Addressing the Wound: Anadiplosis in Recent Poetry

In past posts, I’ve explored the use of anadiplosis in modernist and contemporary poetry, from Laura Riding (link)  to Geoffrey G. O’Brien (link). Anadiplosis is a rhetorical ordering technique in which the last word (or words) of a phrase is repeated at the beginning of the subsequent phrase. For example, consider this passage from Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses explains what will happen if the “rule of degree” (roughly, hierarchy) is neglected:

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Anadiplosis is often—though not always—climactic, building from minor to major, less important to most important, etc, creating a sort of hierarchy itself. The nifty thing about this passage is that it forms what you might call an anti-hierarchy, from bad to worse to worst. It works by degrees to describe the loss of degree.

I most recently encountered anadiplosis in last week’s Guardian Poem of The Week, “The Lake of Memories” by Howard Altmann. Click here to read the poem. Carol Rumens’s discussion of the poem is outstanding, and I encourage you to read it. I won’t attempt anything as encompassing here.

You’ll notice that anadiplosis structures the entire poem, with the last word of each stanza initiating the following stanza. Before I dig into that, however, I’d like to look at a couple other salient structural characteristics. The poem describes a house and its surroundings, which bleeds into being a sort of metaphor for the self. It begins:

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

A room stands
for the ceremony
of impermanence.

Impermanence cracks
the façade
of self

The progression of the poem’s 7 stanzas is interesting. It starts inside the room of the house, then progresses to the room, to the facade, to the walls, and concludes all out of doors. The camera, so to speak, starts with a still life, and slowly pulls back to an aerial view.

However, not all aspects of the poem line up in a tidy sequence. For instance, each stanza is governed by a single verb, located at the end its first line. In order, they are sit, stands, cracks, builds, frames, bridge, and winds. Looking at them like this, I see no obvious sequence, but 3 pairs of quasi-opposing terms: sit/stands, cracks/builds, frames (as in, enclose)/bridge (to connect), with “winds” standing on its own.  

That “winds,” and its prominent placement as the final verb, may be a clue regarding Altmann’s use of anadiplosis and how it fits into the poem’s thematics. Here’s the rest of the poem:

The self builds
its walls
of healing.

Healing frames
the house
of wounds.

Wounds bridge
darkness and light
over time.

Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.

To wind is to move in twisting motion; it suggests complication and entanglement. Each successive use of anadiplosis—room, impermanence, self, healing, wounds, time, [tongue/voices]—creates its own sort of entanglement, with “healing” happening before “wounds,” and wounds doing the unlikely work of bridging. Anadiplosis is essential to the poem’s calculated confusion of categories, where abstractions like “impermanence” and “self” are somehow embodied by architecture.

The prepositions—especially “of,” which appears 5 times—do a lot of heavy lifting, and underscore the irresolution of the poem: “the self builds / its walls / of healing.” “Walls of healing” could be walls created by means of healing, or walls that are a source of healing. “Of” allows for either reading, and this spare poem does not provide much evidence to support one reading over the other. The other instances of “of” work in a similar fashion, as does “over” in the 6th stanza, and “in” in the final line.

The poem is an accumulation of the complicated, the not-quite-resolved, with each successive stanza attempting to join past and present, abstract and concrete, and not fully succeeding. This is not a fault, but a brilliant poetic strategy. If the poem is addressing a wound, then anadiplosis serves as a kind of stitching, and the poem itself becomes the record of imperfect healing: a scar.


Where to Draw the Line: Anadiplosis in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience in Groups”

A quick definition: anadiplosis is a rhetorical figure in which the last word (or phrase) of a clause is repeated at the beginning of the next clause, like this:

The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death. (Shakespeare, Richard II)

Anadiplosis is often climatic, describing a sequence of causation, building towards Something Big, as is the case with our example.

But poets are wily, and have employed anadiplosis in non- and anti-climatic ways. As I discussed in this post, Wallace Stevens uses it to embody his poetics of transformation. For Laura Riding, the technique serves to demonstrate a failure built into the very fabric of language, how seemingly important names degrade into mere words.

Innovative as these examples are, they did not prepare me for how anadiplosis is used in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s poem “Experience in Groups,” recently published by the Boston Review. You can read it in its entirety here. It’s long and challenging, and I won’t attempt a full reading of it. As best as I can discern, the poem explores how “everything / Touches everything else” and the ways we often take contiguous things and arbitrarily assemble them into something that seems cohesive. For example, feelings:

each feeling
Departs the time in which it lasts
For another point on the graph…

Days: ”One day hate-rhymes with the next.” Even cells: “All my cells are pages stamped.” Things hold together, even when they don’t really belong together; we fret about things falling apart, but as the poem points out, parodying Yeats: “Things stay together, the center can hold.”

The poem also investigates the opposite, and equally arbitrary, tendency we have to separate and divide things, such as groups of people. Here’s where the section employing anadiplosis comes in:


Far from being climatic, anadiplosis here shows how things bleed into each other, how “complicity” is, etymologically speaking, a kind of fold (literally, “folding together”); how borders are not only lines on the map (which also has folds), but also the cause of long TSA lines; how those lines can detain us, or how we may, after standing in those lines, be detained by the TSA; how, waiting in line, we “camp out,” and how being from outside a certain country’s borders can land someone in an internment camp.

Beyond this blurring of lines, formally speaking, the lack of linearity is emphasized by the multiple appearances of “detention at a border,” disrupting any sense of sequence.

The poem has obvious political resonances, though I’d be hard pressed to state, in blunt terms, what position it advocates. In any case, that’s unlikely the point. Instead, O’Brien compels us to reexamine how we put things together, how we separate them, and where we draw the line.