Caki Wilkinson on “Third Standoff”

Third Standoff

     The Headset Voice vs. Wynona

So you wanted rum with bossa nova, not
a snare drum, not your uncle's chilidogs;
wanted a big job, big deal, big ideas,
a title worth its tonnage on the tongue;
you wanted win-win worry, legs for days,
less box fan, much more circulation—fine.
Want all you want, it doesn't change a thing
about your perm, how even as we speak
your waves engage another decade, poofed
from haze and rain like platinum cotton candy;
it doesn't change a thing about the rain,
the pistol in your brother's glove compartment,
and how you never would've voted gauche
the theme of this, your thirty-somethingth birthday.
Your cousin JJ's staring at your chest.
You're wearing your old Lady Raiders shorts,
and all the first-team trophies time can hold
won't make you love the game the way you did
those first long summers when you played with ghosts
and won. Do-over is the single wish
most candles can attest to, but it's best
to lighten up. You really shouldn't screen
your calls by saying "I'm afraid she's dead."
Your not enough is someone else's much
too much, and celebrations aren't exempt
from dread. So have an icing rose and know
the swollen note too heavy for your throat
may well be hope, whose gaudiest disguise
is pride, and you can choke it down from here
to kingdom come, or you can muster up
the gracious face it takes to see the worst
has yet to be conceived—the running sum
of what's gone wrong and going wrong is just
a twinkle in the eye of everything.

On "Third Standoff"

"Third Standoff," which appears near the end of The Wynona Stone Poems, is the last of the "Standoffs" between various people in Wynona's life. First, she tries and fails to confront her boss, Lois; later a horde of Wynona's former lovers takes on her latest squeeze, the Channel 5 weatherman. But "Third Standoff" is unique in that it addresses Wynona directly. The speaker, and Wynona's opponent, is "the headset voice," part character and part sensibility, a voice in Wynona's head that suggests both the radioed demands of a higher-up and the way your own voice sounds when your plug your ears or have a cold.

The poem started with an image—Wynona in the backyard, frizzy-headed and regretful, wearing her high school basketball shorts (which, thanks to the miracle of nylon mesh, look good as new)—and grew around it, with the final version pitting Wynona against her invisible opponent while a crowd of relatives tries their best to throw her a birthday party. Camped out by the crusty grill, Uncle Stone blisters hotdogs and ladles chili. Cousin JJ can't quit looking at Wynona's boobs, her brother's in trouble again, and just outside the frame some drunk or slow-witted guest of guests dolefully beats a snare drum. Wynona's disappointed, but can we blame her? She imagined a more exotic celebration. She imagined more in general.

The headset voice, however, doesn't have much patience for Wynona's moping. Whether it's pride or hope that's keeping her from feeling grateful, she'd better swallow it because—depending on how you read the ending—either her list of worries won't matter a bit in the grand scheme or, more troubling, she has no idea how bad things will get once "the worst" rears its ugly head. There's a paradox at the center of this standoff: the headset voice wants to knock some sense into Wynona, whose mind is always somewhere else, but as long as Wynona listens to the headset voice she can't be where she is. She fidgets and tries to clear her throat, and the party carries on around her. It's hard to say who the winner is. 




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