by Amy Gerstler
I dig most those covert parts of a song
that are hardly song at all, when the singer
sucks in a trembly breath to fuel her next lyric.
That frayed inhalation the microphone picks up,
that amplified fragment of animal gasp
is what gets me: precursor to all creaturely music.
When we first kissed, the boy took a deep,
chest filling breath, as though preparing to dive
for treasure nestled on some river bottom. Later
we dug up his ancestors' graves, in the name
of archaeology - unearthed encrusted medallions
and baskets. We excavated a crumbling
staircase with ass-polished banisters, chipped
sediment from a stone effigy of an infant prince
cupping his penis while he sleeps. We unsealed
caves containing stoppered jars labeled "transcendent
experiences," "senseless bickering," "other forms of consciousness,"
"the voice of exceptions," and "what we'll miss most." When he
tripped over an ornamental chest with "unclassified
residuum" written in ancient script on the lid, damaging
it badly, he was suitably chagrined. "The style
of an apology should be simple and brief," he stammered,
all distraught, sure I was going to sack him, Black
goats wandered the valley below. As he yammered on,
I inventoried the toold and maps in my backpack, tried
to look stern and not laugh, emptied my sandals.
This boy returned tenfold any affection he was given;
his earnest, besmirched face as calming to me
as the word "libation." My roaring inner wish
was to dunk his fingers in strong coffee and nibble
them like buttermilk crullers back home. If I'd had
any sense I would have said so in his guttural native tongue.
If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, it's bad form
to be jealous of the dead. Never your rival, he was simply a boy
who was hard on his toys, myself chief among them.
I know, I know. It's been quite a while since I did a Writing Weekly post, mainly because I was away in California. BUT, while I was away, I was able to finish another book of poetry to share with you guys today! The book I'm writing about today is called Dearest Creatures by Amy Gerstler, and it's now one of my favorite collections of poetry. It's quite whimsical. There are plenty of surreal occurances, like the speaker sharing her neuroses with kitchen appliances (who respond, mind you) but it all feels very real. The subjects Gerstler covers, from love to death to growing up and not fitting in, are all very real and relatable. But the way she conveys these moments is what makes her poetry extraordinary. I know plenty of people who could describe a flower in poetic form, but I don't know many who would compare a peony to a hussy, and I don't know of many who could take about poem about peony hussies and turn it into a poignant reflection on death. Do you? It's moments like that that really took me aback. The poem I shared below, "For My Niece Sidney, Age Six," is a long one (they're all long, though, I guess), but it's worth spending a minute and a half on, if only for the odd, but probably relatable for those of us who never quite fit in, descriptions of the speaker's niece ("Last week you refused to cut and paste/ paper shapes like the rest of the kids./ You told the kindergarten teacher you were/ going to howl like a wolf instead, which you did"). I highly, highly recommend reading Amy Gerstler's Dearest Creatures, though if you're not all that in to poetry it may be just a bit too weird to start with. I know that when I was first into poetry, reading Billy Collins and only Billy Collins, that I probably would have shut this book too quickly, but that's just me, and it's now one of my favorites, so who knows?
On a more personal note, I think I'm going to start the terrifying process of trying to publish my poetry. This basically includes submitting 2-6 poems to a number of small presses/magazines and a whole lot of rejection, which is okay, because there are a lot of writers in this world, and I would prefer someone more deserving/experienced be published over me. Maybe, though, there's a small place in some book for my work. Here's hoping, I suppose.
For My Niece Sidney, Age Six by Amy Gerstler
Did you know that the boiling to death
was once a common punishment
in England and parts of Europe?
It’s true. In 1542 Margaret Davy,
a servant, was boiled for poisoning
her employer. So says the encyclopedia.
