Laura Apol’s ‘The Switch’ is a witty poem which explores the tension between primal, and sometimes unforeseen, forces and the surfaces of civilized behaviour.
The poem is ‘about’ domestic electricity, both in terms of ‘laying wire’ and implicitly as having the kind of potency which can connect and divide people. We are in the territory of basic urges and dangers. I think the (surely not accidental) puns on ‘laying’ and ‘studs’ are risky in this regard, close to caricature. The ‘switch’ in the poem is also about more than supplying light to a room: partners and households are involved.
What the poem expresses in figurative terms it also achieves procedurally, switching back and forth between different narratives. This is witty, too, but it does not mask the poem’s core question, the prayer, provoked by love, for protection from random injury. There is tension between the tenderness of the poem’s tone (‘I kissed your smooth cheek in the morning’; ‘how I loved those fingers’) and the implicit need for someone, somewhere, to ‘pray [our] world right’, ‘smooth [our] life’ and love us ‘into safety’.
The culture we live in likes to argue that we are not in need of such security. Without the safety of easy guarantees or raising its voice, the poem persuades us that we are.
Someone loves the man who comes to my house
to lay wire. Someone loves the man who pours the concrete,
the one who tears up the shingles, the one who puts in
the studs. Someone loves the man who unrolls
the carpet. I know, because once
I kissed your smooth cheek in the morning
and watched you dress — denim shirt, jeans,
work boots, and a belt heavy with tools.
After you were gone I made coffee, made
the bed, made myself think of something —anything—
besides the heights where you worked, the hot wires
your fingers touched and how I loved those fingers,
the thick palms, the white crescents of your nails.
One day you threw a switch that almost killed you:
sparks, fire, burns that covered your hands and face.
It was before we met, but I saved the story,
took it out in the morning after you’d gone,
recited it like a rosary. I knew I could love you
into safety, pray your world right, smooth your life
like a bead between my fingers.
This morning I say the story again and wonder where you are,
which wires you are touching. Wonder who watches you dress,
who prays over your scars.
And wonder as I pour another cup of coffee just who loves
the man snaking wire from my attic to the basement.
I wonder who is praying for him as, right now,
he is throwing the switch.
Laura Apol, from Crossing the Ladder of the Sun (Michigan State University Press, 2004)