From the title through to the last line, Ken Babstock’s poem “Expiry Date” from his 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Airstream Land Yacht deals in and contemplates the challenges of language that conveys multiple meanings. When words offer double entendres and more, do they distract the receiver of those words (the listener, the reader), do they confuse the message … or do words rich in meanings deepen possibilities for humour, for exploration, for even insight?
The poem’s narrator starts off the innuendo by pitching a few to us underhand: yes, we know the type of surrender the “YIELD” signs could connote, and yeah sure, Downtown Rugs … ha ha. We’ll let you take a second to google “oubliette” … and again, if the poet is setting out to depict a mind obsessed with things “a little lewd”, we can figure where
things are headed.
Isn’t it interesting that the lascivious narrator also notices a nearby word for a fish while looking up definitions in the COD, which is both the Concise Oxford Dictionary and – surprise – another kind of fish. (Why does it seem likely that this narrator could also find something salacious with the phrase “cash on delivery”, too?) OK, getting cold-shower-worthy aroused about the number 690,000 is getting kind of over top, don’t you think?
“when Merrill said to Jackson, this ought to be fun!”
and then the poem segues to the panting “yes! yes!” of a Ouija board, an explanation for the narrator’s agitated state is imminent. Merrill and Jackson are the poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson, who conducted Ouija board-facilitated Paris Review-style interviews with an intriguing cast of literary and cultural figures. Read about their otherworldly adventures with a “host of distinguished shades” here. In that account, it’s Jackson’s observation about what those shades talked about that perhaps provides the clue to the identity of this poem’s narrator:
“A lot of their talk gave us pause—so much militant sexuality. I suppose I took comfort recalling that in the Tibetan Book of the Dead souls who haven’t attained Nirvana may be beset by visions of copulating figures; these are thought to attend the soul’s next incarnation ici-bas.”
Is the narrator one of Merrill and Jackson’s subjects? The poem’s title just might close the case.