Essays

The Biography of a Poem

by Julie Marie Wade | Contributing Writer

During the late spring of 2002, I enrolled in a graduate fiction workshop at Western Washington University.1 This essay owes a great debt to Ben Shahn’s 1964 essay, “The Biography of a Painting,” which caused me to consider the life and history of my own literary creations and challenged me, specifically, to recognize the unique confluence of circumstances that facilitated and necessitated the making of one particular poem. Although I had been admitted to the program as a poet and was planning a creative thesis comprised of original poems, my academic advisor encouraged me to participate as often as possible in workshops of other genres. I was already writing creative nonfiction, so I entered those workshops and seminars with a certain confidence, believing myself capable of the requirements and sufficiently fluent in the discourse. But the fiction workshop recommended by my advisor was a class I entered with trepidation. For several weeks, I simply “adapted” poems and memoir pieces to fictional form, changing names and points of view but keeping the essential content the same. Perhaps my teacher noticed my stories seemed like thinly disguised personal narratives; perhaps she simply sensed my reticence to embrace my foster genre.

One night after class, she detained me a moment. “I’ve noticed that you have a compelling command of language and a very unique voice,” Professor G began. But you’re not a fiction writer were the words I expected to hear next. Instead: “I’d like to ask to join your thesis committee, assuming it isn’t already full. My MFA is in poetry, even though my published collections are fiction.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied, taken aback by her forthright request.

“Have you given much thought to the thesis yet?” she inquired.

“Well, it’ll be a collection of love poems, I think. That’s what I’ve mostly been writing. I’m getting married in June, so this volume will be produced during my first year of married life. Undoubtedly, my marriage will influence my content.”

The fact of my impending marriage was not something I shared readily, so I was surprised to hear myself reply so honestly to Professor G. A moment after speaking, I thought of her office door in the main Humanities hallway and the sign that read, The real question is not whether the state should marry queers but whether the state should marry anyone. I hoped I hadn’t offended her, and in fearing this, I blushed and looked down at the floor.

“You know,” she said, with a generous smile, “you remind me a great deal of myself at your age.” She paused and stepped away to collect her papers. “Of course with one notable exception—the fact that you’re straight and I’m gay.”

I’ve always been told that poets have “good ears for language,” that we hear differently than other people—perhaps because we listen for different sounds. Most of the time, heterosexuality is an implicit assumption. I did not ever have to declare to anyone in my first twenty-one years, “I’m straight.” Unpracticed as I was with this utterance, Professor G’s remark represented the first time in my conscious memory that I had ever heard the word “straight” applied directly to me. It may or may not have mattered that the moniker was applied by someone who lived and thrived outside this expected identity. But when I heard it—that word straight—in context of my own personhood, I knew instantly and intuitively that it was wrong. I heard for the first time the sound a lie makes, like a cat running across piano keys or the screeching of tires before a crash.

***

The last night of fiction workshop—a sultry evening in June, the air clotted with fragrance, the campus in full bloom—I arrived late and disoriented. I was two days away from my elopement, and I had not told my fiancé my secret. Instead, I had professed to my best friend in graduate school—the one waiting at my apartment just then, perhaps asleep or merely drowsing in the soft wreckage of my bed—that it was she whom I loved. I heard the words rise from my own throat, and they were true: terrifying, risky, true. And to my amazement and my relief, they were returned.

I sat in the classroom, teeth chattering, heart drumming up in my ears, impeding concentration. Professor G wanted us to do a final writing exercise. “Think of a lover,” she said. “It can be your current significant other, or someone you were involved with in the recent past. Now imagine if you had met that person in high school—or if you did, then earlier—junior high, elementary school. Would you have been friends? Would you have even noticed each other? Would it have been love even then, at first sight?”

It was as they say: I couldn’t hear myself think. There was Charlie, and there was Angie, the past and the present, the lie and the truth. I didn’t know either of them in high school; I didn’t even know myself. I knew a girl named Sara Timmons who sat beside me in Psychology class, who proudly called herself a lesbian and dated a senior named Heather Graham. Once, Sara asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I said no. She asked if I was a lesbian, and I said nothing. A series of questions followed, and at the end of her spontaneous survey, she said, “Well, I think there’s an 80-85% chance you’re a dyke.” It was like a bad grade on a report card, something I couldn’t take home to show my parents.

