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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #5: Joan Swift's "The Line-Up"


Logline

In "The Line-Up," a woman confronts her attacker in a police line-up, only to also confront her own ideals of justice and forgiveness.


The Line-Up

Each prisoner is so sad in the glare

I want to be his mother

tell him the white light will go down

and he will sleep soon.


No need to turn under eyes

to shuffle poor soldiers boys


in a play

to wear numbers obey.


They have hands as limp as wet leaves

the long fingers of their lives

hanging. They cannot see

past the sharp edge nor hear me


breathe. O I would tell each one

he will wake small again


in some utterly new place!

Trees without bars sun a sweet juice


a green

field full of pardon.

The walls come in. I am

captured like him


locked in this world forever un-

able to say run


be free

I love you

having to accuse

and accuse.


Why This Poem

In “The Line-Up,” a woman observing a police line-up identifies the perpetrator of an unmentioned crime and laments that she and he are forever locked in this new demeaning relationship of accused and accuser in the name of justice. She regretfully acknowledges the toll it will take on her to live with this burden. [note: Author Joan Swift has discussed in interviews a specific crime perpetuated against her but she doesn’t name it in her poem so I won’t either. The reason she doesn’t specify it is because she wants the poem to be about the personal price of the process, not the details of the crime, which would be a salacious distraction.)


The poem explores the confusing and unsatisfying relationship between justice and forgiveness—and the stifling intimacy between predator and prey. Those are some pretty intense themes, which is why it’s so impressive that she is able to deliver such depth and insight in such a seemingly straight-forward poem.


I’ve been teaching this poem for 30 years and sometimes it surprises me that I do. It doesn’t have all the “poetic” bells and whistles that I usually look for that dazzle the writer in me. Yet, it has so much honest emotion balanced with intelligent insight that it dazzles the reader in me. The human in me. Oh, it has plenty of technique: the clever use of spacing to isolate phrases but in a smoother way then if she’d used hard punctuation like commas or dashes; the poignant line breaks that add an extra vibration to certain words.

In the end, it’s the narrator’s voice that gets you. It’s kind but not submissive. She projects a quiet strength, a dignified empathy, and a firm resolve to do what’s right for her society, even as she recognizes how it keeps her—and society—mired in muddy practicality that contradicts many religions, but specifically the ideals of forgiveness in Christianity. The battle between the kinds of people we want to be and who we sometimes have to be makes us akin to ostriches: birds with wings but unable to fly.


What This Poem Means to Me

Warning: Things are about to get personal. Not I-buried-a-body-in-the-neighbor’s-yard personal, but my-own-relationship-with-crime-and-criminals personal.

I was the victim of two major crimes in my life. I realize that the preferred term is “survivor,” but when I think about those crimes, I don’t feel like a survivor. Yet, I don’t think of them enough to say they have impacted my daily life significantly. In general, I’m happy and optimistic to a fault. I can recount those incidents right now and feel nothing. But on those rare occasions when the memory of either sneaks up on me, it punches me in the back of the head and sends me reeling.

The first crime was when I was about eleven. My parents allowed me to go to a local fair with the family friend, Bill, a married-with-child Air Force recruiter who worked in the office building next door to our family restaurant. He’d been coming into our store every day for coffee or lunch for several years. This was in a small town in Pennsylvania. The fair was in another small town a couple hundred miles away. Bill and I were driving up with a prop missile which was sure to bring the local teens over to hear his pitch. That night at the motel we were staying at, Bill made a very aggressive sexual pass at me which I rejected. He backed off and I lay awake the rest of the night in fear. The next morning I bolted for the telephone booth, called my parents, and explained what happened. I expected for them to drop everything and speed to get me like getaway drivers after a bank robbery. Instead, they told me to get away from Bill and find my way home. I was shocked and, looking back, I realize I felt more betrayed by them than I did by Bill. I didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket so I hitchhiked through the back country roads until I came to a town where I had enough money to get on bus and get myself home.

