On Finishing a Poem
“When do you know a poem is finished?”
This, a question I text my friend Melissa Reeser Poulin. I’m at the pool when I ask the question. I’ve come here to work, which seems ironic, but my house is filled with distractions, like piles of dishes, teenage girls on their phones, a dog that needs attention, and most difficult, stories stuck but pushing for space to get out.
This pool is where I wrote the first draft of my first book—a surprise. Writing and publishing a book will always be a surprise, but that I was able to write it on a lawn chair and not at a desk was what surprised me. I didn’t need the quiet I thought I needed. Something about children splashing and laughing, the chatter of adults nearby, the summer playlist overhead, the sunshine and sunscreen and chlorine told me something new about myself and allowed a new story to set sail.
Back then, I was engaged in a subtle but steady battle of change. Going to the pool settled me. It’s why I’m here again. Like a few years ago, there seems to be a shift happening. An opening to a mystery, I suppose. It’s jarring, and so I came to the pool to wait it out.
Waiting is not easy for me, and I want to be done with it, so I text Melissa about finishing poetry. A group of writers I’m working with asked the question and asking Melissa makes me feel like I’m doing something, moving towards something, being productive. Plus, I like the word, “finish.”
“Didn’t someone say something about a poem being finished when the top of a writer’s head feels like it’s coming off?” I add in my message, while cringing at the gruesome image. Surely that was Stephen King. Or Mary Shelley.
“Emily Dickinson!” Melissa texts back.
Of course it was Emily Dickinson—the haunted of all the haunts. I Google what I think I remember of the quote and hope I don’t get any images I won’t be able to unsee in my search. Emily’s thoughts on what a poem is, are the first link that comes up:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
I write her words down in my journal, and highlight, “so cold no fire can ever warm me,” and, “physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” I lean back in my chair and watch a group of girls—maybe they’re 4th graders—try out dives. One girl, the loudest and apparently the youngest, can’t do any of the dives the others can. She doesn’t even come close, but she also doesn’t have the layer of self-consciousness the others wear. “Watch me! Watch me!” she tells them now, and she spins, her hands above her in blades, but her feet plunge into the water first. “Did I do it? Did I do it?” she asks when she pops back up.
The girls eye the one who must be the leader of their group, the one who sports a perfect bun and who wears sunglasses on top of her head. “That’s good,” she says and the rest chime in like a Greek chorus, “Good job. Good job.”
I think about Emily’s rubric for poetry. If I am to feel so cold nothing can warm me, if I should feel like the top of my head is missing, this suggests, rather physically, that reading and writing poetry is uncomfortable. Poetry assumes grappling. There should be some sort of pinch.
In Nikki Giovanni’s Legacies, I feel this discomfort in the communications between the little girl and her grandmother, who wants to teach her how to make rolls, but the little girl says she isn’t interested.
What the little girl doesn’t tell her is that she doesn’t want to learn because if she does, this will mean she’ll be, “less/dependent on the [grandmother’s] spirit.” I picture a grown woman—myself—standing in her kitchen, flour, yeast, and water lined up and remembering that moment years ago when she was called from the playground, and was told to come inside, when she realized that learning to make rolls would not bring her grandmother back either way, and so reliving a memory, lingering in it again and again, may be the only way to know something fully.
Except for quotation marks, there’s no punctuation, or capitalization, and I think this adds to what the poem grapples with. I know full well when I am trying to say or write something that weighs heavily, and when I’m in the thick of expressing it—when it simply MUST come out—the last thing I’m worried about is punctuation. The lack of punctuation makes the poem read quickly, especially the last three lines which are gut punches:
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and I guess nobody ever does
I walk over to the side of the pool and dip my legs in the water. Immediately the hair on my arms stands up and a sigh that is also a gasp escapes me. The girls who were diving are now sitting in blue lawn chairs. They’ve scooted them close to the water so their feet can dangle in it while they sit. The one girl though, is still swimming. She is inches away from me and I think of the little girl in the poem who doesn’t want to come in from the playground to learn how to make her grandma’s rolls. I bet these two would be friends, I think as I move my legs in figure eights in the water. I consider resilience and reliance and other ways we bloom into ourselves while the little girl hums to herself, lining her feet up to the edge of the pool, raising her arms above her head and this time entering the water in a wobbly but also sturdy dive. After several practices, she pops out of the water and says to no one except herself, “I’m going to the boards.”
“I’d say the poem is finished when it has surprised me,” Melissa tells me. I flip through her book of poems titled, Rupture, Light, and stop at, “Body, Post Partum.” The title reminds me that I don’t actually know where my children are this particular moment, and the freedom I feel settles over me like summer sunshine I’m not sure how long I should sit in. I take my sunglasses off and lift my face to the sky for just a minute before I read.
I am alone
and also forever,
Melissa writes in the second to last stanza of her poem, and I look up from the book and inhale sharply, remembering the first day I met her. That night, there was a reception for all the graduate students in our MFA program. We were on a rooftop terrace eating fruit and cheese. The sun had turned the evening sky to purple and orange and pink, and navy was seeping its way into all of it when someone said, “Let the wild rumpus begin,” and I could barely stand up straight. I had no idea what I had just done; no idea what I was thinking coming out here. Melissa asked me a question about home, about my children, about writing—I don’t know—but I started to cry and all I could manage to say was, “I miss Hadley and Harper.” I knew then, and I know now what it means to be alone so rarely and also forever.
Finishing the stanza, Melissa writes
and what can I do
Here is another place to note punctuation and line breaks. There is no question mark, but Melissa ends the second to last stanza at “this,” giving the reader a chance to pause and consider the concept of being alone and not being alone, and what it is we can do with this.
She responds in the last stanza, turning “this” into the physical:
but take it
tender in my hands,
try to soothe
I watch the girl bounce on the diving board and jump. She sails into the water, and my stomach leaps for what she’s figuring out about herself. I pull my knees to my chin, and place my feet on the chair, and think about my own strange flesh, and the hunger I am trying to soothe.
I wonder if that is a poem that will never be finished.
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.