Wednesday, February 15, 2012

little polished gold nugget poems + greek salad salsa

I often say that my cat is a bottomless pit of emotion: extreme highs and lows. In fact, D has said before that Esme has the same quality in her facial expression that my mom and Steve Spurrier have: even when they're happy, their smile looks kind of like a grimace. Esme is easily spooked, loyal to D and me to the point of insane hatred towards all other people, and often oscillates from vicious hissing to trilling and cooing (and back) in a matter of seconds. Her moods ebb and flow like the ocean. When Esme is upset, here is what she does:

My response to being upset is a bit different, but not much. When I am sad, angry, or otherwise angsty, instead of kneading biscuits like Esme, I chop things into little pieces. Hence the recipe at the end of this post.

(If you don't like long stories and just want the dad-blamed directions for this salsa, you might want to go ahead and skip to the bottom of the page now.)

In addition to labor-intensive cooking – and also, according to my high school diary, cursing excessively, smoking, and playing the piano – I also write poems when I'm upset. I've done this last thing since I was a kid. Words have always been my medium. Before I could even read, I demonstrated a bizarre aptitude for memorizing whole books. For instance, see the above picture, from her baby book, of almost-three-year-old me lying on the bed and "reading" Green Eggs and Ham to my rapt sister Rhea. I learned to write early on, too. I delivered my first poem at a PTA meeting. I wrote poems and showed them to my teachers, my parents, and any other adult who would read them. I wrote poems about the seasons, or about school, or even about nonsense. One representative quatrain:

              I like to think of silly things,
              Like big blue cows and pigs that sing,
              Purple cats and mice with horns,
              Green and turquoise candy corns.

D says he particularly appreciates that I made "corns" plural so that the rhyme would work.

As you can see from my use of the encapsulating thought bubble, even at the tender age of eight or nine I understood that poems and ideas were creations of my mind, ways of wrapping that mind around both the world of reality and of imagination, and trying to come to terms with what I experienced and envisioned. I'm reasonably sure I would not have put it that way at the time, but I pretty much felt all that intuitively. Note also the crossed eyes of the girl in the picture, which indicate my authorial derision at the nonsense I had just penned. :)

Karen, age 7
Naturally, after the sudden death of a childhood friend in a car accident when I was eight, the first thing I did was write a poem. I was baffled by death. I used to stand in the bathroom of my parents' house, staring at the goldenrod-colored guest towels, absently following with my eyes the curlicues of their fancy embroidered trim, and thinking to myself, "Karen is dead. Karen is dead." I kept trying to comprehend that statement, to feel it was true. Obviously, this didn't work – but at the time I assumed that adults had some magical way of understanding and dealing with these issues that I didn't, and that it was just one of those skills I'd learn as I got older. 

By the time I got to high school, my poems had turned typically angsty and dramatic – lots of violent images like shards of glass, turbulent descriptions of stormy skies, apostrophic poems declaimed to the moon or to capitalized abstractions like Conformity or Love. These poems were loud but empty, like so much teen music.

A few years later, as a senior in college, the semester after Rhea's death, I took a workshop class that I had registered for the previous fall, before I knew how catastrophically things would turn out for her. (Given what I've learned about my wily unconscious, though, maybe I had an inkling even then that the class might serve some future therapeutic function. My unconscious knows way more than I do, and it is the engine that generates my poems, not me.) I had taken a general creative writing course before, but this was my first workshop class devoted entirely to poetry. Dr. Arthur Smith was my teacher. His wife had died some years before. His expansive and nuanced explication of William Carlos Williams's poem "This Is Just To Say," which he delivered in class one day, was a revelation to me. At one point, he declared unequivocally that the four best poets in history were Horace, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, and Jack Gilbert. He had a book called Elegy on Independence Day, and many of the poems were about his wife, their past, her death, his grief.

When I submitted my first poem in his class, a deceptively deadpan piece called "In My Journal There Are Words," he and the class liked it. It was the first really adult poem I had ever written that received praise. I had mentioned my mother and used the ambiguous pronoun "you" in the poem, so after class Dr. Smith stopped me and asked if I had lost my father recently. I told him no, my sister had died over Christmas break, a few weeks earlier. He told me he was very sorry to hear it, and that he had lost his own sister a year and a half before. 

That was also the first time in my life I ever thought to myself, "Oh... that's really not that long ago." Before, I would have thought callously (but also, given my ignorance, understandably) that a year and a half had probably been "long enough" for him to be "mostly over it." I remember that moment as ushering in a new era of learning what loss meant to myself and others, and how ineptly I had handled others' grief in the past, including my friend Laura's. She had lost her brother – who, appropriately, had had a crush on my sister at the time he died – several years before we lost Rhea.

I wrote more poems that semester, but never anything that elicited the response my first poem did. I plodded and plodded, trying to match that initial peak, to no avail. Towards the end of the semester, after I had submitted a particularly well-written (I thought) but flaccid poem, Dr. Smith said to me, with a combination of patience, asperity, humor, and civility that I'm still grateful to him for: "Heather. You have to stop trying to solve the poem in the final line."

A solution, I'm only now realizing at the age of 37, is not the same thing as a resolution.

Three years after that class, then a graduate student, I enrolled in Dr. Marilyn Kallet's poetry workshop. I think it must have been both what we were reading (Marie Howe's What the Living Do, Robert Hass's Sun Under Wood, Galway Kinnell's Imperfect Thirst) and what we were writing that kept us so emotionally stirred-up: for the entire semester each of us was like an overripe pear hanging on the end of a bough by the flimsiest of stems. One gentle push and we all would have smooshed onto the ground.