That’s the way I like to start my day:
drinking hot black coffee and reading
the 1910 Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Its pages are tissue thin and the covers
rub off on your hands in dirt colored
crumbs (the kind a rubber eraser
makes) but he prose voice is all knowing
and incurably sure of itself. My 1956
World Books runs to 18 volumes and has red
pebbly covers. It begins at “Aardvark”
and ends with “Zygote.” I used to believe
you could learn everything you’d ever
need by reading encyclopedias. Who
was E.B. Browning? How many Buddhists
in Burma? What is Byzantine art? Where
do bluebells grow? These days I own five
sets of encyclopedias from various
eras. None of them ever breathed
a word about he fact that this humming,
aromatic, acide flashback, pungent, tingly
fingered world is acted out differently
for each one of us by the puppet theatre
of our senses. Some of us grow up doing
credible impressions of model citizens
(though sooner or later hairline
cracks appear in our facades). The rest
get dubbed eccentrics, unnerved and undone
by other people’s company, for which we
nevertheless pine. Curses, outbursts
and distracting chants simmer all day
long in the Crock-Pots of our heads.
Encyclopedias contain no helpful entries
on conducting life’s business while the ruckus
in your skull keeps competing for your
attention; or on the tyranny or the word
normal—its merciless sway over those
of us bedeviled and obsessed,
hopeless at the school dances, repelled by
mothers’ suffocating hugs, yet entranced
by foul-smelling chemistry experiments,
or eager to pass sleepless nights seeking
rhymes for misspent and grimace.
Dear girl, your jolly blond one-year-old
brother, who adults adore, fits into
the happy category of souls mostly at home
in the world. He tosses a fully clothed doll
into the inflatable wading pool in your
backyard (splash!) and laughs maniacally
at his own comic genius. You sit alone,
twenty feet from everyone else, on a stone
bench under a commodious oak, reading aloud,
gripping your book like the steering wheel
of a race car you’re learning to drive.
Complaints about you are already filtering
in. You’re not big on eye contact or smiling.
You prefer to play by yourself. You pitch fits.
Last week you refused to cut out and paste
paper shapes with the rest of the kids.
You told the kindergarten teacher you were
going to howl like a wolf instead, which you did
till they hauled you off to the principal’s
office. Ah, the undomesticated smell
of open rebellion! Your troublesome legacy,
and maybe parts of your charm, is to shine
too hotly and brightly at times, to be lost
in the maze of your sensations, to have
trouble switching gears, to be socially
clueless, to love books as living things,
and therefore to be much alone. If you like,
when I die, I’ll leave you my encyclopedias.
They’re wonderful company. Watching you
read aloud in your father’s garden, as if
declaiming a sermon for hedges, I recall
reading about Martin Luther this morning.
A religious reformer born in 1483, he nailed
his grievances, all 95 of them, to a German
church door. Fiery, impossible, untamable
girl, I bet you too post your grievances
in a prominent place someday. Anyway,
back to boiling. The encyclopedia says
the worst offenders were “boiled without
benefit of clergy,” which I guess means
they were denied the right to speak
to a priest before being lowered into scalding
water and cooked like beets. Martin Luther
believed we human beings contain the “impoured
grace of god,” as though grace were lemonade,
and we are tumblers brim full of it. Is grace
what we hold in without spilling a drop,
or is it an outflooding, a gush of messy
befuddling loves? The encyclopedia never
explains why Margaret Davy poisoned her employer,
what harm he might have done her or whether
she dripped the fatal liquid on his pudding or sloshed
it into his sherry. Grievances and disagreements:
can they lead the way to grace? If our thoughts
and feelings were soup or stew, would they taste
of bile when we’re defeated and be flavored
faintly with grace on better days? I await the time
and place when you can tell me, little butter pear,
screeching monkey mind, wolf cub, curious furrow
browed mammal what you think of all this.
Till then, your bookish old aunt sends you this missive,
a fumbling word of encouragement, a cockeye letter
of welcome to the hallowed ranks of the nerds,
nailed up nowhere, and never sent, this written kiss.
(I didn't include the poem about hussy peonies because I didn't want to overwhelm you guys with tons of long poems. If you like her work and want to read it, the poem is called Elegy with Peonies, and you can find it towards the bottom of this page.)