Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
251
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
1083
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
251
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
No
and I will stamp
No

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.

A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.
Democritus

The path up and down is one and the same.
Heraclitus

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.
Anaxagoras

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.
Democritus

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.


She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

Drive Words Poetry Exercise

This writing exercise comes from Thirteen Ways Of Looking For A Poem by Wendy Bishop.

First, list four or five words for each of the following categories:

Flowers or plants
Metals
Animals
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
Colors
Scents

List quickly. Don’t overthink. Then circle five words. Those are your drive words. Now, go to a poem you like and circle five words that seem to resonate with the poet. When I choose drive words from a poem, I look for repetends, strong verbs and imagery.

Write five couplets. Each couplet must contain two drive words, one from your list and one from the other poet’s list. You are going to write a poem you wouldn’t otherwise write. Have fun. Putz around or rip through the couplets.

Like most poetry writing exercises, this doesn’t yield a finished poem. Instead, you’ll find an unexpected place to start with a new image or phrase or narrative.


I assigned this exercise to my creative writing classes last week. It’s an easy prompt to start but difficult to finish because we ask too much of our writing exercises. We don’t want any of the lines to land with a thunk. We want the right phrase on the first try. And exercises like this might take multiple attempts before we manage a so-so finish, which can feel like a waste of time but isn’t a waste at all if your writing expectation is to enjoy putting words on paper.

As an aside, I haven’t posted anything here for a month because we’ve been getting school off the ground, jumping into and out of our weekday routine (a week off for Eid, after two short weeks of school; a three day weekend for Islamic New Year), and I’ve been consumed with writing a bio for our job search (maybe more on the bio later as the process mirrored my seniors’ college application essay writing), and now I finally have a poem to post here and my kids are squabbling from top bunk to bottom bunk about feet and flashlights. So every bit that you just read was interrupted like ninety times. But I’m not quitting. Give me credit for not quitting yet.

Seven or eight notebook pages, mostly crossed-out lines and couplets. My drive words: weeds, silver, hip, field, please. From Wendy Bishop’s “Your Apple Tree”: link, crack, empty, fuel, unwilling.

From the first try, I wrote about my tight hip, an old injury that is healing, slowly. I wanted to write about the year I first noticed my muscles pulling my gait to one side, the sense something was wearing out but I didn’t want to stop long enough to heal because I had to keep running. I’d go out and run and run and run. I still do this, without good reason. Only that when I run, I calm.

But as I wrote through several drafts, I wasn’t sure I’d get to say everything I wanted to say while adhering to the rules. I left the exercise unfinished for a few days. Today I followed the rules.

Of This Hurt

When my hip cracks I see silver go white
I catch my breath, say what I say

when I pray Please […] Amen
This injury links hurt the length of

me: foot ankle shin knee hip neck/
pull strain swell pop break. I empty

my body. For years, unable (unwilling)
to see my heart, I ran a grid of fields –

corn, soybean, weeds – on a fuel of
restless anger. I think that is the cradle

The Right Light To See

Another go at a favorite writing exercise, Twenty Little Poetry Projects. Go here to see the exercise in full. I made passes at this exercise for years before I finished all twenty projects. The trick is to lower the stakes. Tell yourself you’re going to have fun. And decide that you’re going to finish the exercise. That means your notebook will look sloppy with crossed-out lines and arrows ordering the parts. Having fun and finishing the exercise means you’ll be surprised by an image or line you’ll want to reuse. Shake your limbs out and run around the yard, pen in hand.

The Right Light To See

My daughter and son are this poem
He is written with invisible ink
She is indenting pencil, erased
margin to margin. The right light
will show me my children

Claire Juliana and Grant Nael stand at the hot window,
surveying Mahboula, and tell me there’s a water truck and
it’s dusty out
I clear my head on dusty days,
take sips of inside air,
stand in the middle of rooms
like I forgot why

When she tells him, Spawn a horse,
he taps the screen three times
When she tells him, Stop exploding my palace,
he taps the screen three times

I say, Go get dressed
My son says, I have a plan in my mind
and it’s about Lego
I say, Okay. Go get dressed
(One day, the plan in his mind
will build a city. One day,
the plan in his mind will take
flesh on its bones, stand and run)
I call, Are you dressed?
He calls, Wulla
I call, We don’t say that

I hold my daughter as long as she lets
She grows taller than me,
in our minute embrace, she grows
stronger than me. I can feel
the day she goes
I cannot feel the day she goes
The long sigh of love is
the top of her head
under my chin
The wall whispers to let go
She runs down the hall,
finds her brother building a
red brick firetruck. She yells,
Holy moley!

