Over the past week, I’ve been thinking to myself, “I should write a poem. That would be a super nice thing to do for myself.” When the stress of writing study guides and exams for my students worked its way into my chest and started squeezing my lungs, I’d think, “Write a poem, fool! It’ll help you breathe!” Still, like any good sabotager, I’d yell back, “NO! Must finish this study guide! Must unload the dishwasher! Must dust the clematis blooms out front with Sevin dust!”
This morning as I was sitting at my kitchen table with my journal in front of me, the thought came back to me, and I finally let go to that voice and wrote a poem. It’s amazing how wonderful it feels to let go, but how often I struggle against doing just that.
I was in a myth kind of mood, and Apollo jumped easily to my mind, so I looked him up. Scrolling through his background story, I got focused on a picture of his statue, and there arose the poem idea: a god that lords over stone (Hephaestus/Vulcan is really the god of stone/masonry, but who’s counting?).
“To be a god of stone is to remember
hunger and desire lie in what moves,
& nothing moves in a stone body.”
The rest of the poem focuses on what a god of stone would know and understand vs. what he would miss (touch, movement, seeing in color). It’s sort of a weird hodgepodge of details at the moment, but it has enough potential to be reworked into something a bit more fun. I’ll say too that I’ve been able to breathe a little better since I wrote it!
The summer is nearly here, folks. Let us all be kind to ourselves during it!
The night you don’t come home,
the crows in our elm jilt
their brood. I hear their young
shriek until their tongues must be calloused.
I dream I climb the tree, rub my hands
raw, never reach their nest.
In the morning, they are quiet. I find a chick
crushed—an ashen heap, its mouth
a wound. The cat musses it, liking the way
its neck moves. I would need to see its entrails,
see the way its wings tried to lighten its body,
to understand your leaving. The omen is in its
sinking. Your sisters can point at the divine
pattern of freckles on my thigh,
the tattoo of your ship’s hull behind my ear.
They know I desire the edgeless
darkness, of being the one that leaps
to find the one that left.
-From Issue 78 of CutBank
The Swamp Wife
She cleans a bullfrog of its eyes, works the legs
until the muscle surrenders. She tells it love
is knowing the other’s breaking point.
The gypsy moths don’t know: they strip
the spruces and pines, kill them naked.
She knows love is about avoiding. She lets
her husband roost in a ditch of booze piss.
The last time they talked, he told her he dreamed
his mouth kept filling with tears.
She doesn’t know if it was a bear that ate
the breath behind her ribs last night, if it was
a coon that looked like just scalp and spine.
She sets up her bed by the light of the star-
lepered sky, marks the gators lullabying the banks.
-Appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Sou’Wester
“Wife” poems are beginning to be a pattern for me. In my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue, I’ve got “The Salt Miner’s Wife,” “The Tanner’s Wife,” and “The Child-Eater’s Wife.” On top of that, I have eight poems outside of those that deal specifically with husband/wife relationships.
I attended a reading by Audrey Niffenegger a couple years ago, and she talked a little about her novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. She said she had come up with the title first, and she was attracted to it because it not only indicated an occupation, but a relationship. That has always stuck with me, and I’ve found myself doing the same thing, thinking of an occupation or hobby, and then wondering what it would be like to be married to that person.
I got married last year, and I was and am still struck by how different it felt for me to be married. I had thought nothing would change. My husband and I had dated for two and a half years, and lived together for a year before we got married. I thought a wedding would be a lot of paperwork and fuss, but marriage wouldn’t intrinsically change the relationship we already had. But for me, it did. The best way I can explain it is it was as if something was sealed. I think some of these poems, while very different than the relationship I have, are about exploring my ideas of marriage against society’s ideas of marriage (divorce, role of women in marriage, til death do you part, etc.).
This poem arose out of a lot of discombobulated images and reading some of Karen Russell’s gorgeous Swamplandia.
“She cleans a bullfrog of its eyes, works the legs
until the muscle surrenders. She tells it love
is knowing the other’s breaking point.”
The rest of the poem focuses on the regular activities of this Swamp Wife against the inaction of her alcoholic Swamp Husband. I have a clear beginning and end at the moment, but the middle still feels incomplete, so I’ll be thinking on this one some more.
I’m hoping writing this poem also means I’ll be able to get back into my old “at least one poem a week” routine. We’ll see!
