Here’s Part II of my romp through past books, toward the launch of The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, on March 16th.
Since my first book was obviously a lucky fluke (this is how my mind works), I would never get a press to take another. I sent my second manuscript, Do Not Peel the Birches, back to Purdue University Press (if they liked me once….), but the book didn’t win their contest that year. Alas, woe was me, it was confirmed. I was a flash in the pan. The next year, 1993, I sent my manuscript to several other presses as well, but Gerald Stern, Purdue’s final judge that year, picked mine as winner of their newly established Verna Emery Prize, which was book publication.
Not only that, he came to visit me and helped me revise several poems. “Be wilder here!” he’d say. Geez, wilder. I made several poems a lot better because he said that. I tried to let my mind drift outward, or inward, beyond the poem. What else? What else could be there? I was learning to do consciously what had only happened occasionally and unconsciously before, that is to dig beneath the narrative for the rumbling deep levels.
“Do Not Peel the Birches” was the sign my grandfather nailed on the birch tree outside the cottage. I’d only recently begun coming back to the cottage every summer. So little was changed! I was obsessed with seeing, with seeing what was, with my imaginings of what was, of re-living, re-seeing.
We are without our men, hers dead
ten years, mine far away, the water
glassy warm. My old aunt already stands
half in. All I see is the white half,
her small old breasts like bells,
almost nice as a girl’s. Then we hardly
feel the water, a drag on the nipples,
a brush on the crotch, like making love
blind, only the knives of light
from the opposite shore, the shudders
of our swimming breaking it up.
We let the water get next to us
and into the quick of losses we don’t
have to talk about. We swim out
to where the dock goes blank,
and we are stranded, abandoned good flesh
in a black of glimmering. We each fit
our skin exactly. After a while
we come out of the water slick as eels,
still swimming, straight-backed,
breasts out, up to the porch,
illuminate, sexy as hell, inspired.