If we don’t move, we will remain in this day
Dear holds her breath, stands so still she leaps

This desert is the house of my motherhood,
the green lawn of their childhood and I am a tree,
grown improbably, cracking asphalt for want of
sun and rain, and my children sit in my shade,
though they might cast long equatorial shadows
too, when the earth tilts

We go out into bright dust

I should write all of this down, I think:

From my son’s mouth
trucks accelerate, cars crash

At my daughter’s hairline
a salty kiss

In from outside
dirty palms, dirty feet

Out of the bath
skin the smell of honey

On the living room floor
a nest of arms and legs

I write all of this down. The day inside
The day outside. I lift my page to see what
my daughter and son look like with light
shining through. They are before me, alive
My ink is margin to margin

 

A Long(ish) Narrative Poem

This morning my daughter and I went to a cafe. She ordered a hot chocolate and scone. I got got a flat white and sparkling water. We spent a couple of hours sitting across from each other. She read a book, drew pictures. I wrote the start of an essay that might never become an essay and, feeling like I’d wasted pages and needed to salvage the morning, I returned to my short narrative poem to draft its expansion. When I write / revise poetry, I like to start in my notebook. I also like to stare out windows or at ceilings.

Margaret (Margit) Island Run

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like an infant, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge.
There are trails of urine from dogs or
men on their way home and a broken bottle,
its glass pieces catching sun, precise like
cut jewels. A pack of drunk young men cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
She looks at him, waiting to see what
the joke is but that’s it. He smiles, winks.

On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a woman bent over a metal bin
retrieving wine and beer bottles she
stands in a white plastic bag. There are other
bags full of upright bottles. Different
heights, shades, shapes. All open-mouthed, empty.
Maybe every Sunday this woman digs through
bins to pay each month’s electric or water.

She runs a path that loops the island, sees
a couple who is like a performance piece:
standing toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. And
then the path is empty for a stretch
and she goes to a quiet place (breath, footfall),
running steady, keeping her feet straight,
seeing the work of her body in her mind:
counting her cadence, reminding her hip
flexors and glutes they are made to move
like this and faster, telling her core be
strong. She comes together beautifully
on mornings like this, when she gets quiet
enough to listen hard, when she lets the work
of her limbs loosen her mind, calm her spirit.

A Short Narrative Poem

An exercise from The Practice Of Poetry. Parameters: 11-15 lines, 9-11 syllables / line, no rhyme. Varied sentence length.

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like he means it, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge,
meeting a pack of drunk young men who cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a couple who is like a performance piece:
they stand toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. Now
each are part of Sunday morning together.

The Poetry Obstacle Course

This week I asked my students to try an exercise by Marcia Southwick, from The Practice Of Poetry.

Write a poem in which you include approximately on object and one action per line. Each individual line should make sense in and of itself, but don’t worry about connecting one line logically to the next.

I attempted this exercise a couple of times – every line self-contained but a whole, random mess – before deciding to anchor my lines to a place. A month ago I wrote about one of my favorite walks here, a short path in Fahaheel. For this piece I made the lines center on our walk along the corniche in Salmiya. We take this walk nearly every Friday or Saturday during winter. I started with images or scenes I could contain in single lines. I wasn’t sure how I’d break or order the lines later.

Here are some lines from my notebook, cross-outs included:

My daughter finds a starfish washed in

My daughter finds a starfish she must keep
She makes a home from a styrofoam cup

I try to  explain no: the starfish needs his sea

The rocks meet the sea
We lost our secret beach last year
The path crowds and thins

It goes on like that for three pages. One object, one action per line seems like an easy exercise which is why I’ve skipped over it when looking for a writing prompt. But this time I read the prompt and thought it might be a way to think about the lyric essay form. I wrote each line not thinking where it might fit in the revised piece, though I chose a coherent whole by picking the corniche. When I reshaped the piece, I structured the poem to follow our walk. I also cut words so lines connected. I broke up long lines. Here’s the piece I shaped from today’s practice:

On A Nice Day

Rocks meet the sea
The path crowds and thins
My daughter parts the crowd,
climbs down the rocks to the sea
and finds a starfish she must keep,
makes him a home from a Styrofoam cup

Fishermen send loops of line out and wait,
reel in, snag rock, send out again

We all walk or ride bikes or pause to watch

My daughter carries the starfish in his cup
He is small and needs the sea

Dozens of pairs of shoes line the mosque steps
Prayer mats on grass angle toward Mecca
Men raise flat hands to their ears,
move their lips, bow