“Would anyone like to share?” Professor G invited. I looked down at my paper; it was blank. I thought about my boyfriend—the ring he had bought, the convertible he had rented, the priest who would meet us in the orchard two days henceforth. I thought how, when we first met, I had worked so hard to make him like me. I had needed him to like me—to quell other people’s suspicions and to quiet my own mind. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a good time with Charlie; it was only that the person I became with him was merely a composite of certain traits, a transposition of myself into a different, more harmonious key.

“Julie?” The focus of the room shifted to me, but I had nothing to offer.

“I’m sorry, Professor. I’m not feeling well. I think I need to leave.”

***

I spent the summer of 2002 as a refugee from my past. Angie and I packed her car with books and camping gear. We took to the highways with a tattered map and a cell phone that got occasional reception. While I drove, she read poems aloud from the Master’s comps list; while she drove, I wrote a new set of love poems. I began to see the days as poems and interpret the moments as poems. I became a journalist of our travels, recording the story of the road trip as the story of our love: two journeys intimately intertwined. These poems were linear, narrative, the direct descendants of lived experience:

At first kiss I discovered you were small,
the curled creature of your mouth flickering,
fluttering—a waning candle flame, a falling curtain.

(from “Anemone”)

I wake up in bed, alone.
We have been driving seven days to arrive here,
in middle Tennessee, where the landscape bleeds
green through thick veins pulpy with seed life and
the silhouettes of tree stumps with spiky hair
mottle a milk-wet sky.

(from “At Your Parents’ House”)

All day it has been raining,
and all day this poem has been sinking
into my skin like sticky blossoms.
The sky a grey-blue bucket,
heavy and tarnished to its rims with
copper lightning—shaking, rumbling,
this rain I have carried in ruddy pails
from far north to the sun-thick South.

(from “The Storm”)

These love poems would become the first section of my Master’s thesis. They were explicit, emotion-centered, un-self-conscious in their celebration of the body and the beloved. They are poems I could not have written without the immense freedom and the blessed anonymity of the open road. In them, I did not wrestle with identity labels or how my future life would change as a consequence of my “lesbian relationship.” For those months, I loved Angie and was loved by her as an unmarked person. I had implicitly renounced my presumed “straight” identity, but I had never publicly claimed a “queer” one. These were the poems of looking in and gazing at, but they would also become, inevitably, the poems of coming out.

***

By January 2003, I was living my life as an openly gay woman with a female partner in a largely accepting and supportive academic community. We were still sheltered from a great deal of prejudice that would strike our lives in the coming years; if anything, we were given a false impression by our kind colleagues and teachers that the world beyond Bellingham, Washington, would be as affirming and progressive as this small population had been.

Of course I knew my family would not affirm me, but as I contemplated the conclusion of the Master’s degree and began to think seriously about sending my poems out for publication, I felt obliged to speak honestly with my parents. This conversation, too, became part of the poetic record:

At first, silence, and then a thud of breath as if
her throat has slid through the chute of her lungs
and landed, heavy—like a stone—like a sword
lodged suddenly inside it.
“This explains why you don’t wear make-up,” she sighs.

(from “My Mother, On Learning I Love a Woman”)

This was one of the last narrative poems I ever wrote. It was certainly the last of its kind of literal documentation of events. I would still write poems that told stories—my own and other people’s—but there would be a distance thereafter between myself and the speaker, a distance that had not existed before. In the years to follow, I would write many love poems for my partner, but out of respect for our privacy and a conscious desire to protect Angie from any possible objectification, my love poems became more coded, more meditation and less exposé:

What I have tried                so often
not to say

leavens the earth, uneasy

silence.

Everywhere

the blue fissure-flowers
bent on light

petals unscroll blank &
dainty faces

(from “East of the City”)

During the final weeks leading up to my thesis defense—in the case of poets, a public reading from the newly completed collection of poems—I became estranged from my family, disowned and condemned. What began with harassing phone calls culminated in the death of possibility: for us, the possibility of reconciliation. Unlike the first phone call with my mother where a certain coherence could be traced and captured, the ensuing breakdown of communication with my parents—their slurs and accusations, and later their portent silences—were no longer transcribable in the old way. So in addition to the loss of family, a severing of ties between my present and past lives, there was also an overwhelming sense of a loss of language. What I most wanted to say had become unsayable; what I most needed to express had become inexpressible.

