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Water As The Symbol Of The Loss Of Innocence And The Flow Of Life In John Reibentanz’s What Just Was

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In John Reibentanz’s What Just Was, he not only paints a picture of a scene of two children going from one stage of life into the next, but makes something of that scene. In what appears to be a simple poem about walking to school with a friend as children, Reibetanz tells a whole other story through an underlying tone, which he uses imagery and themes to create. As the poem progresses, it takes a turn from an innocent walk to a story of sexual awakening and the erasure of innocence, with a tone that is harsh and shameful. In this essay, I will engage with the ways in which Reibetanz explores the theme of the loss of innocence and the flow of life as an analogy to water using imagery, tone, mood, and syntax.

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John Reibetanz is recalling a moment in his childhood that seems to have gone awry, and which altered whatever innocence he had left, and arose a sense of sexual awakening within him. The moody choice of words are often juxtaposed together with seemingly bright subjects, which ultimately creates a unique mysterious speaking voice within the poem. Throughout the first half of the poem, Reibetanz is establishing the scene of him and his friend Michaela walking to school together as children. The poem opens with death and how close he and Michaela came to it. He begins with imagery of the journey to school, by describing it as a place where “darkness welled and clotted”. With these words, Reibetanz foreshadows the possibility that there is more to go wrong. The gloomy tone at the beginning of the piece allows Reibetanz to set the stage to describe an instance where him and his childhood friend Michaela used to run “where the road ran through the cemetery”. It is common amongst children to be afraid of cemeteries, and to run from them. Despite the gloomy tone and sense of foreboding that Reibetanz elicits, we are reminded of the childish innocence of the two children. As the poem progresses, it is the innocence and natural curiosity of the children that, bolstered by the “high sun”, is able to break “the spell”. The tone of gloom continues with their walk to school through the “shuddering of branches”. The reader feels a sense of anxiety, as it is made clear through the personification of the branches that even nature is aware of the events that are about to occur. Then, by saying “the road caved in to rooted gloom”, the feeling of anticipation is heightened. Reibetanz is describing the afternoon weather, and says, “the leaves still buds letting light flood through”. This is a use of light imagery; he only uses it twice, and both times, it functions to illuminate the innocence and curiosity of the children. First the “high sun broke the spell”, allowing them to venture further into the unknown. Then, the light floods through the young leaves, which are still ‘buds’ like the children are, and this is what enables them to feel bolder. It appears Reibetanz is using light in specific ways to cut through the gloom both within, and around the children. As their desire to explore unfolds, they are able to ignore or forget the “downward pull” of the “something … seething with a will to extinguish” and they break their “spell”.

As the poem flows into its second part, it unfolds the underlying tones discovered earlier, and uncovers themes of shame, and awkwardness, while the tone stays harsh and gloomy. The theme of innocence is phased out, and a new theme of water representing life is introduced. The poem begins with death, leads into foreboding and the feeling that something dangerous and scary is going to happen. Then, there is light which allows us to break through the gloom/fear and venture further into the unknown. Reibetanz describes his first thought of what he saw in the river as “what looked like fat minnows”. This is the last the reader sees any sign of innocence in the children, because this is when they realize they are looking at condoms. Once this happens, the tone of the poem changes somewhat abruptly from describing the scene around them, to what begins to take place within them. They are no longer grappling with the shadows and darkness of their surroundings, but the “shame” and the “awkward sense” of their own “dark parts”. This can be perceived as a biblical analogy as well because it is making the reader think of the shame of Adam and Eve when they gave in to curiosity and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The condoms are described moving: “bobbed and swayed riding the current”. It’s as if the condoms are going with the flow of water, which is a metaphor for life itself. Just as life ebbs and flows like waves, these children are in a new stage of their lives, which they will have to learn to accept, because a wave cannot stop riding a current. Any sign of innocence instantly departs in the speaking voice. The realization that the objects were condoms awoke a sense of sexual curiosity and arousal, “a pulse. . . strong enough to carry us clear out of childhood”. This brings us back to things not being what they seem. “Pulse” serves as a euphemism for sexual arousal; Reibetanz and possibly Michaela were excited and curious with the sight of the condoms, as it invoked a sexual awakening for them.

Using the euphemism makes the tone of the words seem light, until the underlying darkness is uncovered, one of awakening and understanding. By using the syntax ‘carrying’, the image of water comes into the reader’s mind; water carrying the children to their next stage of life. This re-introduces the concept that life is like water. Some things are unavoidable, like the sexual understanding awakened within Reibetanz and Michaela that day. By using moody words juxtaposed together with what seem to be bright subjects, the poem entails a unique and mysterious speaking voice. Reibetanz recalls an awry time in his childhood which resulted in a sexual awakening and erasure of innocence. The first part of the poem explores what is happening around Reibetanz and Michaela. The tone is gloomy and there is a suspenseful mood, the feeling that something is about to go wrong any moment. The theme of innocence is introduced through the children, and imagery of light in correlation to the children exploring their desires.

Throughout the poem, Reibetanz gives us a sense that there is something dark underneath, and that this darkness pulls the children down further along the path, and the light allows them to shed their fears and go even further to where they may not otherwise have gone. The second part of the poem is about what lies underneath, and rather than exploring what is happening around the children, it about what is happening within them. The theme of innocence is phased out and a new theme of water as a metaphor to life is introduced. Once the darkness of their surrounding becomes a part of them, it is almost as if they become more comfortable with the darkness and the “obscenity”. Their curiosity wins over and they “bowed” to it every afternoon in “innocent homage”. Many readers will find in this poem a means to reflect on the ways in which they too may have stopped on a metaphorical bridge on their way to growing up.

15 July 2020

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