Old women claim the shade of low trees,
watch the path move without moving

The starfish needs his sea

My daughter climbs a playground
sitting on sand like a shipwreck
while I go to the fountain fed by sea
and listen to water sound

A couple sits on a bench, whispering
Their knees touch,
their hands move like small birds

Boys box on trampled grass

Grass makes a floor where
families unroll carpets and eat lunch
I see the chin of a woman
who lifts her niqab to drink tea

My daughter takes her starfish back to his sea,
holds her arm straight like a stick over the water,
turns her hand so he drops
She climbs the rocks, doesn’t look back

We eat fatayer, cucumbers, ice cream
Lunch and sun make me heavy
The languages around me make me quiet
I sit cross-legged and read my book

My daughter runs barefoot from one tree
to the next, testing the low branches,
swinging a leg up, yelling for me to look at her
hanging upside down from a tree

I wave her over, kiss her hair
She smells like being here, like sun and dirt
When the breeze lifts our hair, I think
we, right here, we need our sea

A Migraine Poem!

I don’t remember my first migraine. I don’t even really remember when they started. High school or college. I do remember asking Mom about migraines because my eyes did these funny little things before the ache set in and she said she got the same. She said there’d be times when we’d all be out and we’d stay a little longer at the store until her vision cleared enough to drive. So a couple of weeks ago I was grocery shopping when an aura came and I walked up and down the aisles, thinking of Mom and waiting. A few days after that, I used a poetry exercise to describe a migraine.

I’ve posted the final piece first, followed by drafts and process.


Midday Grocery Shopping Aura

I am looking at flour when my vision smudges. I blink hard
like maybe I can make it go away but I can’t see the center.
I take two Tylenol with spit, grip the cart to walk through this.
I should be flat somewhere – on a floor, in my bed – with my eyes
closed because there is no pleasure seeing how the gray
takes edges like crystal pendants catching light and color and
grows to a moon with saw teeth until the shards eat my
peripheral vision. I stand in the aisle next to a broken glass jar
of honey. I’m tired and sad under fluorescent lights, staring at
honey I don’t need, waiting for the left eye to decide it can see
again so we can go. I can’t see except by glancing, like I might
look at a man so he wouldn’t know I look. This is how I walk
up and down the aisles, picking up and putting down shapes,
colors. I find sparkling water in a corner of the store I’ve never
been before because I don’t wander in this store. I run in and
get what I need, leave. But today my aura makes me find
salt water fudge, Pellegrino, shelves of pet supplies,
a pile of soft white bread. The heaviness stays. Shimmering
flecks come and go at the bottom of my eye, gray settles
at the sides. I put what I didn’t come to buy on the belt,
pay cash and walk into bright sunlight. I know what comes
this afternoon and tomorrow morning, the residue of an ache
that wants me to curl inward and be very still until I reckon my
life and death and pray to God, taste iron in my mouth

And now the process. First draft, from an exercise:

A sound like brass in my ears, pitched
deep red with orange fringe at its edge

The fringe waking dread or fear or assurance
I am not enough. I can’t out the messenger

so I lay and think flat truth I already know
like north is north and God is God

I sweat. The heaviness of carrying the
moon dropped from my sky. I ask God to take

the taste of iron from my mouth, to clean
the white sparks from my eyes and show

Then, writing around the idea again. One of the best approaches to revision is to rewrite what you want to say. More comes up, stuff you can sift and use. I’d also been reading Migraine by Oliver Sacks and wanted to find a way to describe my own auras. This write-around took about fifteen or twenty minutes:

Last time I had an aura I was grocery shopping midday. I’d already cried that morning because … and I don’t think – the sorrow was for many things, the tiredness too. So I was getting groceries and my vision – it’s like I couldn’t focus at the center. There is a smudge in my vision that tells me the aura is beginning. I take a couple of Tylenol with my spit and keep shopping while the aura widens. The edges are like shards of crystal catching light and color, like a moon of saw teeth. They shiver and the moon grows until it meets my peripheral vision. I can’t look to the side. I can’t clearly focus at the center. I have to look like I’m only glancing. It is impossible to read, there is no pleasure in keeping my eyes open. Tiny shimmering flecks come and go at the bottom of my vision. The left eye is most affected.

My left side of my head feels heavy. What I need to do when this happens is lay down and sleep to clear my head, clear my eyes, but I rarely do, so I spend a day walking around with a residual ache in my head. Sometimes even when I sleep, I wake with that same heaviness on my left side.