Shortly before I was to present my poetry at a public reading, Professor G asked me to her office to discuss final revisions of the Master’s thesis, a collection I had titled The Lunar Plexus. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she said, “and you take whatever you want from it, or nothing at all. When I was working on my MFA in poetry at the University of Nebraska, I was engaged to a man. I realized in retrospect that the entire first year of the program I had been writing love poems about him as a rationalization for the life I had chosen—a life that never felt quite right.” I sat quietly, relieved but still unbelieving. “The next year, when I finally stopped lying to myself and ended that relationship, I went through a period where I couldn’t write anything at all. I was stuck between what had been and what was going to be, entirely speechless in the Now. And so I did something stupid: I went back to those first-year love poems and changed all the pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘she’ and ‘him’ to ‘her’ and submitted the manuscript as my thesis. The poems had been all right to begin with. They were persona poems, in a sense, even though I thought they were confessionals. But after I changed them, they became the worst, most stilted, foreign poems I’d ever written. I hated them, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

“So, in trying to make the poems more true, you ended up making them more false?”

“Exactly. But you didn’t do that. You wrote new poems, and they’re beautiful poems. At the same time, they’re all written very close to the subject matter, which makes it hard to get distance, to put the whole journey into some kind of perspective. I know your director told you that you need one more poem to really tie this book together, and I agree. You have a string of moments, and now you need a clasp.”

***

It was late March or early April of 2003. Angie had gone to class, and I was sitting at my desk surrounded by all my old papers and composition books, wishing I could write the poem to unify my collection and place it in the larger context of my life. Then, I came across the writing prompt from fiction workshop, notes taken nearly a year before. I had written simply, with a shaky hand: “Imagine if you met Angie in high school.” In my life at this moment, it was nearly impossible to write what had really happened. Old friends were angry with me for “keeping my sexuality a secret.” My college roommate had turned against me because I allowed her to “change in front of me” when we were in school. My parents had made clear their deep shame at having raised such “an immoral daughter.” I was no longer a documentarian, reporting on the state of my life. Instead of the what was, I needed to look at the what if.

The first draft of this poem was written in a single afternoon, just as it appears now but without a title:

Extreme Unction2This poem was published in Real South Magazine in 2013.

If we had met in high school, you so Southern
you could have swallowed whole the vowels I cut
like apple—sharp knife of my tongue, serrated,
parsing into pieces each hard word heavy with
our common language while all you heard was
the shudder and snap, my guillotine splitting
your silence.

One thing is certain: I would have noticed you,
slumped or leaning against the white parchment
wall, writing something, your tidy scribble,
your displaced face among the plaid, the preened
and polished.

I would glide by, rumpled swan on wrinkled water,
passing and passing for golden as the pond, as the
pleated girls with gilt rims of their halos rusting,
wound like bracelets around wrist-bones, their eyes
coiled wires and blue burners on a gas stove
(aglow but unattended).

You would have forced the issue, skirted in
red wool and pinned for safety—my angsty fingers
always unraveling thread.
You would have surprised me with a shimmer of
myself behind communion curtains, that crook
of altar in its satin shroud where blood and water
make wine together and loneliness is no longer a sin like
swallowing before the blessing is given.

You would have noticed me, fingering the cigarettes
you left, taking one like the Last Temptation to
my lips, and wishing, not for holy water, but the
wet mouth of a lover and the fiery torch of his tongue—
her tongue—a fresh baptism of confusion, and maybe
then at seventeen I could have trusted someone with
my secrets, set down the carving knife intended for
my life, sculpting out aesthetic presentation—the
unflinching grace of the pumpkin face—and let
my body be beautiful and full of seeds, pulpy and
pithy with its ridges and a-symmetries.

We would have climbed the stairs, skirts swishing,
books pressed to our chests, and ducked through the
stained glass doors into the chapel corridor,
then up, up, up to the place where the priest hanged
himself—old remnant of rope still dangling—
to the window ledge where the pigeons congregate
and where, if we had tasted each other then, our
hands frenzied, our heads rimmed with feathers
like leaves—I am certain every line in this story
would now be different, if much more difficult
to believe.

