In my recent microreview & interview of Rochelle Hurt’s In Which I Play the Runaway , I discussed how the idea of “narrative inheritance” is central to the collection, working as a background to be subverted and challenged via the themes of the physical body and the conceptual runaway. What this means is that the collection is concerned with the stories we accept about ourselves and how those stories change, either on their own or through our effort.
In “Poem In Which I Play the Cheat” below, the speaker begins their story as something they “could explain.” Through the modal verb “could,” the speaker places their story in an imaginative space, suspending the scene of “when he touched my arm” and the image of “a stunned doe” as part of only one instance of the experience.
The speaker then charges back into the material of their story, back to “Sun as first love.” In the third stanza’s depiction of being younger and in love with the sun,”its heat, so much / like a body, a welcome weight,” the speaker establishes distance from scene with the “he” of the first stanza. This distance is where the story begins to change, the speaker now less in love with a person and more in love with an experience.
When the final stanza changes the first stanza’s phrasing of “when he touched my arm” to “when I touched his arm,” a subtle, but significant shift happens. Where the first stanza has an outside action create an interior response, the last stanza grounds itself in inner sensation. Rather than having a story of action and response, the last stanza has a story of response only, a lingering and holding onto sensation that leaves the speaker “wanting until a kind of night” falls within them. Suddenly, the role of “cheat” and its connotations of evasiveness serve a more complicated and honest purpose: that of unflinching witness to the self.
Poem in Which I Play the Cheat – Rochelle Hurt
I could explain
that when he touched my arm, a field opened
inside me, so I lay down there like a stunned doe
wedding herself to the ground for its green.
But you should understand it began before that —
Sun as first love: when I was small,
I would close my eyes each afternoon
and press myself into its heat, so much
like a body, a welcome weight on top of me.
Its light split my skin, and I opened
to the infinite red and shine beneath my lids
as time thickened and pleasure oozed
like syrup into the bowl of my skull.
What I mean is that I fall in love with surfaces —
When I touched his arm, the horizon flickered
before us, and I knew the sky was only
a scratched film of sky. I fixed on its sun nonetheless,
wanting until a kind of night fell in my chest.
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