Today I have been deciding which poems to murder. it’s unfair they should die, I know, when I am the one guilty of not being able to raise them into the fully fleshed poems they wanted to be, but a poet always has blood on her hands.
There are poems, too, hanging from the wall, learning to get along. I put together a book like a set list. I do not know if that’s the right way to do it or not.
I have been singing for two days now. I thought I’d lost my singing voice completely but maybe I just don’t know anything about humidifiers and this is the first winter in a new apartment. It’s alarming how ready I was to give up my singing voice without much of a fight, except talking to my doctor about it when I get a physical on Tuesday. I like to sing but I don’t see the world in songs, I see it in poems. And well, anyway, next winter I will get a humidifier.
Last night it was all show tunes though I don’t love musicals anymore. “You Can Always Count on Me” and “What You Don’t Know About Women” from City of Angels. “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I. “Tell Me on a Sunday” from Song and Dance. Today as I walked to a work event from the New York Avenue metro, there was “Good Morning, Heartache” a few times, which is not a show tune but feels so good rolling around in my mouth. I think it wants to push its way into a poem, at least a line or two, but that’s being negotiated.
I’ll leave you with this: A poem whose broken body might end up on the floor tonight. Or it may slink back into its folder awaiting another day’s judgement, another day’s grace. (It’s a Dread Pirate Roberts situation.)
(Do you ever kill your songs before they make it out of infancy? What’s the right amount of time to leave them on life support? I didn’t used to be able to kill any poems at all. This new skill and willingness–what does that mean?)
Here’s the poem. Let’s call it “Italian Study,” which may be a very good title. (Is anyone in the world good at titles, and may I have her e-mail address?) It also should be called “How Dumb I Was at 19” and “O Padova, Ancora Ti Voglio Bene.”
In Italy I wear long hair and the olive-colored corduroy skirt that rides my hips like a shroud. I am 19 and I talk a lot—in English and Italian—so I am the one who translates although I do not tell the boy we call “Turtle” what turtle means. I live in a walk-in closet big enough for a slender twin bed, an armoire, a student’s desk. It is narrow and I am not yet wide. My soundtrack is Rick Astley and Jovanotti and Lisa Stansfield and Antonio at Nuovo Bar saying, “Ay canalya” every time I order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Home is via Buzzacarini, an apartment where the mother sleeps in the living room, giving the bedrooms to her son who only likes solo sports, her daughter who may marry a policeman, and the three American girls measured in groceries and rent. We are forbidden to use the house phone to call gli Stati Uniti and we use it anyway and everyone pays what they owe on time but me. On Easter Sunday I scrub and scrub the long kitchen counters when everyone else is at Mass, and I wonder also if tuna with spaghetti is an authentic Italian recipe. I miss my school back in Boston but not my home back in New York. One night I forget my keys, travel all the way from Padova to Verona, dance and laugh and dream of an Italian boyfriend as I shake my hips to Elton John, and watch the sun crumble behind the ancient walls of the Veronese colosseum. The ride home is American girl after American girl after American girl with excuses why I can’t spend the night at their place, spare la Mama the fright of a ringing doorbell at two in the morning. This is the year I learn to be cruel.
Sometimes the people you grow up with become porn stars, which you don’t find out until one day at your government job, their name pops into your head, so you find their website with a search engine, flaring red when you see the life-sized picture of their privates. Or they grow up to be be gangster molls/drug mules, which you find out one afternoon over a rainy lunch in Georgetown, your former gangster moll/drug mule friend having gone into early menopause because of cancer. Sometimes they don’t grow up at all because of leukemia and they are the first dead body you see, after your seventh-grade self stops by the house of your friend who lives near the McDonald’s to raid her parents’ liquor cabinet for a few sips of whatever’s in the bottles before you traipse to the funeral home with the rest of your school.
I grew up expecting to be nothing. Not actually nothing, but I expected life would just happen to me the way it always happened to me. That is, life would act, I would react, and we’d continue this tango till whatever happened next. At 18, I imagined—as I told a college professor who asked—that in my future there was a house with an eat-in kitchen with me at the table working on a filmscript and chocolate chip cookies in the oven and my kids and the neighborhood kids running in and out. I’ve only recently realized that I never got as far as picturing the husband in that scenario. Only the cookies and the table and the kids and the script, which I was working on by hand because that’s the place I always returned to.