When the aura seemed to be as full as it’d get and I could look around and my vision wasn’t simmering, I drove home. All I wanted was to be in bed. I was very tired and very off.

Because I wanted an easy revision first, I played with how the poem looks on the page. I arbitrarily decided to keep couplets but make the second line of each short. This took maybe three minutes to cut and arrange:

Aura

Orange fringed brass in my ears,
gray edged

Waking dread or fear or assurance
I am not enough

I lay flat and think flat truth
like north is north

I sweat the heaviness of carrying
this moon

Clean the white sparks from my eyes
and show

I went back to my write-around and bolded the phrases I thought I’d use:

Last time I had an aura I was grocery shopping midday. I’d already cried that morning because … and I don’t think – the sorrow was for many things, the tiredness too. So I was getting groceries and my vision – it’s like I couldn’t focus at the center. There is a smudge in my vision that tells me the aura is beginning. I take a couple of Tylenol with my spit and keep shopping while the aura widens. The edges are like shards of crystal catching light and color, like a moon of saw teeth. They shiver and the moon grows until it meets my peripheral vision. I can’t look to the side. I can’t clearly focus at the center. I have to look like I’m only glancing. It is impossible to read, there is no pleasure in keeping my eyes open. Tiny shimmering flecks come and go at the bottom of my vision. The left eye is most affected.

My left side of my head feels heavy. What I need to do when this happens is lay down and sleep to clear my head, clear my eyes, but I rarely do, so I spend a day walking around with a residual ache in my head. Sometimes even when I sleep, I wake with that same heaviness on my left side.

When the aura seemed to be as full as it’d get and I could look around and my vision wasn’t simmering, I drove home. All I wanted was to be in bed. I was very tired and very off.

Finally I decided to talk about my auras by showing a specific experience heavy on sensory images. Just because, I decided to go for a block of long lines:

Midday Grocery Shopping Aura

I am looking at flour when my vision smudges and I blink hard
like maybe I can make it go away but I still can’t see the center.
I take two Tylenol with spit and grip the cart to walk through this.
I should be flat somewhere – on a floor, in my bed – with my eyes
closed because there is no pleasure in seeing how the gray
takes edges like crystal pendants catching light and color and
grows to a moon with saw teeth until the shards eat my
peripheral vision. I stand in the aisle next to a broken glass jar
of honey. I am tired and sad under fluorescent lights, staring at
honey I don’t need, waiting for the left eye to decide it can see
again so we can go. I can’t see except by glancing, like I might
look at a man so he wouldn’t know I look. This is how I walk
up and down the aisles, picking up and putting down shapes,
colors. I find sparkling water in a corner of the store I’ve never
been before because I don’t wander in this store. I run in and
get what I need, go out. But today my aura makes me find
salt water fudge, Pellegrino, shelves of pet supplies,
a pile of soft white bread. The heaviness stays, shimmering
flecks come and go at the bottom of my eye, and gray settles
at the sides but I put what I didn’t come to buy on the belt,
pay cash and walk into bright sunlight. I know what comes
this afternoon and tomorrow morning, the residue of an ache
that wants me to curl inward and be very still until I reckon my
life and death and pray to God and taste iron in my mouth

And the final poem at the top of the post is much the same save small edits. What I like about this piece is that I kept some of the images from the first exercise. And what I love about this piece is its process. I might have chosen different approaches to revision and then found a different poem. Wild. Writers have absolute control over their work. 

Writing What You Can’t Say Clearly

This week I’ve been writing about when my friend’s infant son died and the nearly two years since. I was surprised by my anger and sorrow in the days before his birthday. My anger confused me most. I was mad because I was as sad as I was, because I’d gone bitter in my heart toward a few people connected to the loss. And I thought I hadn’t any right to feel the deep sorrow I felt, like it wasn’t my emotion to hold. Also this, my own then shifting sense of purpose in motherhood, hoping for joy after years of wishing I hadn’t married or borne children at all. My friend wanted to be a mother and I prayed for my own desire to change, that I might want to be a mother too. So when it was her baby who died – I still can’t say clearly what I felt – it was like I’d wasted my own motherhood not wanting it enough.

I made myself write about all of this. I hated writing about most of it because it was clumsy and sad. I failed at a didactic conclusion. I didn’t look good on the page.

Then I found a poetry exercise by Susan Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. It goes something like this: think of a feeling, mood, experience that you have tried to tell but failed at telling well. Now write twenty lines about it. Use as many metaphors and/or similes as you like, but no fewer than five.

