10 Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
About Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems
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Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child is a collection of 33 poems about the intersection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to be playground monitor. A former senior editor of the New Yorker, Garrison is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon books. She also wrote A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 1998).
Questions For Reading Groups about The Second Child
1) The title poem in a collection often expresses a theme or the prevailing mood of a book. Is this true in The Second Child? What ideas in the poem “The Second Child” recur in different forms in other poems in the collection?
2) One of the strongest poems in this book, “September Poem,” deals with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Garrison decides to have another child. But she says didn’t do that for the obvious reason that when people die “ … we want, crudely pining,/ To replace them with more people.” Why did she have another child? How does this poem differ from other things you’ve read about Sept. 11? What does this poem show you that newspaper and other reports didn’t?
3) The dust jacket of The Second Child calls the book “a meditation on the extraordinariness resident in the everyday – nursing babies, missing the past, knowing when to lead a child and knowing when to let go.” What are some poems in which Garrison shows the extraordinary in the ordinary? What details illustrate that quality?
4) David Orr said that what’s known as “the New Yorker poem” consists “basically of an epiphany-centered lyric.” [“Annals of Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 31.) Seven poems in The Second Child appeared first in the New Yorker. Do those poems fit that definition? Which poems involve an epiphany?
5) Some poems in The Second Child, such as “A Drink in the Night,” resemble anecdotes in verse. How does Garrison turn these into something more than cute the stories about children that you might find in a women’s magazine? In “A Drink in the Night,” does she use the invented “cup” as a metaphor for something else? What?
6) One of Garrison’s more unusual poems is “Sestina for the Working Mother.” A sestina is a fixed verse form in which six end-words recur in a set order in six stanzas and a three-line envoi (a coda or postscript). This centuries-old form might seem an odd choice for a modern woman who reflects, in part, on her reduced opportunities to listen to public radio and be a PTA mother. Why might Garrison have written a sestina instead of, say, a sonnet or haiku? How do the lives of working mothers resemble sestinas? For example, do mothers do tasks that may vary in order from one day to the next?
7) Garrison uses other traditional forms, such as the sonnet. But she doesn’t follow the familiar rhyme scheme the Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd efef gg. The end-words don’t start to rhyme until Lines 7 and 8 in “Unbidden Sonnet With Evergreen” and until Line 11 in “Song After Everyone’s Asleep.” What might explain this? Do the changes in rhyme relate to shifts in the tone or ideas of the poem?
8) You could argue that the most Shakespearean poem in The Second Child is the first, “On New Terms,” which uses the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that Shakespeare often used. In this poem some words or syllables rhyme in unexpected places (“most/ghost”). How do the forms of these sonnets add to or detract from their effects? Could Garrison be using these forms to express something about the role of women caught between traditional and new roles? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8 in front of this question, it is accidental.]
9) Although often meditative, the poems in this book can also be jaunty. The Cole Porter-ish “Goodbye, New York” sounds like a Broadway show tune: “You were the pickles, you were the jar/ you were the prize fight we watched in a bar.” It sounds that way partly because Garrison uses the bouncy anapestic meter (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) instead of the iambic (one unstressed followed by one stressed) of “On New Terms.” Anapestic is one of the most popular meters in children’s poems. You can almost hear an echo of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in lines like: “my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door/ now you’re the dream we lived before.” Have you read any children’s poems that use anapestic meter? (Hint: This was Dr. Seuss’s favorite.) Do you see other places where Garrison uses meter to achieve an effect?
10) If you’ve read A Working Girl Can’t Win, how does The Second Child resemble or differ from that one in tone and content? How is Garrison evolving as a poet?
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.
A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Modern Library, 80 pp., $7.95 , paperback. www.randomhouse.com
A review of The Second Child appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the March posts.
Your book group may also want to read:
Late for Work. By David Tucker. Mariner, 64 pp., $12, paperback. Tucker, a newspaper editor, writes about his work in a witty and poignant book of poems that won Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize. www.houghtonmifflinbooks/mariner/
Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. LSU Press/Southern Messenger Poets Series, $54 pp., $16.95, paperback. Emerson writes about divorce and remarriage in a collection that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. www.lsu.edu/lsupress/
The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition. By John Drury. Foreword by Dana Goia. Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback. A guide to the different types of poetry (including the most common rhymes, meters, stanzas, and more) with more than 250 poems that illustrate the terms. This book describes many forms or techniques that Garrison uses, such as sonnet, end-rhyme, and sestina.
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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.