My father said once I was so smart I could have been anything I wanted, even a lawyer. There was no pride in his voice, or regret, it was just something he said, like reporting the weather. He also said that I was too smart to be as fat as I was.
My mother’s dreams for me went as far as her not wanting to be embarrassed by me. By what I was wearing. By how loud my laughter was. By her being not late for church but late for how early she wanted to be at church because I was getting dressed too slowly, three-quarters asleep after weeks of late nights and the opening night performance of the shows she never went to see even if I had a lead and the cast party and her insistence that God didn’t care about my excuses for why I should not go to church.
I tell the story of how I ended up with the job I have now forgetting immediately after each time that the woman who spoke up and badgered her bosses and did extra research and planted seeds with whoever she could to get what she wanted—to be a full-time writer, to work with social media—was me. I did not see this future for myself. I saw a secretary who wrote poems and maxed our her credit cards to go visit a college friend once a year and buy fancy cocktails for a week before returning to answering phones.
I didn’t know that I could see talking to Kerry Washington on the phone one Saturday morning as I stood in my kitchen beaming and trying to remain professional. Things like that didn’t happen to girls like me, girls to whom life just happened. Things like that still don’t happen to girls like me even though they do actually happen and I’m the only one continually and utterly surprised when they do.
I am trying to grow up now to be the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am growing now into the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am calling the woman I am into existence.
When I interview artists for my day job, at the end of the interview, I generally ask whoever I’m talking to if there’s something they wish I had asked them. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed an actor who was in town playing a Shakespeare villain. He was deeply thoughtful but also quite funny. I thought for sure that his response would be something that would set us both to laughing. He surprised me by responding that the question he thought of was, “Is what I do worthwhile?”
I always joke that I only ask questions I would never want to answer, but this one truly took me aback, and I was glad he was the one answering it. (To any artists to whom I ask this in the future, please feel free to blame Jonno Roberts.)
I have found myself thinking about that question in regards to my own work. And I think the answer depends, in part, on how you define success. I posted a poem* on Facebook the other day because I thought it was a throwaway poem, something that was okay but I didn’t think I’d be sending out to literary magazines. I was stunned by the response, how many people connected to that poem, how it resonated with people who follow me on Facebook. Which success was more important, more valid? Acceptance in a literary magazine or a poem that actually connected with an audience. Ideally, a poem does both I suppose but if one has to choose…
Which doesn’t answer the question of, “Is what I do worthwhile?” exactly but that answer comes back to connection as well. Years and years ago—by which I mean 16—I was on a seven-month fellowship in Provincetown. Though I was one of only five poets accepted for the residency, I still allowed myself to be intimidated by the fact that I was the only poet who hadn’t yet earned an MFA. To make it worse, though I did write a lot of poems during that seven months, I was more interested in wandering up and down the bare sidewalks of Commercial Street and signing out tall piles of books from the local library than I was in sitting at my desk editing poems. Which made me think I was doing it all wrong.
Somehow I was invited to do a reading a few towns away from Provincetown. I’m not sure how I got the invitation since, at that point, I had published in journals but I didn’t yet have even a chapbook. At that reading, I read the poem “Poem for Two Jemimas,” which had been inspired by a story quilt by Faith Ringgold. The poem was a blues about a woman who had lost a copious amount of weight and in doing so had lost her sense of who she was. It reads in part:
Has anybody seen my voice?
Has anybody seen my voice?
What used to sound like canary singing
Now’s a jumbled pot of noise.
Was supposed to be a song ’bout something else.
Was supposed to be a song ’bout something else.
But I threw so much of me away
Seems I ain’t got nothing left.
After the reading an older white woman came up to me and asked where she could find that poem because she had a friend that she wanted to read it. It hadn’t been published, so I gave her my copy, the first time I’d ever given away a poem at a reading.
