Why Poets Should Read Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then

The prose of Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then has a frustrated and frustrating music, the rhythm of minds trying to resolve the past and the present and memories that might be fantasies, likely are fantasies, or may be the future. This not-quite linearity is not why poets should read Kincaid’s novel about a family not always as “Sweet” as their surname. Rather, poets should read See Now Then for the way Kincaid creates this music: the book is a masterclass in repetition.

Kincaid repeats the three words of the title in different permutations throughout the text. Sometimes they appear together, even referring on occasion to a book. Other times, they come in pairs, and of course they appear alone. Initial capitals emphasize the repetition of these terms. Their repetition reflects the questions of time prevalent in the text, even as they contribute to the music of minds playing ideas and memories over again as part of the effort of making a story out of a shared life.
It is not, however, only specific words that Kincaid repeats. There are also sounds—as in “pearl” and “purl” used in close proximity to each other, first to describe and then to name a knitting stitch. And then there are repeated structures: “Oh Now, oh Now,” “Oh young Heracles, oh young Heracles,” and “Oh Mom, oh Mom.” Notice how this structure is repeated with a difference: mostly it is used for echoing apostrophes, but “Now” is not addressed.

From See Now Then, poets can learn to manage this kind of repetition better and more musically, whether that repetition occurs across the pages of a book-length work or within nearby lines. Kincaid’s work uses repetition to make a melody of frustration, but that does not have to be the use to which poets put the lessons they can learn from her prose. Still, no matter the use, repetition always says something about time.

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