STING AND NEST
Thoughts on Making a Book
I watch comings and goings in the gray nest above the entrance to our house as I watched the busy lives of wasps as a child. These insects have created a home symmetrically intricate and yet elegantly practical in its ability to endure. I witness the wasps' constant buzz and wariness. I am intrigued by the harmony of clustered cells in which the young are nurtured and protected against threat and hunger. I am captivated by the hovering swarm, the papery walls constructed by instinct, and the possibility of being stung.
A first book of poems is a stumbling into the light. It is clearing one's throat and speaking at risk. It is a self-introduction. It is a flexing of tone and timbre, theme and style. It is a public offering of a private life. It is finding one's footing and inching toward one's vision. It is a revelation of obsession.
When I was thirteen, my parents took me to a walnut-paneled hall on the campus of Williams College to hear Robert Frost read his poems. I had already fallen for this man who understood the pastures, sunsets, woods, and rhythms of my solitary wanderings in the landscape we shared. Hearing his voice secured my devotion. Although I would not claim myself as a poet for another thirty-five years, it was his wondrous defining of place and character, combined with mystery, an edge of darkness, and music, that settled somewhere in my heart and waited.
I have been told that poems whose subject is the domestic life too easily become sentimental, unimportant, and cannot rival the value of the great themes of war, death, loss, and love. I have been told that the poems of family and motherhood are as essential as water, subjects needed by every mother, father, son, and daughter. I have come to believe the latter—to know such poems as essential, and that every traditional poetic theme runs through them like blood.
These are my necessary poems. In several ways, the writing of them saved my life. Saved, as a record or history documents a period of time. Saved, as helping me to endure and enjoy my daughters' young and adolescent years without being overwhelmed by a sense of entrapment. Saved me, by providing a vehicle through which I learned to balance motherhood and marriage with my identities as woman, writer, and teacher.
The earth cracked around the bases of trees and crocuses broke through. Ice shrank away from the lakeshore and the sky was that low gray New Englanders live with much of the year. That last afternoon with my father, he sat with me. I held a yellow legal pad on which I transcribed his thoughts for the last chapters of the novel he'd been feverishly writing and sharing with his family since the coinciding of retirement and cancer. I promised to finish his work. My eyes filled. But I could not return to a novel about romance, medical school, and the influence of war on a young man's life. I have taken my inherited love of language, storytelling, and imagination to poetry.
As much as poems are story, this book is a chapter in mine; and yet the speakers of many of these poems are interchangeable. I find my girlhood intertwined with my daughters', my marriage confused with my parents', my aging entangled with my mother's, my voice melding with voices of women I have known and others I know only through their written words. This is the delight in making poems. One makes discoveries. One becomes more intimate with one's own life. One absorbs and gathers rhythms and images in unexpected combinations. The poet feels previously unimagined things, has moments of clarity, collapses into tears in the writing. Assembling, recording, and revising are replete with mystery and surprise.
In this book, I have tried to orchestrate a journey. It is my journey, and perhaps it is the journey of others. I am indebted to many writers who traveled before me. To Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Tillie Olson, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove, to name a few, I owe thanks for paving the way. I am thrilled to have set out on the adventure of making poems. It has been the richest and most satisfying of any in my life. Thank you for sharing it.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
that because I witnessed
their stab and glitter the stars
would repeat themselves
that everyone saw what I saw
that night's heaps of dark cloud
that God made it that it was good
that with my head tilted skyward
I could turn my neck in all directions
my neck an owl's neck
the night sky was an owl sky
it was my sky
that there was no god
that the pounding
within my flat chest was god
that I could ride the owl's back
into clouds my whole lithe body
wrapped around a white bird
in the magic in the tall tale
in the longest night in the daddy who told
the tall tale in happy ending and good luck
that I would return home unharmed
stars stuck in my curls
lying under the cool clean story