I want my work to be published. I want an editor to think it’s worthy to send out into the world to hundreds (or tens) of people I don’t know. But that’s not what makes the work worthwhile. That’s not what makes it worth it to shove a pen into the fleshiest part of my heart and root around for something that will bleed itself into a poem. And I’m saying this not because I think you don’t know it, Patti, but because I’m in constant danger of forgetting it myself. Yes, what I do is worthwhile, it is worth it. Because 16 years ago some woman I never met, who I’ll never meet, read a poem I hadn’t even sent to publishers yet and was, I hope, comforted by it. At the very least, she knew she wasn’t alone. And if that’s not what we’re doing with our art, then what then? If the bottom line is not about making some sort of connection, then why bother?
- If you’re interested, here’s that poem I posted on Facebook
OPEN LETTER TO MY BODY
Hello body. I’d like to talk to you.
You of the screaming hips,
the lazy breasts.
No, wait, I’m joking, I’m joking.
I kid because I love you–
not so much that I want to marry you
but maybe some sort of civil ceremony
where I pledge to tolerate you (sort of),
you pledge to stop finding so many ways
to break down… Seriously,
get a sense of humor body!
I love you so much I threw out the scale.
And ordered those three pairs of stretchy pants.
And I’ve stopped writing poems about
the self-important pendulums of flesh
flapping shamelessly on the underplanes of your arms.
(If you could make them burst
into wings, however…)
We’ve been through a lot you and I:
pneumonia, the tumors, thinning corneas
(seriously, eyes, who does that?)
I’ve stuck with you through thick and thin
and thick and thick and thick–
Well, you know what I mean.
I lotion you, I feed you, I buy you nice sheets.
And I really like that thing you do where
you go all concave at the waist though,
if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t mind if you
didn’t throw the hips so far in the other direction.
But I didn’t come here to complain, I mean,
this is just to say (do you mind if I borrow from
Dr. Williams here? I mean, you make me
all tongue-tied sometimes–) this is just to say
so much depends on you the way the sea
depends on the moon to tame it,
the way the rock depends on Sisyphus
to care for it, the way the rainwater always
finds its way back to the red wheelbarrow.
Last Thursday, I was sitting in long meeting, the kind that goes on for hours, and someone said something about being welcome, and I started writing this poem:
Who I want
Like I am not
Still slick with
All the ways
I haven’t been loved.
I want to want you
Like desire is a blessing
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.
I think it may be a good poem. If I can stick the landing. I think it may be a good poem even if that first line is a lie.
I’ve tried to lay down the welcome mat for someone. In my 20s and early 30s I convinced myself that throwing myself at men who weren’t interested for one reason or the other was the same as putting myself out there. I was so good at it that it wasn’t until my 40s that I realized my genius for convincing myself I was trying, really really trying to find someone, when what I was actually doing was hiding, really really hiding.
My friend Joyce tries to get me to smile. And when I see a man who interests me–on the Metro, at a museum, at Whole Foods–I know I should smile, I know I should open myself up in some way, and I just can’t.
I’m not asexual, I don’t think, although having been celibate for 15 years now, maybe I’ve become asexual by default. The celibacy wasn’t supposed to last that long. I just wasn’t supposed to sleep with anyone anymore–not that there had been even a handful of men and I didn’t even start till I was 23 or 24–unless I was in a relationship, unless I felt safe. I made that decision the summer before I moved to DC for grad school, sure that a new city, a new school, new people meant that surely I’d find love.
And I have found love. More love than I could ever have imagined I deserved. People who care for me so much—even when I break dates at the last minute, or give into my anxiety, or let my bossy side take over, or take months to do the thing I said I would do tomorrow—that it astonishes me.
There are men I love, too. Who want to hang out with me and talk about what we’re reading and what we’re listening to on Spotify and what we’re watching on TV and who celebrate my work and tell their friends how smart I am and make fun of me in that way that lets me know how much I’m adored. Men over whose graves I know I will weep many tears some day, whose loss will be immeasurable. But they’re married or gay and nothing more than friends, though our friendships are deeply rooted and meaningful, and they are utterly safe for me to love with all my heart.
