The poem is about starfish in a very literal sense; my mother voiced a vivid memory on the drive to Homer for a writers conference. As we neared Homer, the lupine grew denser, the rain heavier, and my mother recalled the beach covered in hundreds of starfish the last time she walked the Homer spit. She found the bounty beautiful, but not surprising – those were her words: “I wasn’t surprised” – because she didn’t know it wasn’t a daily occurrence. She didn’t know enough about the tides and sea life to be surprised. She thought she was seeing something routine. Only when they weren’t there the next day, and when locals remarked on their rarity, was she struck with the miracle she’d witnessed. I was immediately struck with the poignancy of her response.
Despite a childhood scarce in material comforts, the disgrace of my grandfather leaving the family, a distant brother who escaped to the Army before it was legal and spent several tours in Vietnam, despite going to school in hand-me-downs as my grandmother worked her way to a teaching degree, it never occurred to my mother to be surprised by beautiful things. She has always loved what is lovely, and felt she deserved it as a routine part of her experience. She hasn’t claimed it like a badge or worn it as a rebuke to her roots, but she has walked comfortably and casually into beauty as though it were her due, her natural habitat. The starfish memory confirmed something I’d known but hadn’t realized about my mother – she has never questioned her worth. Hence, beauty has never intimidated her. It is business as usual.
At the same time as I begin to search for ways into the poem I want to write about the starfish, I identify the metaphor of regeneration as an apt frame for the process of drafting and revising a poem. There is an initial shape that emerges in the drafting, a body that will undergo severe amputations, and yet not be diminished or damaged by them. There are stem cells, undifferentiated, unassigned in their duties, embedded in the idea itself, and those will be called to action as various limbs and stanzas are cut. They will grow into what is most needed, and the poem will emerge as the restored, renewed shape, brought to life by losses, made more whole in the redemption of the sacrifices.
I want to write about my mom and her starfish because I want to consider and preserve her strength, of which she is almost completely unaware. I’m interested in her unawareness. She certainly doesn’t see it as triumph; it’s just a way of life. She sees no other viable option but renewal, beauty. So I begin jotting down lines that preserve the initial occasioning of the poem, quite directly. I’m not really drafting yet, just taking notes so I don’t forget about the idea:
She didn’t think it odd to find
strewn – that was the word
she’d read and liked – strewn
“broadside by a generous hand,”
no surprise to beauty in the world.
Already I have begun inventing. She has never used the word “strewn,” that I can recall, unless maybe she was talking about quilt scraps or my brother’s dirty laundry. She’s certainly never read it in an essay by Annie Dillard (the source of the quote) and liked it, or rhapsodized about the carefree languor of the word. That’s entirely my own projection. What it accomplishes, I think, is linking the beauty of the starfish to another form of beauty, the beauty of language. It identifies this character (now, rather abruptly, only inspired by my mother) as attentive to beauty in multiple contexts, someone who collects beautiful things – images, words, trinkets. This is the little scrap I carry into Kwame Dawes’ session on the value of imitation exercises in poetry.
Dawes’ primary assumption was that there’s nothing to fear in imitation because it’s arrogant to believe that we can shed ourselves so completely as to utterly inhabit another’s voice or poetic form. The best result, he said, comes from entering another imagination with our own experiences and voice in tact, without worry that someone might mistake us for another Frost or Plath. (I believe his words were, “Get over yourself.”) He talked about his own practice of putting his own material into the form of a poet he admired to see what became of his idea as it adjusted to a different shape, and about the value, even the urgency of engaging in a tactile way with literary conversation, history, and tradition. Out of his workshop, I tinkered with my idea in a playful homage to William Carlos Williams:
Beside the White Chickens
Not much depends
on the starfish
out of water,
for a farm girl who also
& the languor of learning the word “strewn.”
In this experiment, I’m still attached to the notion of strewn, but violins have entered as a (possibly too easy) stand-in for sophisticated high culture as it contrasts the presumed low culture of the “farm girl”. I’m relying here on conventional assumptions or clichés about economic status as it pertains to experiences or appreciation of beauty, and I’ll need to attend to that later, but for now, I enjoy the notion of how casual or unimportant the starfish seem, how “easy” the “wonder” is for my character, in contrast to the importance Williams’ poem ascribes to the red wheelbarrow. I want to carry that idea forward as I expand and revise.
From Dawes’ workshop, I go on to Peggy Shumaker’s session on expansion and compression in poetry. Shumaker facilitates discussion of one of her very brief poems, “Beyond Words, This Language”, to generate a list of methods for expanding a poem: examine and render the moment before or just after the action in the draft; use the last two lines of the draft as the start of a new rendition; use repetition of a key line or image to develop a meditation or interrogation of one aspect of the draft; add dialogue, memories, or other sensory imagery; incorporate a list; twist the point of view or central character; put the small piece in company with other pieces. During the free-writing time to expand on a draft we’d been writing, I chose to expand on the setting as context for my mother’s lack of surprise:
When she was a child
among dirt and chickens
she read the word “strewn”
and it sounded like stars,
like the violins in the cool concert hall
in the city. Is this the reason
she finds no surprise in the beauty
of starfish on the beach?
