Titles are hard. If I have a poem that is unsteadily listing, I’m often tempted to slap on a title to compensate, a desperate triage for clarity or emphasis. Or, if the poem seems squared away, the title is immediately ushered out of the room, and even though it beats its tiny fists against the door, no one can be bothered to let it back in.
I personally value titles that are echoes, refractions, an adumbration of the poem’s grammar. Sometimes, it is the poem’s central image, or an ancillary phrase that grows larger in your mind as you read on, or perhaps a conversational aside that can clue you into its offered mode of reception, like the dark of a theater or the new sign at a fading dollar pizza place that reads: $1.50.
Titles can also be a bid for specificity, a contextual anchor that asserts an address. I get sad when the title of Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Harlem” gets swallowed up and exclusively referred to as “Dream Deferred.” I think for some people, it’s a way of removing the continuing legacies of racism, segregation, and the Harlem riots from their readings in favor of a more palatable “universal” relatability (most annoying disguised as a purely artistic appraisal of a self-enclosed aesthetic object). More often, it’s a neglectful forgetting that the poem itself staunchly opposes.
All this to say I love titles in dynamic relation with the rest of the poem. Matthew Tuckner’s “Depression, with Figurative Language” made me pause to appreciate how titles can so actively shape my experience of a poem:
DEPRESSION, WITH FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
When a Bengal tiger was found living
————atop a mountain of chicken bones in the back
room of a Harlem apartment, police officers
————rappelled from the rooftop by rope swing
& shot it full of ketamine. As the photograph
————shows, the first dart only served to further
anger the animal, fixed jaw-open in this square
————of image I fuss over like a loose tooth
in my months of magical thinking.
————The tangled latticework of the window bars
the tiger lunges toward, swathed in shadow,
————the gray bricks of the building lashed
with the afterlife of rain, the fangs latched
————onto the borders of the frame as a gesture
of fear those without hands can only express
————through the mouth. Nowhere to be found
is the man who first carried the tiger
————into the building swaddled in a blanket,
feeding it clumpy milk from a bottle,
————leaning his face closer for a sample
of its stale breath as it snored in his lap,
————assembling a sandbox for the cat
when its muscles erupted into a landscape
————of steep hillsides he tried his best to tame
with the braided hair of dolls, discs of cow liver,
————strips of tablecloth sprayed with cologne
he tasked it to find hidden behind
————dressers, tucked under the rug, slipped into
the gap between the wall & the tank
————where he kept his saltwater crocodile.
Sometimes he’d crack open the door, turn
————his head away & dip his hand into the hungry
mouth waiting there, letting it gnaw
————at his skin until he could trace the warp
& weft of the cuts with a pen. He kept it
————secret nonetheless, blaming the gashes
he couldn’t stanch on the neighbor’s stocky pitbull,
————pouring vinegar on the wood floor
to disguise the smell of piss, lying
————to the cops as they came pounding at the door,
trying to stash in his closet what
————in the end took six men to lift.
In this poem, the speaker “fuss[es] over” a real-life incident in the early 2000s, where a man raised a tiger in his Harlem apartment. Personally, if this were a prose piece simply titled “Depression,” I would read it as a clarification of character motivation: depression as the reason for such a seemingly bizarre, desperate, and doomed action. This certainly still comes into play, but the title’s emphasis on depression with figurative language exceeds simple self-description (e.g. the figurative language of “when its muscles erupted into a landscape / of steep hillsides”) and instead invites the reader to make broader associations across the poem’s lines and images.
Refuse and waste as lived environment–a “mountain of chicken bones,” “the smell of piss”–makes me think about how squalid accumulation can become an effortless byproduct of depression. A sense of grasping, lacerating hurt is found in the tiger, “the fangs latched / onto the borders of the frame as a gesture / of fear those without hands can only express / through the mouth” which is then (self-)inflicted onto the man, as he dips his hand into “hungry mouth.” As the poem’s title sat in my mind, I immediately thought of how I have been implicated in appetitive self-woundings and lashing out.
Of course, these kinds of connections are not solely stewarded by the poem’s title. While I can’t much attend to the language in this brief reflection, the irrevocable forward motion of helplessness–the growth of the tiger, more mountainous and voracious, completely unable to fulfill what the man sought to nurture in himself–draws you in through a vividly rendered claustrophobic expansiveness (of waste, wounds, and deception) and the language already provides many footholds for expansive connection.
But for me, thanks to its title, such considerations did not feel external to the poem’s logic, but stitched into the piece itself, in the movement between title and body. I found myself making circuits between the poem’s lines and the title, each indentation an invitation to think of the hidden, what else we try to stash away until, finally, others must carry them out.