by Ruairi White.
Ashley Cline’s "mercy! mercy! (how we survived the winter)" is a poem about letting go. In three stanzas, Cline takes us through a break-up that’s as gentle as it is devastating, juxtaposing tenderness and violent imagery to mirror the emotions of a relationship at breaking point. Dying moths and swarming mosquitoes bring a sense of claustrophobia to a sunny afternoon outdoors that perfectly conveys the dread and heartbreak of having that conversation.
The poem opens with two song lyrics which sum up the two parties in the relationship: the first is the chorus from Robyn’s "Call Your Girlfriend", a break-up song about doing the right thing by ending a relationship; the second is a shorter quote, from Cher’s "Bang Bang" - "My baby shot me down". The disconnect between these two lyrics—one communicating a bittersweet sense of duty, the other blunt heartbreak and betrayal—sets us up for the core conflict of the poem before it has even begun—"mercy! mercy!" isn’t just about the pain of not being ready to move on, it’s about the pain of knowing your partner already has.
Cline refers to the break-up as a "mercy killing", and this notion of mercy as a well-meaning but destructive act is the foundation of the poem. To the speaker, mercy would be allowing them to love in peace; their partner’s good intentions mean little to them when they’re suffering such a heartbreaking and bitterly one-sided loss. This comes through in every little detail of Cline’s writing, from the description of the girlfriend as an "opponent" as she holds the speaker’s hands, to the comparison of her supposed mercy to moths burning in flames. The poem ends with a much shorter third stanza, which drives the emotion home in a blunt final line. When it comes to raw vulnerability, "mercy! mercy!" pulls no punches.