In this write-up, I will be proffering my thoughts on Dan Schneider’s poem, Another Life. A sonnet that is published in one of his Omnisonnet collections on Cosmoetica. It is a great poem that has multiple layers of meaning to it, despite its brevity. Admittedly, the reason I decided to choose it because it seemed most accessible of all. Anyway, here’s the text of the poem:
The first two lines set up a cosmic image that channels a gritty reality, as it gets streamlined into image of Jacob Schwarz, who is presently in the state where he cannot seem to live up his aspirations, for reasons that will become more and more apparent further down the lines, symbolized as they are by the Keds – a name for an American brand of shoes, that were worn by several NBA Black stars, and became cult symbol in hip-hop culture in late 1970s. It is obvious then Jacob Schwarz is possibly a black person, ‘Schwarz’ meaning ‘black’ in German as well. But, Schwarz is also a very common name, and notably Keds puns on keds( a wingless fly, especially a parasite), which at once gives the poem a duplicitous meaning, for what read as the symbol of ideals and dreams now has the meaning of decay and stagnancy. And Jacob might as well be a middle-aged with paunch, possibly looking back at his ambitions in the days of yore. And with this in mind, the earlier cosmic image(the gutter of the infinite…) when juxtaposed against the somewhat innocuous image of Jacob’s yearning, as if almost quelling it, reinforces the fact that that how often an individual is subservient to the forces of cosmos. That so much of narrative gets set up in the first stanza showcases the sheer mastery of Schneider.
The first line in second stanza goes on to showcase the internal angst of Jacob, with an uncanny beautiful image – “the dark wing of an unmade bird”, which deepens the conceit of unrealized dreams and potential, and plays off against the symbol of wingless fly (ked). But the “though” in the start undermines this angst, as we get an enjambment in the second line that once again gives paradoxical implications – either it is Jacob struggling for freedom, or the bird under his bosom(literally), a playful image that runs parallel with the theme of laze and decay in the poem. The final line leaves us hanging on the “the way”. Although, its meaning here is subversive, because of “like others” that precedes it, which probably hints at zombification of Jacob, like the masses out there, rather than his finding an actual epiphany.
This brings us to the third stanza, whose very first line picks up the same thread which was just left hanging, and we are given a complete slice of dark suburban reality since there are many Jacobs, who, alongside their dreams multiply, and rote, on utility – the utility being connotative of a capitalistic system. But enjambment allows for multiple readings, as it can also be read as keds rotting the utility within Jacob. But, it is ‘wires’ in the second line that also makes us piece the whole thing as Keds rotting on utility wires. And if you do bit of googling, you’ll see many images of shoes hanging on the utility wires, which, in the context of New Yorker rumors, meant that there was Cocaine house nearby. This brings the whole poem into a perspective that had been implicit up until now, as one could suspect that poor Jacob had been ODing all this time. Let me stress a point that by no means is that bit of information about shoes requisite to understand this conceit, since the very first line in poem mimics the movements of a druggie, followed by images of immobility and discombobulation. And think about Schneider’s references to Jacob’s ethnicity, that a colored is forced to do drugs instead of being able to realize his aspirations, divulges much about the conditions, possibly enacted by the racial discrimination of the time. So, we have layer of racism added as well. By assigning these issues to cosmic conceits, Schneider elevates them from their otherwise banal use rampant in poetry and literature, something that he also did in his poem Midnight at a White Castle in Bloomington, Minnesota. Yet, one cannot mire a poem to a single interpretation, and Schneider, as one can see, has left things ambiguous throughout the narrative. I am not exactly sure about its import but the line Zebby O’Toole running ‘the show’ perhaps marks the name as some larger force(i.e. government, corporation, God etc) that controls the lives like that of Jacob Schwarz. But the name itself is interesting one, which seems more like that of a DJ. This shows how often one in the power is immature and ineligible.
The final stanza brings us into the now of Jacob Schwarz in the poem’s de facto timeline, and continuing with the last line from third stanza, we see that not only his yearnings but also his cognizance of them is getting sun-blanched and worthless, for they merely seem to provide a few days of respite. But as one proceeds to the next line, it can also be read as “worthless, and sun-blanched white Jacob”, which implies the homogenization of Jacob into mediocrity, and, in the context of the character’s being black, probably illuminates that it isn’t some larger force like racism etc, but Jacob’s own lacks and folly that are responsible for his current station in life. The line ‘Jacab mouths vague locutions’ is culmination of the character’s life up until that point, and the halt that curbside seat brings to his thoughts, wraps the whole narrative in its gritty reality, set forth as it was, by the very first image of poem. The last line is poignant and relatively mellow, as it tapers off on Jacob pining for his ‘Another Life’, perhaps for the last time. Yet, in the face of variegated cosmos his was just another life. This is a great poem. Dan Schneider hides multiple meanings in perfectly condensed lines, with memorable images, mining deep into the life of a loser, all the while reaching out towards totality that exist beyond.