I write poetry. It’s pathological. I’ve been at it for years—I have proof. Awkwardly near-rhymed couplets in my 5th grade daily journal lauding the 11-year-old me’s perfect day: extra beanbag and reading time (in a sunbeam, no less), A’s on all my assignments, and chicken patties for lunch…each of these triumphs truly worthy of occasional verse.
In middle school, I discovered sonnets replete with iambic pentameter and by high school, I was villanelling with abandon. Byronically Keatsian odes, too. Dreadful and clunky and labored. I might have even asked my mom for a quill and frou-frou journal at some point—
Something happened that interrupted the awkwardness and ratcheted my wordsmithing into a new dimension. Our family trip to The Smithsonian, particularly the National Gallery. Mom and I stood for who knows how long in front of Manet’s “Plum Brandy.” The woman in the painting looked nothing like mom but, somehow–the faraway look on her face, the way she held her cigarette, forgotten, between those first two fingers–she so very like my mother that it jarred me.
I was unnerved by the tremendous human-ness of the painting and in awe of how much one glance could communicate. I dug around in my purse until I found a pen and scribbled a poem about my mother while other tourists jostled and crowded and came and went. The product: three stanzas, no rhyme, short lines, more white space than I’d ever witnessed in any of my other smudgy, hand-scrawled endeavors.
My mother loved it.
I even tucked the piece into the pages of her favorite Robert Frost book to be burned and mingled with her ashes. I’ve never been more humbled by my own words.
Something happened in the National Gallery that day–a sensation of tumblers clicking and grinding into place when a key turns in a lock. I understood how the enormity of the world around me could fit into such tiny spaces. How my mother’s spirit could be mirrored in a painting from 1877 then again in three squashed stanzas. How working in a condensed medium could crystallize an instant, something ephemeral and dazzling in and out of sight like sun glinting on rippling water.
How I could imply so much in the spaces between words, between lines.
How little there is to say sometimes.
One writers’ workshop and more than twenty years later, I still write poetry. I absorbed all I read, all I was taught in some bizarre osmosis of concept and style. I devoured words, I built and destroyed the infrastructures of verse and somehow developed a process that sticks with me even now.
First, the raw stone. Employ the bludgeoning tools–the blunt mallet and chisel, the heavy saw. Stand back and see a form take shape.
Sand and sand and chisel and sand.
Fine tools come next–the Dremel, the diamond cutter. Micro-adjustments. Clear the dust and polish under a magnifying glass and harsh light.
Polish again. And more.
Understand how something of such tremendous heft and substance appears as doubly itself in a condensed form, the black-hole matter, a nothing that is weighty beyond reckoning.
I write poetry. It’s pathological.