The subjunctive revived for me a sense of possibility. I thought of Dickinson and the phrase often interpreted as her credo: “I dwell in possibility.”  If I had met Angie in high school, what possibilities would have opened to me that were otherwise closed at that time? I had experienced a generalized attraction to girls and women since childhood. Sara Timmons, with her acute scrutiny and adolescent candor, had identified the lesbian possibility for me. In terror, I turned the other way.

True to the emphasis I place on sound, the value I assign to voice in writing, this poem moves immediately toward variations in Angie’s inflections and my own. I was conscious in her presence of hearing myself differently, the “sharp knife” of my own precisely sliced syllables compared to her looser, softer renditions of the same words. Angie went to public high school in rural Tennessee and had often remarked how strange it was for her to imagine my high school experience at a private Catholic girls school in Seattle. I hinted at our conversations in the poem when I wrote, “your displaced face among the plaid, the preened/ and polished.”

In the next stanza, I explored my own displacement in that crowd. The use of the word “passing” and its repetition was deliberate. We had explored the concept of “passing,” in a racial sense, in graduate school, and through this lens, I had begun to consider my own life in terms of “passing.” I was a queer person born into a straight family—as most queer people are—and I had no awareness of the possibility of being otherwise. Every romantic feeling I ever held for a woman had been channeled elsewhere—into reading, writing, cross-country races, piano lessons, and over time, into romantic relationships with men. I was “passing” for who and what I was supposed to be even in high school, “a rumpled swan on wrinkled water,” both adjectives conveying the absence of “straight” form.

The fulcrum of this poem, the moment where it turns toward its outcome, is the line and a half that follows: “You would have surprised me with a shimmer of/ myself behind communion curtains.” My enjambment here was also deliberate, as I remember reaching for the word and not knowing exactly what it was or should be—“a shimmer of” what? Sara Timmons had told me a great deal about myself during our candid conversations. She had surprised me, and alarmed me, but there was nothing at stake then because I did not love her. In order to risk something—exposure, rejection, loss of certainty—a more potent offering was required. In this poem, I re-envisioned Angie as the person who could make that offering, who could hold up a mirror in her steady hand and allow me to see myself more clearly. Myself—the person who had so long been passing for someone else.

Within this imagined scenario, I was able to envisage a temptation worth succumbing to. Because language originates in the mouth, it is intimately connected with kissing and other oral pleasures. When I first told Angie I loved her, we smoked a pack of cigarettes before our mouths ever touched each other. She had been smoking since high school, and her cigarettes were the physical gift she extended in friendship before anything more of herself had been revealed.

An image that stands out to me from this passage is the violent metaphor of “the carving knife intended for my life.” By this point in the poem, I had gained momentum. The inner critic was silent, and the inner artist was compelled to create. But in looking back at this image, even the day I first drafted the poem, I wondered what I meant by it. I had not previously understood my life in those terms, had not previously considered the pressures of conformity and normality and fundamentalist Christianity as a knife at the throat. The knife had been on my mind, though, as it appears in the first stanza, the first way I describe my own tongue. Maybe I didn’t only mean the way I slice my syllables; maybe I also meant that I had learned to regard my life with knife-like precision—decisive as a guillotine. Angie did not only speak more slowly, more lyrically than I, but she also allowed room in her words and in her worldview for a kind of ambiguity not previously permitted in my own.

I was aware that my mother had encouraged a tremendous amount of physical preening, which she directly connected to my attainment of a boyfriend, a fiancé, and hopefully, a husband. She had made clear to me throughout my adolescence that I was not concerned enough about my appearance, which greatly endangered my status as a desirable woman, a dateable woman, and ultimately a marriageable one. But with Angie, in her presence, I felt beautiful, luminous. It wasn’t as though I surrendered all thought of “aesthetic presentation,” but rather, I was able to embrace a natural beauty in myself and in her that my mother did not recognize as real. It was too intrinsic, too effortless. Real beauty required work. Had this love with and for Angie been possible in high school, I might have “let / my body be beautiful” many years before, rather than forcing upon it a tailored, conformist, pre-fab “attractiveness” that served only to please my mother and never myself.