By the time I got to the restaurant, my parents had called the Air Force to complain and told me that the Air Force said they would immediately dismiss Bill from the service without his pension or, if I didn’t press charges, they would let him retire with his pension. “Well,” my dad asked, “what do you want to do?” I was eleven. I wanted them to do what was right, what was just. I wanted to be protected. In the end, I said they should let him retire with a pension. I didn’t want his wife and baby to suffer. I didn’t even want Bill to suffer. Whenever I think back on it, my anger is not so much at Bill, who acted out of compulsion, but at my parents, who acted out of negligence. Mostly, I’m pissed that this is how I’m forced to remember them even after their death. Having to “accuse and accuse” (the last lines of the poem).

The second major crime involves my son Max. He was nine and at a sleepover with our friend Yollie and her three children, the oldest of which was Max’s best friend, Tristan. It was Saturday and Yollie was supposed to join us with the children at the sand volleyball court where we played every week. [Background: Yollie was separated from her husband Terry who was also our friend. I had been best man at their wedding. Since Terry and Yollie’s separation, Terry had been acting erratically and I had spent less time with him. Yollie had a restraining order against him. My wife Loretta and I babysat their children at least once a week.]

We were waiting and waiting for Yollie and the kids to show up. When they didn’t, and she didn’t answer my phone calls, I decided to drive to her house. When I pulled onto her street, the road was blocked by police tape and police cars. When I saw the cops gathered around her house—and no sight of my son—I pulled my car onto someone’s lawn, jumped out and started franticly asking the cops about my son. One cop held me from going inside and said he couldn’t tell me anything yet and I dropped to the ground, unable to stand. Within a minute he heard that the kids were all fine and being questioned by police. But Yollie was dead, stabbed to death by Terry. Terry was still on the loose, he told me. Terry was later captured and is currently in prison.

Soon after Terry’s sentencing, I faced a dilemma. He wrote to me to apologize explaining he was bipolar, had been drinking and taking drugs, etc. He was clean now and accepted responsibility. Would I visit him. Part of me remembered me sobbing in relief when the police brought Max out to me at the crime scene. Part of me mourned for my friend Yollie. Part of me remembered that he and I were friends before either of us were married or had children. Did he deserve forgiveness? In the end, I decided I couldn’t visit him, but I would write to him. I did for a few years, sending him books and photos and trying to be supportive. But I never felt forgiving.

Then one day a few years later I was called in for jury duty. I made it to the courtroom, feeling bored and impatient but ready to take my civic medicine. When the judge asked me, as she’d asked all of us, if I had any experience in crime, I stared for a long moment, then started sobbing uncontrollably. WTF! I thought to myself even as it was happening. I was excused from jury duty and walked out of the court, sat on a bench, and tried to remember where my car was. I had no idea. I stopped writing to Terry.


So, this poem speaks to me in a personal way because of those crimes. And yet. It would do the poem a disservice to think it’s just about literal breaking-the-law crime. It also addresses the “crimes” we think people commit against us, especially those we love. Many of us spend our whole lives blaming others—parents, family, ex-lovers, childhood friends—for offenses, the result of which is we are attached to that parasitic hurt forever. The actual people themselves no longer exist in our mental courtroom, they are just a physical manifestation—a totem—to our pain that allows us to fetishize it. We nurture it into our personalities like a Greek chorus in our ears reminding us of our pitiable tragic past. In doing so, we are the criminals punishing ourselves.

We have a similar accusatory relationship with ourselves: we often loathe our younger selves, accusing them of making regrettable mistakes, moments of cruelty that we have to live with even though we are no longer that person. For many years I attended my high school reunions, flying 3,000 miles, just so I could apologize to people I knew I had hurt. The guilt at being a dick to certain people who didn’t deserve it had haunted me my whole life. Then when I spoke to them at the reunions, they often claimed they didn’t remember my transgression. Huh? Had I fetishized my minor offenses into something greater to create a Younger Self I couldn’t forgive? The horror, indeed.


All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem

Joan Swift (1926-2017) was a well-known regional poet from the Seattle area, though not widely known outside that area despite being published in many major magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships (1982, 1990, 1995), a writing grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1985), and a Writers Award from the Washington State Arts Commission (1989). Two of her books of poetry, The Dark Path of Our Names (1985) and The Tiger Iris (1999), received Washington State Governor's Awards. Her poems appear in many anthologies.