There’s that word again–safe. I don’t know precisely why romantic love feels so unsafe to me. I grew up in a family where infidelity was the norm, so much so that at my Dad’s funeral, a cousin just slightly younger than I am told me it was fine for a man to have a mistress as long as he could support a mistress and his wife.*
But other women in my family who grew up in the same way have managed to let men in, to figure out how to love that way and be loved. I don’t think I’m scared of sex (though I am not looking forward to the inevitable sort-of virginal fumbling and awkwardness that’s sure to ensue the next time I have sex). I know I’m not broken–I gave up that way of thinking about myself a few years ago (which wasn’t nearly soon enough but at least I finally did it.) Is it a form of selfishness on my part? Am I just stubborn? Is it some fear that’s so far down I can’t yet figure out how to reach it, or even where it started? Is deciding not to pursue the answer to that question at all giving up, or is it acceptance? Am I asking the wrong question yet again?
*Oh, how I wish I was making this up!
Today I read this quote —excerpted from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—somewhere on the Interwebs:
“… acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”
I would be dead if I hadn’t learned to write. I don’t mean learned in a sense of improving or developing talent (though I hope I’ve done some of that). I mean learned in the sense of somehow understanding that putting pen to paper was a magic to leach out of me all (well, a lot) of the anger, the depression, the fear, the despair, and most of all the powerlessness and helplessness I felt as a child, as a teen.
I—the child so scared of her mother she’d write her mother notes to find out if she could go to a party or stay afterschool for a club rather than ask her face to face—could be the puppet master. I could pick someone’s name and tell them what to wear and how to speak and what music they could listen to. I could make them fall in love. And I could make their beloved (Matt Dillon forever!) fall in love with them.
I could punish the people who hurt me in my stories. I could write a girl who got pregnant and killed herself when her mother didn’t understand why she wouldn’t have an abortion, reducing the mother to loud sobs of regret. I never got pregnant and I only once, half-heartedly, tried to kill myself,* but I did know what it was to have the sort of frustrated anger that felt like it could only be resolved with some fatal act of vengeance. (In another story I also killed off a girl’s boyfriend, she wore a wedding dress, crossed the street and stabbed him with a kitchen knife, I forget why now. I also forget the other stories I wrote then. Which is a good thing.)
In high school I somehow figured out I could take all my angst, all my teenaged pain, all my unrequited lovesickness (for cute boys, of course, but now I understand I was lovesick for my parents, too) and put lots of white space around it and then those feelings became poems.
When I started studying writing seriously in the mid-1990s, my late 20s, there were lots of conversations about whether or not the writing of poetry was therapy and if one could write as a form of therapy and still write good poems. Maybe what I was writing wasn’t therapy and maybe it wasn’t good, but it was saving me line by line.
It saves me now.
Writing saves me from my past. Writing saves me from being overwhelmed in this moment right now. Writing saves me from myself. Writing saves me from my ghosts—future and past. I am no longer as fearful or angry. I’m neither powerless nor helpless. I am sometimes depressed but seldom despairing.
Unless I’m not writing. Unless the words are stuck somewhere past where I can reach. Buried in some toxic spill of concrete. Those old feelings don’t come flooding back, but rather what remains—and so often there’s more than I think—is enough that it realistically threatens to drown me.
And I have to hold on, try to remember that I will write again though I’m convinced every single time that the last poem has already been written. That I can write enough to earn my paycheck but I can no longer really write.
I hear of writers retiring because their words just stopped, and that, to me, is more terrifying than physical death. I can’t imagine that even as my body fails me, as the organs shut down one by one (or however they do it), that the monologue in my head won’t still be steaming ahead, making metaphor from the breath’s decrescendoing and the heart’s erratic rhythm, figuring out exactly how to say to God the very first thing I want to say to him.
I will die and then the words will stop, or the words will stop and I will die. There is no difference.
*I took a bottle of aspirin in the bathroom. Lacking the will or courage or despair for a serious attempt at killing myself, I took however many was half of the maximum dose, spent the evening on the top of our bunk bed, cross-legged, stoned, swaying back and forth and hazily watching whatever was on the TV, which I could see from across the hall. I was around 12 or 13.