At Holy Names Academy, where I passed four years and graduated as one of six valedictorians—anxious, overachieving girls that we were—there was a small church, a miniature version of the Sistine Chapel with stunning Romanesque architecture and a ceiling painted like the delicate pink of an egg shell’s interior. Mass was held in this place several times each week, but after classes ended for the day, the chapel was deserted. I had taken to studying there—climbing the stairs from the bride room at the back of the first floor to the “window ledge where the pigeons congregate.” I read and wrote and thought about the legend that a priest had killed himself in that place many years before. There was, if you looked closely, “a remnant of rope still dangling,” and rumor had it that the priest had ended his life in grief over mortal longing. Some said he was having a sexual relationship with a sister of the Holy Names order, others that he was simply tempted by desire for her beyond what he could bear; still others—in the hushed tones that indicate the truly forbidden—suggested that this priest had been in love with a monk and sickened by the perversity of his own homosexual desire. I thought of this priest often and his unhappy fate, and I genuinely mourned for him. At the same time, since I knew in my heart that I was not a true believer and wanted, more than anything, a lover of my own, I often imagined how I would meet him—because it had to be a him—there, near the clerestory windows. It was my secret wish to surrender my virginity in that place, to redeem, in a sense, its lore of tragic romance with my own blissful consummation.

But I did not, despite these pervasive fantasies, lose my virginity in the upper vestiges of the miniature Sistine Chapel. My life unfolded after high school in a serious of unsuccessful romantic ventures with men and a series of passionately over-rationalized relationships with women. The story of my next five years post-high school involved the familiar paradox we sang in mass: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” At the poem’s conclusion, I contemplated how different—“and much more difficult to believe”—the outcome would have been if I had fallen in love—openly, honestly—with Angie in high school. Far from disputing this possibility in fact—for if she had been there, I have no doubt I would have fallen in love—the poem considers the butterfly effect of such a scenario. Every word in my story would be different, catapulting me beyond any credible denial concerning my sexual identity. I likely would have lost my family sooner. I likely would have made an entirely different set of friends. I likely would never have had sex with a man.

This poem is neither an apology for choices made nor a requiem for choices not made. I see it instead as a poignant offering to the past, a way of honoring the Before by considering it anew in light of what came After. The title presented itself a few days later as I was thinking again of those final masses of my high school years. There were seven sacraments. We had learned them well. Each one held an imaginative possibility for me, but none was more intriguing than the idea of “last rites,” the special blessing performed upon the dying. Then, I thought, This poem I’ve written blesses the death of something also. It was that possibility again. What didn’t happen in high school had happened in graduate school. My life had been changed forever, and I knew it, and I would have to build in the life ahead a new web of people to care for, people to care for me.

Perhaps the “passing” in this poem also suggests the “passing over” from one realm into another. “Extreme unction,” the formal, sacramental name for “last rites,” marks the passing of a soul from one state of life into another state of life through death. I observed a series of striking parallels. We, Angie and I, were about to graduate from our Master’s program—a kind of passing on. We were about to move across the country to a city where we would be, both of us, strangers to all but each other—another kind of passing on. Love also is a passing on, from a state of solitude to a state of unison, the most extreme unction I could imagine. And so it seems fitting, in retrospect, that this poem should inaugurate a new way of writing poems, of placing them in the speculative realm, which is also called the subjunctive—that purest realm of possibility. And because, as the nuns used to say, with their tone of hope inflected with gravitas, When the Lord closes a door, some way he opens a window. This poem opened such a window for me, closing for good the documentarian’s door while flinging wide the windows of fractured polyphony and lyric heteroglossia of my many, future what if? poems:

If This Were the Last Poem

I ever wrote, I would give you the moon
that is visible in daylight and the scrubbed
pines of the Carolina coast, which I have not
yet seen but dream of sometimes. And it’s strange
because I think if I gave you a poem, I would want
also to give you a story. A story inside a poem,
assuming that’s possible …

Which, of course, it is. Everything is possible now.

 


 

Julie Marie Wade is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose, including Same-Sexy Marriage (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018), SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016), When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. In 2019, Noctuary Press will publish her first co-authored collection with Denise Duhamel, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose.  She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach.