Those blog ruminations helped me write a long poem called “Boris Godunov,” which has not much to do with the opera. I guess I was toying with composing some new version of the story, but as usual, the poem I actually wrote was about me. Inspiration, whatever else it is, can be detected again & again by how it causes plans to fail, be suspended, or change course. After reading Carrie Cutler’s devastatingly personal master’s thesis, I wanted to write something about how necessary it is that a reader keep his or her own experience & opinions away from a narrative like this: to be able to look & listen purely, receptively, without applying anything to one’s own life, without looking for lessons. Those will come; the point for us is just to take in. I had no idea how to say this in a poem. Then I awoke, the day after finishing the book, with the word “viscosity” in my head, & these lines came to me:
When handling this glass
sheathe the fingers.
Their oils’ viscosity
thickens your seeing
to their own planned tracks.
Mirrors are failed windows.
That’s about half the poem. I kept fiddling with it over the next few weeks, vaguely thinking something was wrong but not being able to decide what. At last I realized that the word “viscosity,” which had unlocked the poem to me in the first place, was the wrong word. I replaced it with “film” & the poem was finished. In Southern Buddhist scripture there’s the idea that Buddhism is a thorn you use to remove another thorn—once the thorn of attachment is out, there’s no more use for Buddhism. Throw it away, they say. (I’m surprised it took me so long to see what I needed to change, given that I’d been on a campaign against Latinate words in my poetry for almost ten years.)
Of course the sudden discovery of the happy word or phrase is often final too—& may be final despite any conscious judgement or decision. Toward the end of my poem “Stinger” the line occurs:
I live in the same light my legs walk through.
I think it’s one of my best lines. I have no idea what it means. None at all.
Sometimes the right thing to say is a false thing. In “Palette 25” I describe the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where I spent some time in the ’70s, & say that there was a
real chance of a rattler under your cot—
One or two guests had indeed experienced rattlesnakes getting into their cells, but the mattresses in the guest building were on shelves of shaped stucco protruding from the walls, there were no “cots.” I put the cot in because the poem’s pace didn’t warrant slowing down here to help the reader visualize the actual beds.
People assume that autobiographical poetry is nonfiction. It rarely is, or rarely completely. A good example (& an example of several points I’ve made above) is my poem “Stampede,” written in early 2010. I’d been seeing stories in supermarket tabloids of an elephant stampede in Africa that had become popular on YouTube. I thought I’d start with that & then suddenly shift gears, just out of perversity:
So I see the elephants got it together
for one last try to run us off the planet
and then we weren’t anywhere they thought we’d be.
What do they do? Stop charging
in some random place, and when the dust boils off
stare around at each other, still snuffing
and tossing heads?
It was the same thing,
the same, the morning she said she was leaving.
I wanted people to puzzle over how these two events could be “the same thing.” I’m not sure what the answer is, or what I thought it was at the time! Anyway, the poem switches to a morning in 1980.
I got the baby and sat on the couch
and sat the baby on my lap and stared at the t.v.
as she barged around collecting stuff to take.
He’d suck his right thumb and twine his hair
around the other hand. He’d suck the skin off that thumb.
I asked him later why he didn’t switch to the other
and he said “No! That’s my hair one.”
This much is accurate, though emotionally obscure. I was saying goodbye to my son, deeply anguished, but it sounds like I went ahead with my day & ignored what was happening with my wife. Already there’s a link with the beginning of the poem which I didn’t notice as I was writing: “What do [the elephants] do?”—as if the extraordinary occurrence of a stampede were a common thing, certain ritual behavior appropriate. The morning my wife left me had had the same orderly, silent, inevitable quality. Then, I make another sharp turn from the mild comedy of the most recent line to sudden violence:
My wife wanted to know where the iron was
and I only thought about slamming it into her head.
… But violence that never takes place (another echo of the stampede!). Actually it didn’t even take place in my head: I was writing a novel in 1983 about a character prone to violence, & I lifted this scene from my own life & added the purely fictional image of the iron. (My divorce did ultimately lead to violent fantasies, but not this first morning: everything was drowned in numbness.) The next lines return to autobiography:
Once they were gone the house was too still
even with the t.v. on. I went out and took a long walk
and walked past all the places we’d lived together.
Then suddenly, to my utter surprise, the poem did what I’d explicitly planned for it not to do, & reverted to the elephants:
It was a small enough territory,
ringed in by more and more humans.
I shouldn’t have been surprised: even at this writing I’m discovering more & more parallels between the beginning & the central part of the poem: but good poems (this one’s about a “B”) tend to have this quality of knowing what they want to say even when their author doesn’t. “It wrote itself.” Some other will than the poet’s seems to be involved—the Muse’s (though we hardly talk about her anymore) or the poem’s own. What actual sense does that make?
I do plan to expolore that question further, but maybe not for awhile … need to concentrate on writing poetry again.
[“To the Reader of Carrie’s Book” appears in The Dead Have Children & Wings of the Gray Moon: New and Selected Poems. “Stinger” is in Wings. “Palette 25” is in Ladder & Palette. “Stampede” is in The Burning & Wings.]