The germ of “Surgeon’s Knot” came, from all places, a lecture I was delivering on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. If there’s one central, broken-record theme to all my teaching, it’s this: think hard about the relationship between form and content. On this particular day I was making my case for Pope’s sophisticated (or at least incessant) use of zeugma, a little-known and perhaps underappreciated figure of speech in which one word simultaneously applies to two others: “Alex lost his pen and his direction in life.” That’s a crude example, but still telling—the verb “lost” connects to both “pen” and “direction,” suggesting some unspoken relationship between the material and abstract. Here’s a better one from Pope:
Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honor or her new brocade.
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or necklace at a ball. (2.105-109)
For those of you who love close reading (everyone, right?), there are actually two zeugmas in there! The point, though, is that when I talk about zeugma in my class, I talk about it as a microcosm for what’s going on in the larger poem. Pope’s satire is deeply ambivalent: it is both a skewering of a certain type of gendered aristocracy and also a defense of it. And zeugma, if nothing else, asks its readers to pay attention to such ambivalence on the most granular of levels.
All this made me wonder what my own ‘figure-of-speech-as-microcosm’ poem might look like. I have a soft spot for poems that show you their bones, quietly asking that you look again and again. “Surgeon’s Knot” is certainly a poem about my dad, about fishing a lake that feels warmer and emptier each year, and about the ways we are intimately knotted and unknotted over the course of a life. But it is also about the struggle to write that love:
the connection of leader to line
must always end in chiasmus, the extra twist
obscuring line and leader.
Not a perfect knot
but it should last for the season.
Chiasmus is another one of those underappreciated figures of speech. Its name derives from the Greek chi, written as X, and it describes that moment when a phrase is repeated but in reverse order. Or another way of putting it, when a phrase, like the letter X, becomes the mirror image of itself: “leader to line… obscuring line and leader.” It’s a pretty good image of a knot and, yes, fathers and sons, sons and fathers, too.
Alexander Hollenberg is a professor of storytelling and Pushcart-nominated poet, whose work can be found in Grain, Riddle Fence, untethered, and Poetica. In 2021, he was longlisted for the CBC poetry prize and, more recently, won CV2’s 2-day poem contest.
Photos courtesy of Yannick Forest.