Today I’d like to spend a few minutes admiring the poem “Night Errand” by Eric Berlin, winner of The National Poetry Competition 2015.
I fell in love with this poem the first time I read it because it lured me in with the dizzying quality of its images, their strangeness and sheer unexpectedness, and then smashed my unsuspecting heart with a wiffle-ball bat. The poem, addressed to the Great Northern Mall, with the O introduction, tells us our speaker’s crying out in something akin to desperation and to this “dwindling oracle,” but the sounds at play in the lines “your colossal lot / of frost-heaved spaces so vacant I could cut” enter me into the poem’s labyrinth. The syntax and the way the idea forms across the different line-breaks “cut / straight through while blinking” keeps me on edge as a reader enough to where I’m in the spaces between seconds. The poem forces me to focus on each word, its unique and textured sound and how it relates (both context and sound) to the surrounding words. The poem then works to reveal its occasion, or at least the condition of the speaker in this moment of calling out: “I’ve come like the flies that give up the ghost / at the papered fronts of your defunct stores[.]” Now that we know how the speaker feels, or at least have a sense of it (because it’s still difficult to pin down at this point in the poem), the maze of images follows:
by Eric Berlin
O, Great Northern Mall, you dwindling oracle
of upstate New York, your colossal lot
of frost-heaved spaces so vacant I could cut
straight through while blinking and keep my eyes
shut, I’ve come like the flies that give up the ghost
at the papered fronts of your defunct stores,
through the food court where napkins, unused
to touch, are packed too tight to be dispensed,
past the pimpled kid manning the register
who stares at the buttons and wipes his palms.
If I press my eyes until checkers rise
from the dark—that’s how the overheads glower
in home essentials as I roam through Sears,
seeking assistance. I know you’re here.
For this window crank I brought, you show me
a muted wall of TVs where Jeff Goldblum
picks his way through the splintered remains
of a dinosaur crate. There must be fifty
of him, hunching over mud to inspect
the three-toed prints. I almost didn’t
come in here at all, driving the opposite
of victory laps, and waiting as I hoped
for the red to leave my eyes, but my urgency
smacked of your nothingness. I did it again—
I screamed at the woman I love, and in front
of our one-year-old, who covered his ears.
Once we see the papered fronts of the defunct stores, the images begin to pinball to dazzling effect: the napkins at the food court stuffed so tight into their dispensers that no one can use them. That image speaks to me on both metaphorical and physical levels. I know exactly what the speaker’s describing, but now, for the first time, I’m thinking about how that image applies to the human condition, how it’s possible to feel the way those napkins “unused / to touch” feel. We see the pimpled kid “manning the register,” but because the kid stares at buttons and wipes palms, the opportunity for human connection’s absent. And maybe that disconnect in a seemingly public place spurs my love of this poem.
The poem shifts gears with the next image, which admittedly took me a while to understand. “If I press my eyes until checkers rise / from the dark–that’s how the overheads glower / in home essentials.” The way “that’s how” functions in this sentence to make the simile is pretty damn masterful. And like the confusion of rubbing your eyes and opening them after a while and adjusting to the light, the simile takes a minute to process, which makes it all the more precise. The development of the images via metaphor mirrors the confusing light we see in Sears.
And in case we’ve forgotten, the speaker once again addresses the spirit of the Great Northern Mall, with the sentence, “I know you’re here.” The sentence seems simple compared to those around it, which not only offers satisfying variation, but plays subtly on the “you are here” tags on all the directories you find in U.S. malls. It also echoes with importance later once the poem finishes.
I think maybe what I admire most about this poem is the way the speaker allows the reader to enter the speaker’s senses (more than inner consciousness). The sensations, the way the speaker’s feeling, we understand that best through the images the speaker chooses to give us, and when they make us kind of dizzy/delirious with wonder and distraction and human disconnect: “a muted wall of TVs where Jeff Goldblum / picks his way through the splintered remains / of a dinosaur crate” (look at those line-breaks!). I love the speaker’s almost overwhelmed claim that “there must be fifty of him,” which expresses that simultaneous feeling of fright and excitement. It points out how close those responses are.
And though the Great Northern Mall has kept our speaker distracted and separated from people inside the mall, the poem’s resolve works toward pointing out the fright of the disconnect with the ones we love most. The way the poem builds toward that ending, once again establishing a kind of self-defeated, self-frustrated tone with, “I almost didn’t / come in here at all, driving the opposite / of victory laps, and waiting as I hoped / for the red to leave my eyes, but my urgency / smacked of your nothingness.” I don’t want to be simple, but I really like the phrasing of “my urgency smacked of your nothingness,” because not only does it point out the vacancy of everything the Great Northern Mall has to offer, the futility of crying out to the spirit of a place only capable of offering nothingness, it speaks to the final couplet, in the same way “I know you are here” does for me earlier in the poem.
All throughout the poem, the heartbeat of our speaker’s feelings, though not explicit, seemed pretty apparent, but throughout the poem, I kept asking myself what the occasion for the poem was, what event led the speaker to this brilliantly specific and beautiful description. The title “Night Errand” gives us a bit of a clue, but the final two lines of the poem answer. Our speaker obviously regrets screaming at the woman he loves, and to make matters worse, he did it in front of their son, who, despite being a baby, knew enough to cover his ears. That closing image just slivers my heart like an onion. And what can you do when you make a mistake, and, in the moment of making it, realize its magnitude? Do you go to the Great Northern Mall, maybe drive the opposite of victory laps (so, so good!)? Do you maybe make a poem that devastates the reader the same way you were? Sure, there are plenty of alternatives, but this poem showed me what it was to be in that moment, to have that realization, to be perplexed and distracted and disconnected, and more than that, it was damn beautiful.