The last word

Since December I have been working on a particular poetry project. This summer I wrote a poem of which I was really proud called "Jack." It took bits of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale and mixed them up with a child learning how to speak. I began with an image and just elaborated on it until I had a bit of story (which seems to be my primary poetry-writing method). But I think it became more than elaborated image when I made a little discovery through the writing of it. I had been stuck for a while smack dab in the middle of the poem; I needed some direction. Then one day it occurred to me: "Fe, fi, fo, fum." What is particularly of note, linguistically-speaking, in this folktale refrain? It contains mono-syllables using all the vowels in alphabetical order (excluding "a," of course). Silly or not, this was the point at which the poem really began to take shape and become one of my favorites:


for little Anna Sovich

Lips full as lima bean pods,

a pair of cocoons where

words are waiting.

I have to pull them out

like a string from the bowels,

viny vowels and all:

biting your bottom lip in frustration,

fay, fee, fie, foe, and fum

tumble onto the table

like soggy breadcrumbs.

Now you look up at me,

parenthetical eyebrows gathered

like overgrown hedges around

your stubborn frown:

silence has so many definitions

and your eye-language is

ambiguous as poetry.

So now, all that being said, I wanted to submit this poem of mine to literary magazines, but there are certain ways to go about these things (many of which, I am still learning). One bit of wisdom was something I overheard at a poetry reading at my alma mater. A current student was asking the new poetry professor for some advice about submitting poems for publication and what she said was something along the lines of: "Many magazine editors these days are looking to publish multiple poems from a particular poet at a time, particularly poems that have some sort of connecting thread." Now the problem was that I didn't really have any poems that I liked enough to send out that would fit alongside "Jack."

So... after that lengthy preamble, I come to the actual project mentioned in sentence one: of all the ideas I came up with, the one I most wanted to try was one that was based in fairytales and playing cards, sort of similar to the idea behind Calvino's fairytales and tarot cards in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I already had "Jack," next would come a Queen poem and then a King poem. This was so exciting! After having a long hard think, around the end of December, I finally had my Queen poem. Mind you, the idea I had for this project was to have three loosely connected poems, not a numbered triptych, so I didn't want them to be too similar to one another. For Queen, I drew more from the Jack-pot (excuse the pun, I can't help it sometimes), using other fairytale and even Mother Goose Jacks: Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, Jack be Nimble. In the end, I even decided on using a Mother Goose-type rhyme and meter as a change from the free-verse style I am more apt to use:

Queen of Clover

Come over, Green Jill,

from your house on the hill

nimble as a thimble

and down through the still.

On the count of three,

grass-stained and weak-kneed

quickly and prickly,

honey, sticky with bees.

Love caught in brambles

left in unspoken shambles,

not broken but folken,

another losing gamble.

Wanting something for which to fall

wallowing and weeping,

crooked crown and all:

a king worth the following,

a kingdom worth the keeping.

So that one could probably still use a little more work. I'm not sure quite yet. I know some of the rhymes seem to trip over themselves a little bit, I haven't decided whether that adds to the falling-down-hill dramatic action of the poem or just gets in the way. Any input on that matter is welcome. Once that was done, I had only the King poem left to mull over and create. Hmmmm.... I came up with the general idea in January; but the actual writing of the poem took until today. So far, both "Jack" and "Queen of Clover" had ended up being exactly 17 lines (coincidentally), so I knew that that was the general length I was looking for it to be, if possible. It dragged along one stanza, sometimes one line, at a time. This week, the only thing holding me back was the last word of the whole poem. It had to be the exact word that was needed there, nothing else would do; the diction demanded it be so, anything slightly off would make it archaic or cliche or something worse. But in the shower this morning, I knew what it had to be and it was so obvious that I couldn't believe it had taken so long for me to realize it. It was simple, fit the diction and voice, and also hit on the theme tying all three poems (loosely) together. So without further delay:

Childling King

The day you were born

they cut the umbilical cord

with giant silver scissors

like a grand red ribbon:

opening for a fable boy,

both feet on the kitchen table.

Your father had the honor

while the midwife made sure

you had two of each

of the necessary parts:

lips, lungs and all.

Made of neon light

and everything bright

mosquitoes and moths were

smudging up the window glass,

those black disco ball eyes

reading our fortune in your cards.


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