Here’s Betsy with more poetry from The New Yorker. This time, she discusses Linda Kunhardt’s “Lola’s Secret Potion,” first published in the August 26, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. This poem is only available for subscribers. Click here for the abstract.


Linda Kunhardt’s “Lola’s Secret Potion” resists the reader. I found it difficult to feel part of it, partly because there seem to be at least two speakers, or perhaps two speakers and an old fashioned chorus. I feel disoriented by the weakened, over-used stock phrases, and the refrains puzzle rather than reassure. So I delve back in with a little hesitancy about what’s going on. For sure, Kunhardt is not in the business, in this poem at least, of wanting to win me over with how charming she is, or funny, or lovable, or deep, or musical, or any of the other things we often turn to poetry for. Instead, she’s confusing and oblique.

So I begin looking at how the poem proceeds, and how my own sense of it proceeds.

Apparently the very popular girl’s name “Lola” is derived from the Spanish “Dolores,” or sorrow, part of the title given in Spanish to the Virgin Mary, who is Our Lady of the Sorrows. There is much in this poem that is sorrowful; in particular, I note the refrain, “liquidate it.” I am reminded of drone strikes and villages and enemies.

That political note is echoed by the other repeated refrain, “That’s privileged information.” Twice, the speaker follows this with a name, first Owen and then Erin. It sounds a little like the President’s press secretary addressing a reporter, or even the president himself. It also sounds like a stuffy parent speaking to a brazen child.

The “secret” in Lola’s secret potion echoes the idea of privilege and entitled privacy. What troubles me is that secret potions are the province of childhood. I am not clear how childhood relates to press conferences and drone strikes. But perhaps that’s the point. Or that in order to deal with press conferences and drone strikes, one must summon up the magical thinking of childhood.

The third repetition has to do with the girl or woman, presumably Lola, who “crosses” one thing with another. I am reminded of double-cross and cross out, both of which relate to the drone strike idea and the idea of the truth being withheld, or crossed out. But I am also reminded of crossword puzzles, the puzzle part relating to information that can only be surmised or can only be a guess, privileged information. More “sorrows.”

There is also the association with the idea of crossing a lion with a tiger, something that feels like someone playing god. More sorrow. At the same time, crossing one kind of rice with another kind of rice to get more food for the world is generally thought to be a good idea. So I’m unclear about that. Gene crossing, generally, speaking, is somewhat the same, although it seems to be a natural event that is part of evolution.

The privileged information is mumbo-jumbo. This particular speaker can’t say when alpha and beta switch. I note that when the game Minecraft switched from alpha to beta it underwent a lot of profit, but since I don’t do video games, this connection doesn’t have any resonance for me. For some reason, it took me til now to associate “bait and switch” with the alpha and beta switch the poem mentions. There’s a pretentious note here, with alpha and beta feeling “scientific” and bait and switch being the description for a con man. Con game fits better into the whole idea of manipulation and cover-up that the whole poem seems to be pursuing.

About soft shell crabs re-inventing, I get the idea of molting, and being tender, before the new shell is formed. So reinvention here has to do with growing. But this speaker cannot tell you how that’s done.

And, he says he cannot tell which kind of dish-soaps he is using, because his government or his corporation won’t let him. Are his hands clean? — the poem is asking.

So, on the one hand, you have a guy whose hands are tied. And on the other hand, you have Lola, who is so creative, she cannot be stopped from crossing the most preposterous things: lint and moss; arabesques with yellow pages; box turtles with zero-coupon-bond aqueduct. One appears to be a poet, the other appears to be a politician. But is Lola creative or involved in hocus pocus? Hocus pocus would echo the cover-up idea.

The refrain, I’m sorry, matches with Dolores, sorrows, and our lady of sorrows. But in this case, the person speaking appears not to be expressing sorrow so much as expressing weakness or falseness.

So there is another contrast of power versus weakness, and one of truthfulness versus lying.

I am also interested in the way words in this poem appear to have devolved: Lola from our lady of sorrows, and I’m sorry, from being really sorry, to just being used as a sop, being used as some kind of weak filler. Mum’s the word and Have a nice day and X marks the spot fit into this general idea of overused, weakened language. The names Erin and Owen are also devolved, in that Erin used to stand for something much larger than just a person, and Owen is a signally Welsh name, not American.

What bothers me about this poem is that I think it is about a serious topic — the miss-use of political power. It feels to me like serious death is being swept under the rug, but I’m a bit adrift. I have to say I like my drone-strike murder served straight. Why would a poet want to confuse me on such a serious topic?

But on the other hand, the straight news has not gotten me off the couch and into the street, so maybe Kunhardt is right to try to rattle my cage with what looks at first like nonsense, a multitude of speakers, and a multitude of crossed conversations. After all, some press conferences sound like nonsense.

I really like the idea of cross-talk being part of what this poem might be doing.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this poem is someone in it is saying, I’m sorry, so and so. This sounds so dismissive, so condescending, so insincere. And perhaps that’s Kunhardt’s point precisely. After all, it’s not Kunhardt saying it. It’s a character saying it. Or perhaps it is Kunhardt talking — or Kuhardt remembering herself saying just this kind of thing.

When do we do this? When we speak to our children. When they ask us tough questions. When we think they can’t take the straight dope. When we don’t want to talk about things that are so painful we think we might faint if we tried to speak the words aloud.

So I guess she is asking: what is the privileged information we cannot say aloud?

And what is the privileged information the people with the power cannot say aloud?

What are the secrets and why must they be kept?

To a degree, she is asking, who is it that has the power? And who is it that is the child and who the adult; who can actually say the words so painful we think we might faint if we heard them said aloud?

So that’s what I think the poem is doing: cross-talk, lies, cover-up, obfuscation, being treated like a child, all in the service of covering up some death. Even the word liquidation, which has most been used to talk about liquidating inventory of a business going out of business, in this case it would be the liquidation of a people of a country going out of business. But I’m not at ease with where I am with it, perhaps because I don’t know Kunhardt’s work. Would love to hear from someone who can fill me in on Kunhardt or where I’ve gone astray here, or what I’ve missed.

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