Line-by-Line Musings

About the rhyme scheme. This poem rarely seems to rhyme, yet it’s written in couplets until the last four lines, which use assonance and repetition. Swift rarely uses a hard rhyme, preferring near rhymes (“one”/”again”). The near rhyme gives the poem an eeriness that contrasts with the strict order of a police line-up. The effect is the undercut that order, maybe even deliberately undermine it by the narrator’s unexpected (and probably unwelcome by the police and the justice system) attitude of forgiveness.


The Line-Up (title)


Nothing fancy going on here. It’s a police line-up. It’s effectiveness is in its

contrast to the first line of the poem, which comes as a tonal surprise after

the stark title.


Each prisoner is so sad in the glare


The opening line completely shocks us because it is empathetic to the

accused, which is not what we expect after the cold matter-of-factness of the

title. I love how simple Swift’s word choice is here, as well as throughout the

poem. Part of the reason for the simplicity is to convey the drained state of

the narrator, too drained to be emotional. More resigned. Whatever damage

done to her, it has not changed her humanity. In that way there is a soft

defiance to her. We learn everything about her in this one line in which she’s

actually talking about someone else.

Another interesting aspect of this line is that each prisoner behaves the

same way as if interchangeable, regardless of their crime. She never

identifies the prisoner in the poem because the individual is less important

than the situation. Everyone in the room is equally damaged. This makes the

specific crimes less significant, shifting focus to the effect of the crime on the

criminal.


I want to be his mother


This line too is a shocker. Empathy is one thing, but wanting to be his mother

is a giant leap beyond in which she takes an active role is soothing the

prisoner. Her own attacker! [Technically, we don’t know for sure until the

ending that she is the accuser, but it’s pretty clear right away.]

tell him the white light will go down

and he will sleep soon.


I love her reference to “the white light” because it elevates the light from just

the actual light to some heavenly light of judgement that will forever shine

on this man.


When you add “the light will go down” to “he will sleep soon” the poem

suggests the sleep of death, which forgives us all our sins.

No need to turn under eyes

to shuffle poor soldiers boys

In these lines you see Swift’s technique of using spaces rather than

punctuation marks to isolate certain phrases like marshmallows floating in

hot chocolate. It’s not new with Swift (for example, James Dickey uses it a lot),

but she uses it to great effect here.

Notice how she creates this domino effect of morphing criminals into little

boys with each isolated phrase:

  • They “turn under eyes” which suggests both they lower their eyes in shame, but also that they turn to the left and right under the eyes that are watching them (cops and accuser).

  • The “shuffle,” a movement that indicates both guilt and possibly their movement being restricted.

  • They are now “poor soldiers,” in that they are following instructions—turning this way and that, lining up—but like children who play at being soldiers but do so badly. There’s some implied irony to the romanticized idea of criminals as “outlaws” who make their own rules and live free—but in reality just follow the same predictable pattern as any soldier.

Each word or phrase diminishes them further, stripping them of their menace, even their past deeds.


in a play

to wear numbers obey.


I like how she turns the bright lights and the men on the line-up stage into something as innocent as “boys in a play.” She elicits more sympathy by hitting the terms that most make people bristle: wearing numbers and blindly obeying.


There’s another aspect here: those who commit crimes take center stage over their victims. They are endlessly portrayed in books, TV, and movies, which to some extent romanticizes them. We fear them, which gives them center stage in our minds. Ted Bundy’s name will forever be famous, though the names of his victims will not.

They have hands as limp as wet leaves

the long fingers of their lives


hanging. They cannot see

past the sharp edge nor hear me


The hands “as limp as wet leaves” suggests their total surrender to and the hopelessness of their circumstances.


Notice how she has “hanging” on a separate line followed by a period (same technique she uses in the next stanza with “breathe”). This emphasizes that at the end of their lives is an execution by hanging. This is not literal but a symbolic statement that their lives will inevitably end in punishment for their deeds. But there is another meaning as well: that the criminal path they have chosen disconnects them from society, so that their lives hang without meaning or purpose.