I assigned this exercise to my classes. We all wrote poems full of metaphors and similes and by end of the day, I wondered if the process mattered more. I had three starts in my notebook, each making me look closely at the infant’s death and the time since. I opened my notebook again this afternoon and made myself finish the piece. What follows is a draft I’ll leave alone for a while. But I get at something I mean.


 

1.
Empathy is my heart cut, sleep broke. I know to pray. I pray
with few words. I pray in pictures. I pray for her empty arms
like my own are also empty. Then I rise from my knees, find
my children, fill my arms. For days it is like this. I think of her,
I think of me. I am necessary and useless. I hook that thought
until I am more useless than necessary, until my empathy is
stealing grief. When my daughter was a baby, I thought
a terrible thought, that her death would be escape. And when
my son was a baby, I thought my death would be escape.
I am useless but I pray

2.
Even this poem about her son’s death becomes about me.
Motherhood was my tether. I was staked in place, to a
husband, daughter and son. She was glad to be pregnant,
glad to grow big, glad to deliver a boy with dark hair, glad
to learn how, already in love. Her joy was not rebuke but I
watched like a child, wanting to learn how to give myself
to my own children as she did her son. And then her son
died. She woke at night, forgetting he was dead, remembering
again. She’d wanted to be a mother and I hadn’t really,
not really, not at all

3.
I do not steal grief. This sorrow is mine. On the day her boy
would have turned two, we go to his grave. I watch my
daughter and son walk among the dirt mounds of other
daughters and sons. The sky is gray, wind whips my hair
and I pray with few words for many things. Later I am angry
and call my mother who listens and lets me cry because
this loss, this son that isn’t mine, cannot go from me.
When my heart cuts and my sleep breaks for his mother,
even when she and I are gray, I will take a piece of her grief,
hold it as my own

 

The One About The Traffic

The traffic is like the weather here, a topic of small talk. There is usually only one thing to say about that traffic and that is that it is bad. A lot of us have favorite accident stories, like the memory of a car suspended between two palm trees, because how does that happen? My first year here I saw a red car door in a merge lane. Shortly after, I noticed all the streaks of paint on the concrete dividers and the sprays of shattered glass at intersections. A wreck might sit on the side of a highway for a few days. I thought maybe as a warning. My first year I wrote with an art teacher who banned herself from mentioning the traffic in her notebook because all it did to write about the commute was make her mad. I get it. I’ve yelled fucking asshole at men and women who scream up my side or cut in and I’ve watched them weave their reckless way forward to take the next exit.But the other day someone complimented my driving. I’m calmer now (thank you Jesus), though anger still flares. The fear that I might die or my kids might die because some (created in the image of God) person is selfish enough to need to be in front of me and then in front of the next person and the next infuriates me. When I cry on the highway it is often at the state of my heart because when I am cut off or swerved at or flashed (high beams mean move out of my big trucking way) I really hate the other driver. It isn’t about me being in front of the other driver so much as it is about me and mine staying alive while the other driver gets ahead. So I cry because God wants me to love people and I think he includes that jerk in the Nissan Patrol.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about a teacher who got hit while crossing the street in Salmiya. A couple of months ago, another woman was hit on the side of the highway while changing a tire. The man who’d stopped to help was also hit. All three are alive and while I don’t know the condition of the man, the two women have a long physical recovery ahead. Bones shattered, flesh too damaged to sustain operation, internal injuries, atrophied muscle. I can’t call either situation an accident when the more likely explanation for plowing two people in an emergency lane is carelessness and the more likely explanation for flipping a woman over a car is also carelessness.

I have a friend connected to both women. She talked about the teacher hit while crossing the street and the story stayed. A few days after, I started writing poems around the image of her laying on the street, surrounded by men who wouldn’t talk to her. A woman walking by cut through the men and sat down, stayed with her.


I Saw The Car

I had a dream like this, me looking up
looking down at my crumpled body on
cracked asphalt, circled by men with
unhurried voices. I am the only one who
hears my bones splinter again, who
hears the needle in my ear

The men do not kneel, touch,
pray over or speak to me. I saw the car.
I lift my head to say I saw the car
weaving speeding but I couldn’t
shout or step back from this cliff

A woman comes then, takes my hand
and stays. I say I couldn’t run or take it
harder than bruised and broken. I am
limp and rigid, my lips don’t work. The
woman closes her eyes for a moment
(I think it may be my death), says Jesus
in a land that calls him a man, only

I saw the car weaving speeding,
I saw my body balance between up
and down for a moment longer
than I thought possible

For N