I have reams of writing (from back in the day when I wrote regularly), that aren’t published and never will be, but that are still meaningful to me.Â In some cases they probably could be published if I sent them out, but I don’t care enough to bother, or just don’t want to.Â In other cases, the poems aren’t any good, but retain a sentimental value.Â Others are simply meta-poems — poems about poetry — which I’m always mildly embarrassed to find myself accidentally writing.
Anyway, since these poems are worthless sitting in a drawer, I thought I’d start posting them every once in a while, under the category “old poems.”Â Everyone loves nostalgia, at least when it’s your own.Â You’ll also know they’re old poems because I’ll list the date it was written and write a little something about it — why it has value to me personally, why it’s never been published.
Start big:Â I think of “The Little Things, The Night” more often than any other poem I’ve written.Â Lines and phrases from it echo in my head out of nowhere, maybe weekly, maybe more often than that, and if I think about it too long I start to cry.Â I have no idea if the poem effectively renders the experience, or if the memory is just that emotionally charged.
Alone on an overnight shift, back when I was working at the group home, one of the residents was decompensating and knew it, so didn’t trust herself to be unsupervised in her room.Â She turned in her razors and I put the house’s silverware in a locked box.Â Middle-aged and very intelligent, she was the only patient I ever knew to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.Â Two distinct alters, and co-morbid manic-depression on top of it.Â Still a senior in college, I was completely unprepared.Â She talked about emptiness and I told her baby steps, like an idiot: “Try to enjoy the little things…a cup of coffee, a cigarette.”Â Never mention happiness to the depressed, let alone the tragically, justifiably, suicidally depressed…
We sat up for eight hours and she told me her life story.Â Her first memory: raped by her father and two of his friends when she was five years old, lying wet with her own blood on the garage floor, staring at a crack under the door and waiting for them to come back.Â Jesus Christ, this is a thing that happens in our world…Â What can you say to that?Â What can be said?
The result for her was a labyrinth of safe zones in her mind so necessary that they consumed their own identities.Â A lifetime of meds and therapy, a perpetual holocaust.Â For me, just the story alone became a hot coal of hatred — and then this poem, so meaningless in the face of it all, so utterly pathetic.
How quickly bleakness comes.Â I might end up turning off the comments on this post; I don’t really want to talk about it beyond this mini-exorcism.Â I thought briefly about including the poem in American Fractal — it would have fit the theme, complimented “Cutlery” — but it’s too old and raw and ugly.Â Why publish something so powerless?
THE LITTLE THINGS, THE NIGHT (2002)
what if you were trembling she says to her hands trembling
and what if your first memory was the cold
concrete was the pillow was the world was the trembling
jingle of keys but
you were still and still in it she says trembling her
hands the garage door the cold slit of light and
what if every time you closed your eyes you vanished
and so you kept them closed and kept them closed and
kept them closed like slits but you were still in it she says
and this time in the dark and this time trembling
Tim, you did a good job here – in the poem and in the explanation – of how writing a poem can sometimes make you feel terrible and helpless, and also how language is sometimes not up to the task of describing something horrible. I’ve wrestled with the same subject and the same frustrating lack of being able to get such a thing into words. (My attempt appears in Becoming the Villainess, in the poem, “Remembering Philomel.” I was about twenty-two when I started writing it, and kept writing it for another five years. I still, honestly, don’t think it’s finished.)
If you re-wrote the poem today – what would you do differently? Sometimes, as a writer, we have to smack ourselves against the window pane of what we’re trying to do quite a number of times, over years…
Meh, I wouldn’t rewrite it… I see what you’re saying, but I’m just not the rewriting/editing type. That poem’s moment was over 7 years ago, you know? Writing a poem to have a poem just doesn’t interest me — although I’m sure it will bubble up out of the creative consciousness again at some point in the future in a completely different form.
PS I love the poem and the title. Maybe you could make this into a series. Maybe the second part of the poem could be in prose, could be a clinical description of the woman’s symptoms, something outside of you and outside of her voice. (Just throwing out ideas.) I don’t think you should abandon the poem; it’s strong.
Maybe I’m just not a poet like other poets, but I have absolutely no drive to do things like that. I should write about this topic in a longer post, because no one seems to really understand it. Channeling mental energy into a creative experience is something that I enjoy, and something I’ll always do when I have that mental energy to expend. Having a product at the end of each experience is completely irrelevant. I just don’t care. So once a door closes on that creative moment, it’s closed for good; I have no desire to go back in whatsoever.
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I hear you on that too, Tim. I’ve tried my best to workshop, but I just can’t do it — I can’t get into it, and at the core of me, I have no desire to alter a work of mine as reflected through another’s eyes. Arrogant? Perhaps. I certainly don’t feel most of my work is beyond reproach, but I want it to be my reproach.
As to the poem itself, I think the explanation serves the poem well, and I have to wonder if I’d appreciate free verse more if the poems had preambles like this. Having read your description of the poem’s impetus, I find the poem itself very powerful and very compelling…to the point where I don’t know if the preamble modifies that impression, or merely complements it.
Nonetheless, I’m moved, and it’s refreshing to see a good poem come directly from a real experience, rather than a imagined one — something which I think agues many poems these days.
Thanks, Shaun. It’s good to know my wife and I aren’t the only ones who don’t like workshops. Actually, I shouldn’t even say that — I really enjoy sitting around critiquing poetry, giving them feedback and seeing their reactions to my own poems. But it’s like taste-testing a new recipe — you don’t go in with a knife and slice the almonds out of the pie…you just leave out the almonds next time you bake it.
It makes me feel empathetic. It touches that part that reminds you that terrible things happen all the time and that these things are so terrible that they might cancel out any happiness that is also in the world.
And it reminds me of bibliotherapy because it isn’t about writing great poems; it is about helping the person, helping people. Sometimes, though, certain pieces or certain people also end up being or finding out that they are actually good at writing, too.