Robert Pinsky, Impossible to Tell

Imagine a group of people taking turns making clever remarks, echoing and developing each others’ cues. To play the game well is to extend the discussion for another round in a pleasurable way.

For instance, they might be middle-aged Jewish men trading Jewish jokes, like the one

About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together …

Or they might be “Basho and his friends,” drinking saki one 17th-century night and improvising long chains of the linked haikus called rengas:

Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher’s heart: live, rigid, fluid
Like passages etched in a microscopic circuit.

Or all the stories might flow from a single speaker who has a desperate need, like Scheherazade, not to stop entertaining. And that person might not be an Arabian princess but rather a small boy in a sad apartment, whose mother

… tells the child she’s going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,
The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father
Gets home from work, they’ll be okay till morning.

In “Impossible to Tell,” Robert Pinsky weaves these and other stories about story-telling together to create one jazz-like poem. He improvises on the title, which recurs three times in markedly different contexts. Parts of the poem are jokes that made me actually laugh. Parts are like haikus in their fresh descriptions of everyday reality: “In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter.” (Note the 7-syllable phrase.) And parts are very sad, like the death of Pinsky’s friend Elliot Gilbert, as seen by his family.

As for the child who tells jokes to keep his mother from suicide,

… maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga
The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.