the doorstep of the house the speaker is from, or the one she wants to enter? If the latter, did she expect the rest of mankind to be so generous? Either way, that’s not really the important word. The key word is “lapse.” The speaker seems to be between doorways (“slim lip of land”). Despite hints of something sexual (“lip,” “verge”), it is the speaker’s non-movement that we’re drawn to. She indicates she’s been pushed (“slips you past your brink”). But it isn’t hard for us to argue that something might have slipped by her which causes the “blink.” “Where and when” seem to be only things that could occur outside a “perimeter’s trim,” and they’re causing our speaker to see differently.

2 Comments

  1. Ashok, what do you make of this?
    The whole first “verse” acknowledges the physical definitions of a precipice, while the second “verse”, beginning with “And this:” gets into a metaphor for something (I’m not sure what, perhaps our comfort zone?)

    Liminal can be defined as “threshold” and, in that context, the stingy doorway becomes the threshold between inaction – “lapse of passage” – and action – “your brink. When and where you blink.”

    The phrase “that slips you past” is so oddly worded that it make me think that the threshold is compelling you to go beyond the brink, that is, you make the conscious effort to make a leap of faith “in the blink of an eye” so to speak.

    This is horribly disjointed on my part. I hope it is coherent. :)

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  2. I love this poem, and not even for any of the reasons listed.
    It was, quite simply, too easy to read. The format of it made it very easy to try and read through it at my regular reading pace. I ended up falling over it suddenly, speeding through the words with only a vague understanding of what it was saying…kind of like when you don’t see where you’re going and walk off the edge of a precipice.
    Exactly like it, as a matter of fact. It captures the feeling perfectly!

    Beautifully done!

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