Originally published in Willow Springs 72

From the author

Notes on “An Etiquette for Eyes”

“An Etiquette for Eyes” showcases a lot of ugly emotions, jealousy being at the forefront. The speaker is merciless in her appraisal of the beloved (who, for obvious reasons, has decided to move on), and stinging in her assessment of an innocent woman with whom he has shared a drink. The poem launches from that moment—the speaker appalled that this man she’s fancied has the nerve to drink a drink she bought him with another woman (who does not pose much of a threat). One can also infer that the speaker has purchased this drink as a means to purchase his attention.

The opening lines, along with the sense of the poem’s form in general, came to me in the first draft. I wanted the short lines and their disorienting breaks to hand the reader down through a series of what appear to be nonsensical connections, only to arrive at the bottom—which is very much a pit—and be faced with the present state of the speaker’s psyche. At which point, she launches into her ad hominem(feminem?) attack. Here, I aim for a humorous affect.

The rest of the poem follows a somewhat different trajectory. Anyone with brown eyes knows the drill. The majority of people the world over have brown eyes, yet there exists an insufferable number of people with “blue,” “green,” and “hazel” (groan) eyes who love to endlessly elaborate upon how changeable the colors, hues, and shades of their respective eyes vary with light, the colors they wear, etc. Being on the listening end of this species of self-appraisal can be pretty tedious when your own eyes can only be described as “brown.”

I wanted the eyes to wander all over the poem, hence the final big stanza in which the speaker’s eyes try very hard to make the beloved look back at her, to only then compare them to the eyes of the objectified milk-maids’ eyes that look away from the eyes that ogle their breasts. That was a weird moment to arrive at in writing the poem. For me, it reveals the speaker’s tantrum comes not just from disgust, but also from desperation and desire. She is not only trying to face her plainness, but celebrate it, to say what is special about her—and, ironically, to convince the object of her (hostile) affections to take her seriously.

In a sense, the poem is quite simple. It’s an argument for being ordinary, launched against an individual the speaker once regarded as extraordinary.


Notes on Reading

You are what you eat. My reading informs everything I write. I believe deeply that, through the act of writing, one takes part in the literary continuum. And that this engagement is holy.

“An Etiquette for Eyes” could not have arrived at its form without my having inventoried the poetry of Robyn Schiff, author of Worth and Revolver. The manner in which her line operates taught me enjambment can be worked like a slingshot. It’s my opinion that the muscularity and her sheer inventiveness with form make her one of the best poets writing today.


72-Marvin-AnEtiquetteforEyes72-Marvin-AnEtiquetteforEyes 2

About Cate Marvin

Cate Marvin’s third book of poems, Oracle, is forthcoming from Norton in 2014. She is Professor of Cate_Marvin_author_pic-243x366English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and co-directs VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.