Looking back through my entries, I realized I hadn’t written a poem since February 22nd. What an awful shame that nothing breathed through me the entire month of March (though I did rattle off a good 12 pages of CNF right after my surgery, but CNF just isn’t like poetry…). AWP and my surgery and then recovery and then going back to work have all been culprits, but I’m so glad today to say that the hiatus is, just for today, over.
This week, writing has come in stops and starts. I’d start writing something and then “tumor” would swoop into the poem and I’d have no idea where to go from there. On Tuesday, I was writing a poem about two people kissing in a shed when suddenly the line, “your radiologist points out your ovary,/the size of your fist” appeared on the page. Way to kill the romance, huh? I don’t know quite how to deal with those invasions yet, so I’ll just try to let them happen, but this week, they kept stopping my pen.
Today, I came home from teaching, sat myself down, and returned to the myths that I was reading religiously in February. I looked up the myth of Hyacinthus (a youth Apollo loved that gets turned into a tree) that I wanted to write about before this hiatus, but I discovered a better myth to write about. The myth of Hyacinth is about a father who sacrifices his daughters on the tomb of a Cyclops to help his city. That was enough for me, though I did some tweaks since it just sounded better if the Cyclops ate the girls.
“Strange to see a monster’s teeth
dripping with your child’s blood.”
As of now, the poem is in five long stanzas, and each one explores the father’s relationship with the daughter that is about to be eaten or has been eaten, or the father’s own exploration into the nature of “sacrifice.” In some myths, the maiden is replaced by a deer or whisked away by a god, and the father has real grief that his girls aren’t being saved. The poem is a bit of a mess. My writing muscles felt flabby, so it was taking longer to get things going and stay on one train of thought. Now that the hard rush of a draft is through, I can step away and come back to it with a better eye (and hopefully, a more worked writing muscle).
How wonderful to be writing poetry again! How are you all holding up under the strain of April?
In honor of Adrienne Rich’s very recent passing, I started reading her collection of essays titled On Lies, Secrets and Silence, which happened to be on my MFA Comps Reading List. When my thesis adviser asked me if I had in mind any questions I wanted to be asked, I suggested something about being a woman writing in a masculine tradition. I write a lot of violent narrative poetry, and my female predecessors are limited to poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich. My poetry itself really follows more the veins of work by Frost (such as “Out, Out–“) and James Dickey (though I was writing this way way before I ever read them).
In her essay titled “Anne Sexton: 1928-1974,” Rich writes, “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” Women destroy themselves through “self-trivialization, contempt for women, misplaced compassion, addiction.” “Self-trivialization”=not taking ourselves or our work seriously enough. Producing work that imitates that of men. Not seeking opportunities for ourselves that we would push others to do. “Contempt for women”=mistrusting other women. Believing women’s desires are secondary to those of men. “Misplaced compassion”=the example she gives is feeling sorry for the rapist instead of the woman who was raped. “Addiction”= addiction to “selfless, sacrificial love,” addiction to depression, drugs, or alcohol, addiction to male approval.
I applied Rich’s idea of women’s self-destructive attitudes to my own work, particularly my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue. One of my most violent poems is directed at the speaker’s mother. In many of my poems that deal with or mention mothers, the mother is absent (emotionally or physically), neglectful, and/or violent. Many of my female characters are passive, constrained by their relationships and their desires, paralyzed in inaction. Two poems that deal with molestation and rape are told from the perspective of the man. In one case, rather sympathetically.
As a “woman poet,” how do I navigate these strong veins of “self destruction”? In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Rich writes of her struggles with finding her own voice and identity as a “woman writer,” while also trying to carry the load of a normal “woman” (taking care of a house and three children). For her, it was a journey. I’m surprised that my work in this manuscript fits so neatly into her ideas of women only being able to be violent against themselves. I’m encouraged, though, by the fact that much of this work is old, that a lot of my newer work doesn’t play into these same ideas of violence between and against women. My awareness of this now also encourages me to keep looking at the models I turn to for inspiration. Are they propagating messages I don’t want to appear in my own writing?
Rich says, “Every woman who writes is a survivor.” The female characters in Predator’s Tongue, despite being mostly passive, are survivors. The quote for my last section is “What matters is what’s left of us,” implying an evolution from trauma to a newly created wholeness.
How does your gender work in your own writing? Does it have a place or is it more subversive? If you’re a woman, do you relate to or rebel against Rich’s ideas of women’s self-destruction?