A poem like ammunition.



The poet Miller Williams died on the first day of 2015. I had not been familiar with his poetry, though I knew of the book he co-authored, How Does a Poem Mean? As I browsed some of his works I came upon this one that I liked right away.


Love and How It Becomes Important in Our Day to Day Lives

The man who tells you which is the whiter wash,
the woman who talks about her paper towels,
the woman whose coffee holds her home together,
the man who smells the air in his neighbor’s house,

the man who sings a song about his socks,
the woman who tells how well her napkin fits,
the man who sells the four-way slicer-dicer,
the woman who crosses tape between her tits,

and scores besides trample my yard, a mob
demanding to be let in, like Sodomites
yelling to get at my guests but I have no guests.
I crawl across the floor and cut the lights.

“We know you’re in there,” they say. “Open the door.”
“Who are you?” I say. “What do you want with me?”
“What does it matter?” they say. “You’ll let us in.
Everyone lets us in. You’ll see. You’ll see.”

The chest against the door begins to give.
I settle against a wall. A window breaks.
I cradle a gun in the crook of my elbow.
I hear the porch collapse. The whole house shakes.

Then comes my wife as if to wake me up,
a case of ammunition in her arms.
She settles herself against the wall beside me.
“The towns are gone,” she says. “They’re taking the farms.”

–Miller Williams

11 thoughts on “A poem like ammunition.

  1. Wow. What I hear is the juggernaut of consumerist culture overwhelming even the quiet outlying places. What would Wendell Berry say? Or Fr. Stephen Freeman? I don’t know what the poet intended but those are certainly powerful words.


    1. Antoine, many of those images in the first part of the poem come from television commercial advertisements, and I think the reaction is against the insanity of the value system they portray. The couple in the poem see these as the enemy invaders and act in the opposite way from the majority of Americans who invite them into their living rooms and subject themselves to their inane messages.


  2. Gretchen, I will leave a comment on this fascinating poem after this one by a friend who is the best reader of poetry that I know. He’s been doing it meticulously for 55 years…. He proposes this: “I read it as a tongue-in-cheek satire of someone maddened by the seemingly inescapable commercial infiltration of the public sphere–even if we don’t watch television, or rarely, we recognize the ads he is portraying in the opening stanzas. The gun is a joke I think because it’s obviously useless against the invisible airwaves, the voices and images telling us we need all of the things we don’t need, the commandments and instructions on how to look, how to dress, what to eat, how to live–the mass society’s invasive, profit-driven assault. A society that’s now not only urban (“they’ve taken the cities”) but ubiquitous. I think the poem is really commenting on the average person’s inability to escape the commercialization of their life: or what Marx called the “commodification of the human spirit”. “


  3. The finely crafted poem questions, weighs, receives, and juxtaposes elements of contemporary American life–makes me want to read a couple dozen Thomas Hardy poems. It’s written in iambic pentameter quatrains rhymed a b x b. Suspending the title for a moment–as if taking the lid off a cooking pot–we can see the first stanza working this way: line 1 wrenches our stereotypical association of women in laundry ads–it’s a man who takes on this role; so we know that Williams is going to engage us to read closely. Line 2 highlights trivia compared, by its absence, to what important things could concern a person in her day. This lady is represented merely by paper towels. She’s not reading the OED or studying art. Line 3 indicates the tension of a domestic situation which could easily fall apart. Line 4 makes us feel uneasy about the nosy judgmental neighbor. More to come—if I can get it posted….


  4. This excellent poem is doing just what a poem should aim for: it’s endlessly interesting. Delving into stanza 2, I’m guessing Miller Williams would know Pablo Neruda’s famous “Ode to My Socks” , as lovable a poem as could be written. So the male character may actually be Neruda, or a fellow who identifies with the possibility of celebrating great socks. The woman in the next lines is celebrating too–something completely unexpected: I have never seen a sanitary napkin alluded to in a poem. Williams delivers that line with unembarrassed aplomb. Then it’s the man’s turn to celebrate again: he’s like my late husband, who admired those folks who hawk wares at our county fairs. He’s followed by a woman who does something I’ve never heard of but definitely can’t look away from–it’s as if she crosses herself with duct tape. Maybe it helps with muscle tone?? More to come. One can in no way predict where Wiliams’s mind is going to travel!


  5. What struck me with additional readings is all the gender references — each person in the poem is either man or woman, and the focus on the marriage at the end is significant. When the poet notes breasts and menstruation, it ratchets this up a notch. Then the intense sexual violence alluded to in the 3rd stanza makes the poem more alarming — the poet himself feels violated by these people. He feels emotionally raped. They’re not after his guests; they’re after him. They attack his home. The only one on his side is his wife. She brings ammunition to him so that he can defend them both — the ammunition of love, I assume, since that is the “thing that matters,” as the title says.

    The idea that media commercialism feels like a violent sexual act when it enters one’s home is a bit of a shock. The idea that it can be defeated simply with the love already in the home is a comfort. It’s comforting for this couple, but quite discouraging for the community at large, which is succumbing. The first line of the final stanza was my favorite — on my first reading, I thought, “Ah! He is only dreaming – what a relief!” But I’d misread it, sadly. He feels he’s in a nightmare, but he’s not.


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