My mother traces their outlines on the beach,
their falling bodies in the dark, wet sand
as unconsciously anticipated as the strings that afternoon,
received as a gift she deserved as much as
a familiar tune in her head
all day long.
Obviously Williams’ chickens made themselves right at home. The contrast between the comical chickens (funniest word in the English language, according to linguists) and the more elegant, dreamy starfish does some of the work I want in contrasting my mom’s love of beauty with her humble beginnings. There’s also a contrast between the dry dirt yard of the chickens, and the dark, wet sand of the starfish. The very presence of a shoreline suddenly opens the poem into greater freedom, but might still be playing on tired associations that are too easy and not entirely relevant to the idea I’m pursuing. This draft also sets up learning the word as the preliminary preparation for the eventual starfish encounter. Associating “strewn” with stars first, establishes the parallel of the two types of beauty once she reaches the beach. Here the violins become an actual experience, a “fancy” outing to a city to attend the symphony, rather than simply a place-holder for wealth or sophistication, and they become a third layer of beauty – now we have the natural world, the world of language, and the world of music reinforcing my mom’s feeling of belonging among all three.
I titled the poem “Strewn”, which immediately sets up the careless array of starfish on the beach, as well as the lush language of beauty to which my mother felt accustomed. I don’t need to repeat her invented encounter with the word, though. I can leave that out, unless it has more to do, because at this point it’s merely repetitive. I also observe that this draft is working more on asserting meaning than on crafting image that conveys meaning without such overt explanation. I’d prefer to reverse those proportions.
IV. Imitation, Part Two
Later, when I have time on Sunday morning, I use Mark Irwin’s “My Father’s Hats”, a poem that happens to show up in my email as the daily offering from poets.org, as a model. Irwin’s poem catches my attention because it is about a parent’s possessions, as my poem is about a parent and what she feels entitled to “own” if not literally possess. So I pay attention to Irwin’s form on a very basic level: he indents the odd lines and left-justifies the even lines in his poem of 19 lines. Without a hard copy, it’s difficult to spend the time I’d like annotating the poem, so I expand on my material, for the first time giving it some space to develop, adding description and context, using Irwin’s alternating indents, though I play with the shape a little and left-justify the odd lines of the first stanza, then the even lines of the second, trying to get at a reversal or pivot point midway through the poem, as my mom moves from childhood wreckage to adult access to beauty.
My mother learned the word as a child –
___it sounded like violins in cool city air.
More familiar with chickens and dirt roads
___than art, she knew she deserved
the word. It felt like hers, the same way
___the beauty of shadow on the wreckage of truck
did not surprise her. She was born to it –
___easy wonder of light and glimpses
of divine order. The Sunday morning
___her brother threw the knife at her foot,
___the minister preached on grace, his sudden gentleness
a grace in itself. He used the word –
___strewn – must have read it somewhere –
and she pictured the beach she would visit someday
___where starfish lay in the heavy, damp sand,
some of them missing limbs. They would not surprise her,
___either, shining like wet rocks, but she would marvel
for a moment, about subsisting on less,
___the careless shimmer and ripple so near
the starfish could still feel the spray.
Most notably, my uncle has entered the poem. There’s an incident my mom has always told with unsettling aplomb wherein she, at about seven years old, was antagonizing her teenage brother, dancing and dandling across the threshold of his bedroom. He told her she’d better stop or he’d cut her toe off, she took the dare, and he threw a bowie knife at her foot and it stuck in the wooden floor inches from her toes. That has fascinated me since I was a child, probably because of the danger and violence in it, combined with her matter-of-fact retelling. It was an unthinkable threat in my own very secure and safe childhood. It made my mom seem daring and brave and also a little bit the put-upon heroine keeping her pluck amid the bitterness that pervaded the men in her family.
So here is that knife-wielding sibling doing a much better job of representing my mom’s rough childhood than any generic chicken-yard. The human conflict and the understated violence do more to set up how much of a rescue or haven beauty might have naturally seemed to my mom. I’ve also added an element of the divine in the Sunday morning setting of the knife-throwing, contrasting the devilish action of my uncle with the minister’s grace. I’ve put the word “strewn” into his mouth in this draft, but haven’t given him the dignity of owning it; he’s a borrower, an interloper, and my mom is the true believer, so to speak.