There was dancing to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and falling asleep on a mattress piled high with coats while the grown-ups danced on, there were rides up and down the alley, stretching from Merrick Road to 133rd Avenue on my bike with the banana seat, there was a quarter saved here and there to buy a cupcake from Twin Ponds Bakeryon the way home from St. Clare’s, there was browsing the aisles at Woolworth’s for black Chinese slippers each summer, there was bake and saltfish and Granny Eutrice wrapping pasteles at the dining room table, first the corn meal flattened onto the foil packet, then the ground beef with its spices and oil, there was playing skelly and moral and hopscotch, watching the older boys play handball against the perfect plane of our garage, there was Imus in the Morning and Aerosmith and the Police and Duran Duran, there was the Donnie and Marie record player and the Star Wars soundtrack to play on it, there was watching the aunts get ready to go out and painting my Christie head with nail polish and eyeshadow after they left, there was watching the end of West Side Story through the keyhole in the bathroom which connected to the bedroom with the TV, there was stopping at Sonia H’s house for hot chocolate that time my little sister and I were stranded at school and had to walk home in a blizzard, there was Burger King and Italian ices sometimes, there were books from the library at home and at school, even the ones with red dots once I hit seventh grade, there was daydreaming about Frankie during the homily at Mass and making up excuses to go buy mangoes at the West Indian store when I knew he was working, there was Stuart Little and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Charlotte’s Web read by Mrs. Shiels, there was the magic carat which Mrs. Zappa told us was the secret to long division, and wearing the underskirt from Mrs. Finlay’s wedding gown under the skirt I wore to sing songs from The King and I and being told I “sound like the record” when I sang “I Feel Pretty,” there was writing story after story plus the beginnings of a play with four teen witches in my spiral notebook and a CYO citation for “The V.D. Mishap, or the Mystery of the Bloody Kitchen,” there was Dallas Winston and Ponyboy and Soda, there was Deenie and Margaret and all the Victoria Holt heroines, there was Jon-Erik Hexum near life-size on the wall and John Stamos in a mint green polo against a pink background and two versions of Tommy Howell posing with a horse and Tom Cruise before he fixed his teeth on my pink wall, there was racing my sister to the farthest corner of the room to be the furthest away from the doorbell so I wouldn’t have to run down two flights of stairs to answer it, there were trips to our New Jersey cousins, four of us in the big back seat of our great-uncle’s Cadillac and Aunty Donna’s version of french toast, which was just regular toast with butter and maple syrup, there was…
What are your obsessions Patti Smith? I always ask artists that when I interview them–what question they return to over and over, what story they’ve written or painted or sung again and again. It’s a good way to locate the engine of someone else’s art practice. It’s a good way to reassure myself that I’m not the only one stuck on the same story, who keeps asking the same questions cause none of the answers so far feel quite right.
I think I’ve shed most of what barnacled that young girl’s skin, albeit at a relatively glacial pace. I have a voice now. I’m learning to be okay with taking up space. If you know to ask the right question, I can even tell you some truth about myself.
But still, I am constantly pacing my interior, searching out each corner’s own dusty corner, uncovering some new piece of a story I have to un-tell myself.
I mean there are things like a father not telling his daughter he loves her, ever–even as he lays dying, even as she has to figure out how to touch his penis to help him pee cause he’s too frail to maneuver it himself, even as she feels herself at the mercy of so much tenderness. Add that new grief to the old griefs and, to put it elegantly, that shit will fuck you up.
So you find that corner where that story’s gone to hide and if you can’t un-tell it, you can bring it into the light, look at it till you can see how there could be another ending, or stare at it so hard with eyes lasered by sorrow that it just burns to dust.
No, that’s not what happens. I’m not a superhero, after all. But I can bring it into the light, the way they tell you to take the band-aid off and expose a wound to air. The New York Times says, “Exposing a wound to the air so it can breathe is a terrible mistake, experts say, because it creates a dry environment that promotes cell death.”
But isn’t that what I want? For that terrible story and the terrible way I feel carrying it around inside of me to die? So I drag these things into the light over and over and over and each time, they wither a little, each time the bruise becomes a little less tender to the touch. As for the scars, there’s a story I can tell you about that.
