Diane Lockward

The Ten Thousand Things

“A person can hold seven items in the mind at once.”

I think (one) to write about these seven things
my mind can hold: (two) a slice of cold Mutsu,
the quick spurt (three) of tart-sweet juice,
(four) the thought of taste budding on my tongue’s
nubbly surface (five), to seek to find the certain
word for fruit dissolving in the mouth,
or something (six) not apple, like the truth,
or sunlight pouring amber (seven) through a curtain.
By the time I come to know of these, they’re gone;
but words they spawn wing through my mind, following
the leader over the edge of moment like wild geese:
one sea, its drops—one field, a million spikes of grass—
a sky of unseen stars are jumbled in the time
this poem took to write: what flocks, what birds, have flown?

—Ann Silsbee, from
Orioling, Red Hen Press 2003

Ann Silsbee’s "The Ten Thousand Things"

he Ten Thousand Things” appears in Ann Silsbee’s first full-length collection, Orioling, winner of the 2001 Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press. The poem previously appeared in Sparrow, and, subsequent to the book’s publication, was featured on Poetry Daily. Unfortunately, due to the untimely death of the poet just weeks after the book’s publication in August 2003, and in spite of favorable reviews in Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Potomac Review, and The Comstock Review, neither the book nor this especially fine sonnet has received adequate critical attention.

     The reader’s interest in the poem is immediately engaged by its title, an allusion to the teachings of Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage (4th century B.C., 360?-268). According to Chuang Tzu, “If we see that which is the same in all things, then the ten thousand things are one.” This idea of unity is reiterated in the epigraph: “A person can hold seven items in the mind at once.” Silsbee gives no attribution for this quotation, but it is a common belief that the average person is able to carry seven items at one time in short-term memory.
The iambic foot dominates, but Silsbee, a composer and pianist, has the musician’s ear for counterpoint.
Already Silsbee has set us up for a lively interplay of ideas—the unity of All Things at all times in Nature and the more limited balancing of Seven Items at one time in the mind of an individual. Once into the poem Silsbee considers how the mind of a poet juggles seven items and brings them into harmony in one poem while, at the same time, the outside world goes on about its complicated but harmonious business. Silsbee does more, however, than merely consider this creative process; she demonstrates it by listing seven representative items and turning them into one remarkably unified poem.

     Such ideas seem ideally suited to the sonnet with its certain number of lines and syllables. The kind of sonnet this is resists easy identification. The first eight lines lead us to expect an Envelope or Hybrid sonnet with the abba cddc rhyme pattern. But then the rhyme scheme falls away in the remaining six lines. A turn occurs at line 9, suggesting the Petrarchan sonnet with its two-part division into octave and sestet. The octave lists the seven items the poet holds in her mind; the sestet speculates on what the mind does with the seven items and what is going on beyond the mind. While this arrangement of setup and follow-up is characteristic of the Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme simply does not conform. Nor do we have the traditional sonnet’s iambic pentameter. The iambic foot dominates, but Silsbee, a composer and pianist, has the musician’s ear for counterpoint. The first two lines scan as perfect iambic pentameter, but only if the numbers in parenthesis are disregarded; the last three lines scan as perfect iambic hexameter. The lines in between vary in the number of syllables and pattern of stresses. It seems, then, that Silsbee has given us a 14-line stanza with variable rhyme pattern and meter, i.e., a nonce sonnet, here a delightful combination of tradition and variation.

     Another virtue of this poem is its use of musical devices. Silsbee employs a variety of rhyming devices at line ends, e.g., the perfect feminine rhyme of certain and curtain and the more subtle near rhymes of mouth and truth, geese and grass. Especially admirable is her use of assonance at line ends: Mutsu, juice, and truth—as well as her use of consonance at line ends: things, Mutsu, juice, and tongue’s. We also find assonance scattered throughout the poem; in the sestet alone we have time, mind, like, wild, spikes, sky, write. Likewise, we find consonance throughout the poem. Note the t sounds in just lines 3 and 4: spurt, tart-sweet, thought, taste, tongue’s. Consider, too, the alliteration of f sounds in the sestet: following, field, flocks, flown. Silsbee also knows the rhythmic force of the monosyllabic word and line. Only two words are trisyllabic, twenty-three are disyllabic, and the remaining one hundred and four are monosyllabic.

     Finally, we must admire Silsbee’s dexterous handling of syntax. The octave comprises one sentence which contains a colon, a list of items in a series, and seven parenthetical insertions. The sestet also comprises one sentence, this one including two colons, one semi-colon, two dashes, and, as in the octave, items in a series separated by commas—all culminating in a rhetorical question. By moving from the octave’s declarative sentence to the sestet’s rhetorical question, Silsbee reminds us that the world Chuang Tzu spoke of so many years ago is still both orderly and astonishing.


Diane Lockward’s collection, Eve’s Red Dress, was published by Wind Publications in 2003. A second collection, What Feeds Us, is forthcoming from Wind in 2006. Recent work appears in Poet Lore, North American Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as in the anthologies Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times. Diane works as a poet-in-the schools for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Visit Diane Lockward's website.


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