However, what I’ve inadvertently done in allowing a time-skip forward from the childhood moment to the adult starfish encounter is to elide exactly what needs most attention: how my mom reconciled her dangerous surroundings with the beauty that seemed divinely assigned to her. I often pretty myself out of really defining an idea, and I’ve done it here with ending lines that sure sound like ending lines – they have that feeling and rhythm – but do little to heighten the experience of the moment, the moment that is entirely absent, in point of fact. In this version, too, it’s worth noting that I found the regeneration parallel too appealing to resist, and the starfish regrowing lost limbs was too close to my mom’s near-amputation to leave alone. Whether it serves is yet to be discovered.
By Tuesday afternoon, I am ready to revisit the content during Nancy Lord’s session on abcedarian poems. She gives us fifteen minutes to recast a poem we’re working on using the alphabet to structure it, and I follow the introduction of my uncle in a form that, for me, seems to demand a causal chain or series of explanations or justifications.
A knife stuck in the floorboard
beside her toe,
carving his sneer, his
disdain into the wood.
Even if she tried apology,
folded like a bloom in the
he would bark at her
justifying his rage, his
laceration of the air between them, severe
message about the borders he patrolled
now that Father was gone, now that they were
open to speculation in town,
prying glances, whispered
queries, the weight of judgment.
these options evaporated
under the town’s iron
watchfulness that sealed them in a jar, specimens
y on a shelf out of reach. Helpless, he grew
zealous as the blade.
While I certainly won’t keep these line breaks, the demands of the alphabetical structure opened up more of my uncle’s character and motivation, so he’s less flat, more round. It also incorporates his sense that salvation is no longer available, while my mother absolutely embraces it, both through beauty and through faith. Some of the words that appeared at the behest of the alphabet are unique and fresh additions to the poem: carved, bloom, bark, laceration, zealous. And pursuing knife imagery and language opened up the pun on sever/e, which is me entertaining myself, for better or for worse. The question now is where to take the poem next. It seems to have split into versions focused on my mom and on my uncle. Do they belong in the same poem? Are they distinct movements? Is the poem still about the starfish? Has beauty been replaced with resilience? I want to revisit the Irwin imitation and see whether there’s any gain in fusing stronger sections from both.
Hard copy finally in hand, I recognize just how limited my imitation was. It’s interesting to me that the first line, “Sunday morning I would reach”, is indented, which indicates a slight delay or hesitation, a following after that emphasizes the boyishness of the speaker, the hesitating child trying to emulate his father in a closet where he was not supposed to be, among concrete things instead of people or actions. The verb tense, “would reach”, suggests pattern, something that happened in the past, but repeatedly. It’s also the cue to the wistful imagination the boy indulges of his father as a hero-king. The smell of his father in the hat bands allow him, repeatedly, to escape into the almost-belief that “I was being / held”. Then the poem shifts to the current moment, the child grown to man and reckoning with his father’s death and the difference between the image he’d constructed and the reality. Then poem’s smooth movement between then and now is useful instruction, and the recurrent action among concrete objects shows me a new way to approach my mother’s rendezvous with beauty. Here is the revision:
Sunday mornings, she would gather eggs,
slipping her hands beneath the white feathers,
biddies murmuring in prayer.
The warm globes felt like hers, the same way
the beauty of shadow on the wreckage of truck
did not surprise her, the same way
the knife had missed her toe –
of course it had – when her brother threw it.
Inside, the blade stood sentry
in the floorboard, witness
to all that she refused to lose.
She knew what she deserved:
salvation, not for good works, but purely
for faith that the world was lovely,
that it held things like starfish she had never seen,
but would, one day, so far from this Missouri dirt
that she would feel she’d lost a limb, remembering
that what we need grows back, casual as scattered seed.
I’ve started with the chickens again, but made them more action than object, using them to characterize the local church ladies (biddies meaning both old women and chickens) who are less aware of beauty and grace and are more routine or formulaic in their faith, in contrast to this young thinker who is looking beneath the surface for sustenance. I’ve kept the sense of ownership, but transferred it from placeholders for wealth to immediate images of beauty in the yard itself, unifying her perceptions of her own place and her at-homeness with beauty instead of isolating her from it by making it something out of reach. I’ve also fused those images of beauty with her expectation of her own wholeness despite the violence and the memories of it that linger in the physical blade. I’ve explored the idea of salvation more overtly, perhaps still too overtly in some rather explanatory final stanzas, but I feel empowered to do this by Dawes’ conviction that figurative language that distances emotion and meaning is misplaced and mostly the result of instruction rather than good practice. I’ll need another reader before I know whether the starfish, now the exotic otherworld she’ll someday reach, not as solution, but natural extension of her own environment, are too abrupt.
This poem isn’t finished, but it’s ready for a reader now. The unpacking and honing of initial impulse has left a lot of pieces on the cutting room floor, but what has regenerated in those gaps is richer, I believe, stronger, and closer to what it should be. So goes the starfish.
To read the completed poem, click here.