This poem is awful, so don’t bother reading it as if you’ll be able to take something from it — but it marks a key epiphany in my growth as a writer. In 1999, we were all worried about Y2K and I was a freshman in college, still a biochemistry major, still thinking of myself as a fiction writer, if any kind of writer at all. Spring semester, I took an intro to poetry class with James Longenbach, hoping it would spice up my prose.
As of April 8th, the day my records say I wrote this poem, the sum total of my poetry portfolio consisted of the 10 poems I’d written, one a week, for the class. In high school there were a few poems written because I had to, but it had never occurred to me to actually try. And I did try with those first 10 poems, but I tried a little too hard, or maybe just tried the wrong way. I’d been writing them like stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a plot that I knew I’d follow from the start. One poem had a surprise ending, a James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” ripoff — but even in that poem the end wasn’t a surprise to me, it was something I’d planned on all along.
I guess it took two months to run out of ideas, because by April 8th I was tapped. A poem was due the next day, and I had no idea what to write about. Somewhere amid my frustration, I decided to just grasp at any childhood memory that seemed vivid, and what came to me was the 4th of July’s spent at my aunt’s cottage in Sodus, NY. All I had was the dock and the fireworks on the water, but I ran with it anyway. And halfway through the poem another memory lept out of the water — the split-second of panic when I was seven years old and got a fishhook stuck in my nose. A traumatic moment, and then the embarrassment afterword of such a minor pain being so traumatic — the hook didn’t go through my nose, just poked a little into the flesh.
But that experience would have been lost forever if it wasn’t for the poem; I hadn’t thought about it in years. And it all tied together with something else, something about growing up, being a little older each year on that dock, and how finally nothing is incredible anymore; everything’s muted with age, and sometimes that’s a good thing, but you lose a little something, too. I had no idea these things were buried within me, but here they were, bubbling up on their own.
And that was the epiphany. Poems happen on their own, you don’t force them into a form or pull them out like teeth. You can just let them come. James Wright didn’t sit down to write a poem about how he wasted his life — he was lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm, writing about it later, and suddenly that last line came to him, something bottled up that he needed to say.
So while this poem isn’t anything special, the experience of writing it was special — it’s really what got me into poetry. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in prose, not in the same focused and intense way. It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in revision, and is why, for me, a poem is either successful or abandoned. The big fish bursting out of darkness is all I care about.
A DARKNESS BELOW (1999)
water black beneath the dock, reeds
as the wind throws them
together in knots of tan, swaying,
my hair thinning even as I splash
my feet in the pond’s dark
water. it sneaks up,
bursts of lavender, of pink and green. glittering,
falling. the ashes fall
in orange specks. fireflies sift
in distant clouds, blinking between
trees near the overgrown path
where i ran, fish hook
piercing my nose, an orange lure,
the taste of blood,
a liquid, red and glowing
as the searing
ashes that leave streaks in closed eyes,
still adrift in the wind.
those embers must look
like orange lures to the fish–a perch?–
lured from the black pond
and into that wind. a splash
near the splintering dock.
a gasp. ah! just a fish.