“They cannot see” reaffirms this idea of them being separated by their deeds from the rest of society and the path to fulfillment and happiness it provides. The men in the line-up “cannot see” this distinction, they have already given up.


“past the sharp edge”: This is the edge of the stage where they stand, but also the sharp edge caused by the light on them. Past that edge, they cannot see.


“nor hear me”: I love how this line sets us up for an expectation. We assume they can’t hear her pick them out of the line-up, or weep, or accuse. But when we get to the next line, the word “breathe” hits us and we have to reconfigure our expectations. She doesn’t feel at all what we expect her to feel.


Also, echoing in this phrase is the idea that the perpetrator never heard her before, during the criminal act. Not hearing her then indicates that she was not a person to him, just an object. This has wider implications about women not having a voice, which I address at the end of the poem.

breathe. O I would tell each one

he will wake small again


The use of “O” here rather than the more common “Oh” may suggest the way O is used in religious writings such as gospel songs (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Matthew 23:37). That would go along with her desire to forgive them, to wish them to be “small” (innocent) again.

(personal note: Since having children, I have found that when I start to really get annoyed or even feel hatred toward someone, I try to imagine them as small children in a happy moment. This allows me to at least wipe away the slate and give them another chance. This technique has kept me calmer and made me kinder.)

in some utterly new place!

Trees without bars sun a sweet juice


a green

field full of pardon.


Continuing the religious motif, she describes in these lines a paradise—a field full of pardon. Everyone can start over, regardless of their past deeds.


This reminds me of two other works that I think of often. Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Pardon,” in which the narrator regrets his callous youth and indifference to his dead dog and cruelty toward those who were different (“I could not forgive the sad or strange in man or beast.”) But now, older and nearer to death, he hopes “the past is never past redeeming.” One of my favorite lines of poetry.

The other work is Paul Simon’s song, “Graceland,” in which the narrator travels with his son to visit Elvis Presley’s Graceland home and hopes that the trip will be a sort of redemption for him and his relationship with his child after his divorce: “But I've reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland.”

The walls come in. I am

captured like him


locked in this world forever un-

able to say run


This is the kick-in-the stomach part in which she reveals that she is forever locked up in this mortal world—not the paradise world she imagines in which she could forgive him, and thereby be free herself.

“un’”: Yeah, you’re probably wondering if the author was so desperate to rhyme with “run” that she just snapped “unable” in half. More likely she uses the word to describe herself, locked in, as “un-“: something that exists in the negative, defined by her role as accuser to someone else. Not the thing itself, but the “un” thing. The extra spacing she uses before and by placing it at the end of the line, as if it’s teetering on an invisible cliff, is a visual representation of her locked away, isolated from the whole self she was before this incident.


be free

I love you


Who is she talking about, herself or the criminal? I think both. They are now locked together like prisoners on a chain gang. She can’t say “run/be free/I Iove you” to him or to herself.


having to accuse

and accuse.


The repetition of “accuse and accuse” is a depressing surrender to her new and unwanted role as accuser, unable to be the forgiver. To cut the umbilical cord that forever binds them (remember that line “I want to be his mother”?). Again, this acknowledges the stark difference between the ideal of forgiveness and the social responsibility of accuser.

Add to that the idea that the victim must forever wonder about other men that she will meet, unconsciously or consciously accusing them before the act. Just to protect herself.

Of course, the poem can also be a commentary on being a woman in our society. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly: the endless parade of sexual predators. The 2020 presidential election is between two men who have been credibly accused of unwanted sexual contact. How is this a reasonable choice for anyone, but especially women? We all are locked in a situation of having to accuse and accuse.

So, the poem sets up several layers:

  • The literal in which the accused is forever tethered to the perpetrator.

  • The symbolic in which we spend our lives imprisoned by the hurts perpetuated against us in the past, especially childhood when we were most vulnerable and in need of protection.

  • Our judgmental relationship with our Younger Selves, trying to forgive ourselves the trespasses of our past.

  • The social analogy in which women are forced to accuse men in a society that doesn’t want to hear those accusations. #MeToo has made people more aware, but it hasn’t stopped the entitled behavior.

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