Saturday, May 24, 2008

Erin Malone on "Suspect" and "Story"

I’m up writing this at 2 a.m. on a full-moon night while my husband and son are sleeping soundly in other rooms. And since this is how my poem “Suspect” begins, I guess it’s fitting that I start my discussion here. Also, because it was the hardest poem of the three to write, I’ll admit now to that childhood trick of eating the spinach first so that I can enjoy the rest of what’s on my plate.

I’m both repelled and attracted to risk in poems. Balancing what to reveal, when, and how much is the high-wire act of poetry. Too little on the line and the audience gets distracted, goes to look for snacks; too much and it’s an accident from which they can’t look away. For me, motherhood in the beginning was a wreck. Recalling it, writing about it—a potential pile-up. But without the risk, what’s there? The more I talk or write about something I can’t explain, the more I understand my response to it. I control very little, but I can control what I put on the page, and there’s some satisfaction and sanity to be found in that.

“Suspect” started when I was looking at Paul Celan’s poem “Assisi.” His poem uses blocks of repetition, starting with the phrase “Umbrische Nacht,” or “Umbrian night.” I was experimenting with the sound of the German; I flipped the phrase to say Nacht Umbrische out loud to myself, and to me my mumblings (I don’t speak German) sounded something like “Night at my house.” (My German friend has since pronounced Celan’s line for me and it sounds nothing at all like what I thought. Shoot.)

My earliest draft begins with the repetition of this phrase:

Night at my house.
Night at my house with the curtains open,
Night with my house docked.

A few months went by and I returned to it with some new notes. The tentativeness of my subject shows, I think, in its short, broken lines making their way in the dark. Where to next? The first image of the curtains floating was the thread I pulled, and I let myself be led by the sounds of the words: "float," "docks," "clocks," "poker." Then came this idea of woman as a line drawing, and with it more anxiety in the poem’s repetitions and insistence. For me the line drawing is a turning point in the poem because I was also thinking of a chalk outline, a missing body. And that missing body troubled me most, since it represents complete disassociation, from the husband, the boy, and the self. The risk is disappearance.

“Story,” on the other hand, is much more straightforward, and instead of threat or disappearance it’s all affirmative, a genesis. An accumulation of images of life with my son, including some from time we spent in Italy—pigeons, scooters, God—I felt a lot of joy in writing this poem. My own mother’s voice is revealed in the line “too big for its britches, it takes that tone,” which made me happy in some way I can’t explain. In the end I was surprised to find that the poem also serves me well as an ars poetica.