At midterm, our professor made a specific poem assignment to the class. As a model, she used Robert Hass's "My Mother's Nipples," quoting one line from it: "He wanted to get out of his head, so I told him to write about his mother's nipples." We were each to compose our own poem with the same title. The poem had to be at least 3 pages long and have at least 7 sections. This was a nightmare assignment for me. My poems were almost always short and neat. "My Mother's Nipples" was destined, as Dr. Kallet well knew, to be a messy and excessive poem. One could not remain impartial and intellectual when writing about les nipples de ma mère. I was petrified. And stumped. I spent the week cobbling together the various sections of the poem, cranking out one a day, and managed to finish the poem by the deadline. It was the most ambitious project I've ever completed. And "completed" is probably the wrong word. I only "finished" it last year, almost a decade after I originally drafted it. (I think of Paul Valéry's famous line, quoted by Billy Collins: "A poem is never finished, only abandoned.")

In my poem, I described my relationship with my parents and specifically with my mother, whose ability to overcome obstacles and endure unthinkable hardships I have always admired. But I also wrote about more sensitive, provocative matters. My mom's complicated romantic history. The fact that my parents' male friends were always yanking down her bikini top in the videos I was never allowed to see. My jealousy when my sister was born, two years after me - and my resulting guilt over ever having felt that way, especially in the years since she died.

I was nervous as hell when I showed up for class, knowing that I was going to have to read this thing aloud to everyone when my turn came. As he slid into his chair that day with none of his usual bravado, one classmate muttered, "Yeah, I wrote the poem. But I had to get drunk to do it." We went around the room, each reading our own version of our mother's nipples. One of my favorite lines was from a young woman whose name I've long ago forgotten: "Will I ever glow with a belly the size of Texas?" Another described his mother's padded bras, stuffed with enhancements that in the 1950s were called pop-on's: the latter word to be pronounced, he specified, with the same "o" sound as in "boat" or "ohmygoodniss." All of us laughed, fumed, squirmed, and got teary at various points while we were reading and while we were listening.

At the end of the semester, we submitted a portfolio of our revised work for a final grade. In her comments, Dr. Kallet suggested that I submit "My Mother's Nipples" to Prairie Schooner because, as she put it, it was an "ambitious and courageous" poem and would fit the spirit of that publication – though, not surprisingly, she also recommended that I keep working with the conclusion of the poem, which lacked the power that the opening sections had. Finally, when she moved on to her critique of several of the remaining poems in my portfolio, she wrote, "Ah – here are more of your little polished gold nugget poems." I got it. She admired how neat and shiny they were, but she questioned their power.

My two experiences in poetry workshops taught me that I have to be careful. Or maybe, more accurately, they taught me that I need to be less careful in composing poems. At its best, a poem should be like Mary Poppins's bag: a deceptively small-looking container that houses a bounty of "mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts," to use Keats's lovely phrase (and yes, one that also perhaps conceals hatstands, gilded mirrors, rubber tree plants, tasseled lampshades, and a tape measure). At its worst, as it has been for me at various points, a poem can merely be a way of reducing the complexity of a moment, shrinking it to a manageable size, and thus robbing it of all its gorgeous, shocking intensity. I find it amusing to think now that in one section of my dissertation, I censured Gudrun Brangwen, a character from D. H. Lawrence's novel Women in Love, for being an inferior artist because "she creates diminutive, tidy, and tame sculptures of small animals," arguing further that "the cut-off, repressed sexuality of such a modern, 'spiritual' woman makes her capable of destroying a man, both psychically and literally." Well. Methinks the lady (read: yours truly) perhaps protested too much.

And truly, I have to say: lately, while I still enjoy a well-crafted poem (especially one that finds a way to sock you in the gut towards the end), I am increasingly finding myself drawn to memoir. It's untidy. It's rambly. Maybe eventually I'll come back around to writing poetry, but at the moment, memoir seems to have an expansiveness that I need now for what's eating me.

And speaking of eating: at last, here's the recipe, which makes a pile of neatly diced vegetables and pickly stuff that ends up looking like a bowl full of small, gleaming gemstones – if you'll pardon the whimsy of a longtime scribbler of poems.

The nice thing about this salsa is that many of the ingredients – the olives, roasted red peppers, and roasted garlic – can be found on a grocery store olive bar, so you can just get as little of each thing as you need and then toss them all together in one container. Anything pickled and vaguely Mediterranean works, so substitute to your heart's content: artichokes, hearts of palm, capers, marinated mushrooms, and so forth would all be lovely.

Set aside some time, because when you make this, you have to chop things into tiny, neat pieces. And it takes forever. That's what I like about it. It's like writing a poem, in a way.

greek salad "salsa"

  • one large English cucumber, washed and diced small
  • two or three hothouse tomatoes, washed, seeded, and diced small
  • a quarter of a red onion, finely chopped
  • 6 or 7 pepperoncini, finely chopped
  • a large handful of pitted kalamata olives, finely chopped
  • a small handful of pitted green olives, finely chopped
  • 3 or 4 large pieces of roasted red pepper, finely chopped
  • 7 or 8 cloves of roasted garlic, minced
  • several tbsp. red wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar is fine)
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small container crumbled tomato-basil flavored feta

Wash, chop, and gently toss together all ingredients in a large bowl. Serve with crackers or pita chips for dipping, pile on top of grilled or baked fish or chicken – or just eat it plain as a chopped salad.

This is an excellent thing to take to a party. It will be all gone in no time.


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