Sometimes I try to figure out why I never got teased as a kid the way fat kids do. I remember Joseph, I remember Paula, how relentless we could be, how mean we could be in that way you can be mean when you have not yet learned consequence, when you have not yet learned we each die alone.
I try to figure out why I never got teased as a kid the way fat kids do. Was it because I was funny? Was it because I had a posse (such as it was. Can you have a posse of drama nerds?) Was it because I purposely endeared myself to the bad kids? (I learned a long time ago that nothing attracts brokenness like brokenness.)
I try to figure out why I never got teased as a kid the way fats kids do and it take me far too long to remember I wasn’t fat as a kid. Or a teenager. That I boasted a flat stomach well into my junior year of college despite my worship of breakfast potatoes. Despite the fact that I spent all of my snack bar points on sundaes. Despite my devotion to Twinkies with strawberry and cream filing.
I look at photos of me at 14, at 16, as a Honeybun in South Pacific, as Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls, in a vintage red lace dress borrowed for opening night of The Beautiful People, and I wonder how that slender girl with just a slight flare of her hips, with just enough bootie to make her distracting, with (disappointingly) small breasts–how can she be me? How can she be the fat girl? The one who frustrates her mother cause she never wants to wear the clothes her mother brings home for her? The one who never feels like enough?
No matter how many times I look at those photos, they are a shock. She is not who I carry around in my head. She is not what I remember of the past. I remember myself ugly with a body that was a problem. It takes decades for me to consider that what I learned at home was wrong. It takes me decades to realize that my parents never called me beautiful cause they just couldn’t see it. They just couldn’t see me. They still can’t. And that is a heartache.
But isn’t it also a blessing? Which is either true or just something I tell myself. Even as I point my finger in accusation, I’m still always looking for a way to let them off the hook. Which is what it means to be a daughter. Which is what it means to be a liar. Which is what makes memory such a dangerous pasttime.
It’s hard not to accuse myself of exaggeration. Am I writing it this way because that’s how it happened, or am I writing what makes the better story? Am I performing for you? Am I performing for me? Was it not at all as bad as I remember or can I not remember how bad it was?
My younger sister tells me, “I know you had it bad as a kid.” And I wonder what she’s talking about, as if I weren’t there, as if she’s making things up, as if I don’t believe her.
Another time she says, “There were good times, there were parties, before Mom found God.” I keep insisting it was bad even as we were dancing and laughing. I insist, insist, insist as if she doesn’t believe how it was with me, as if she’s not my loving witness.
The ground is still shifting as it did when I was a kid and could never get it right because the rules never stayed still, shifting their borders like light changes as you watch it stream through a glass that you are waving back and forth in front of a bright window.
The ground still shifts, but now I am the surveyor, my memory the inconsistent mapmaker.
I like to be told I’m pretty. It doesn’t go to my head, it goes to my heart.
My mother told me once, decades ago, on a sunny summer day, as my younger sister stood helplessly by, that she didn’t care if it hurt my feelings to be told that I was ugly. That was cruel, but what was crueler still was when I understood that she couldn’t understand why that pronouncement turned me into a shaking sob of a girl standing on the front lawn.
I like to be told I’m pretty so that I know I exist. It is a shock every time I look in the mirror–oh, yes, there I am. There’s the proof. I am.
I’m not saying that no one saw me as a child or that in the last 46 years I’ve never been seen until now. But the people who could actually see me as a discrete clump of whatever little girls are made of, distinct from themselves, were not the everyday people, and even when they became my everyday people who could be sure what they saw wasn’t just a trick of light?
What I mean to say is selfie after selfie I search my face for reminders that I was eventually made flesh. I faithfully measure the length and width and height of me. I turn on all the lights, or stand in front of the window to double-check my shadow.
Do you think it’s vain or foolish or self-obsessed that I want to keep looking? I promise you that I know I exist now but, still, to be sure, I’m watching for that moment, the exact one, when I earn one of those beautiful crepey faces that reek of perseverance and courage and persistence. That face that you can’t help but see. That face that you can’t look away from.