Please note that there is still time to submit original poetry to the 14th annual James Hearst Poetry Prize. The deadline is November 15th, 2013. Please submit online at https://northamericanreview.submittable.com/submit/1301.
I wrote “Electricity” while employed in the main office of Unity for the Homeless in New Orleans. I worked with a woman 20 years younger than myself who had worked with ACORN for most of her adult life and had been involved in running one of their community radio stations. Our conversations kicked up memories of my own time on the airwaves on a station in Washington, D.C. We’d talk around our desks, hers or mine, the other of us standing with papers in our hand, and when she gave me a lift in the evenings to Loyola University, where she either picked up her son from daycare or parked to attend an evening graduate school class. I walked home from there.
How do you paint the color of bone, the pelvis where the flesh
has been cut away? For more than two days we’ve soaked in bleach
the ivory girdle of the deer my son killed. Every few hours I check
the bucket so I can watch the dissolution, the falling away of the life
that can’t last. Think of O’Keeffe’s inheritance. What her hands
were given by the skeleton of the world. What she was expected
to give back. Who doesn’t want to hear a holy word echoing
along the rock’s split lip? But to hunt means to stalk in silence, to listen
for the solace in an animal’s missed step. Early on I learned
from my grandmother to fish is to search the sea by sending a line
down its length. When my sister caught the eel, we didn’t know
what to do. The only other person on the bridge was a black man
seated on a five-gallon drum. He took the rod, laid it on the ground,
and in one stroke severed the head, held the dancing curve until it slowed,
then stuffed it in a bag. We slipped the hook from between the teeth, ran
our fingers across the ridges. My sister peered through the cut hose
and wouldn’t tell me what she saw. Today I stare at the shadows
in the valley, see what can be seen through the hole in the pelvis
where the ball of the femur should rest. The sky’s different
framed like this. When there’s nothing around it, it seems endless.
After Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Pelvis with the Distance” (1943)
I’m certainly not the only writer who secretly wishes he was a painter. My earliest impulses toward language were descriptive, imagistic, rooted in the desire to frame an experience in much the same way some of my favorite artists had done. I tried to sketch, to draw what I saw, but failed miserably.
Elizabeth Bishop said she wrote poems not because she felt a special affinity with words but because she had a feeling of there being things in her head—objects in her mind—she wanted to write down. One can see how Bishop’s poems are not so much grounded in the real as rather illuminated and borne aloft by their weird conjunctions with things we might touch—maps, animals, a lost watch. This focus on objects makes her poems melancholy; the materiality of the poem is the place where it pulls away from what it could directly give us. In Bishop’s great sestina of loss we’ve lost the watch twice, once in the telling, twice in the being told. The poem moves away from us in precise words that make us long to touch just that watch. But if we found the lost watch what could be done with it but write a poem and thereby lose it again. When I first read Bishop’s sestina I had just finished a degree in philosophy and was meeting for the first time a boy—who would marry me a few months later—in a café. I was an hour late but he had waited with the book, used, hardback. Now that café, in our hometown, has been torn down, and the boy and I are divorced. But the sestina is still there pulling at the wristband of its watch. Materiality makes the marriage, between the word and the image that the right words will almost reach and almost tender. Materiality is the sacrifice—what you have to wait for—in the center of the poem.
Claire Millikin is the author of two books of poems, Museum of Snow (Grayson, 2013) and of the forthcoming Motels Where We Lived (Unicorn, 2014); a third, as yet unnamed, collection is forthcoming from 2Leaf Press. Claire’s work, “Kerosene,” was featured in issue 297.1. and “In the Kitchen” was featured in issue 294.2.
When I was a teenager, I locked my mother in the basement. It was an accident, but that didn’t do her any good after I locked that door and left the house to go to work. She had to physically break out of the basement through the bulkhead door, climb the backyard fence, and go to her own job without keys or a purse or anything else. When I got to my job, naturally there was an angry phone message waiting for me.
And how did I react when I found out what I’d done? With sympathy and apologies? Of course not—I was a teenager and totally resentful that I had to go all the way home to unlock the door and get my mother the things she needed. Honestly, I don’t think I really felt sympathy for what she went through that day until I had a child myself.