Commentary, Essays, On Failure, Poems

Failures are special because they belong to us.

by Traci Brimhall

Failure is such an extraordinary teacher. I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, per se, but it’s a mentor that I’m settling into, one I’m learning to have a more complex relationship with. I can’t remember why I started writing my series of failed poems set in the Land of Nod, but I know it started with “what if…”

I had been writing a series of lullabies and murder ballads for awhile. I was pregnant with my son at the time my friend’s murder trial was going on, and my mother died shortly after my son was born. Grief, to me, has been a mutable landscape, and the forms and guideposts I thought I found in it kept shifting. Nod is the place of exile in the Bible, and it’s a place of dream in a children’s song, so I made them the same place when I wrote. I can’t remember the first one I wrote, but shortly afterwards I asked: “What if these are the right words in the wrong form?”

I began to pour the same language into different forms. I tried mirrored sonnets, triolets, rondeau, blank verse, and here I modeled it after Elizabeth Bishop’s “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” which takes its form from the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” I liked using a form for a child’s poem to engage with the language, so I tried bouncing between forms that lent themselves to grief and those that mimicked lullaby. All seemed to lend themselves to repetition. The sonnet mirrored itself, the blank verse had a refrain, the rondeau and triolets had their structural repetitions. The repetition in a lullaby seems to be there to soothe. The repetition in grief often seems to be there because acceptance is elusive. Anger always turns back into denial or bargaining.

I thought when I started these poems in the Land of Nod that maybe I would discover the right form. I poured the grief lullaby into different molds, and they held themselves up like a mirror. But it’s always looking through a glass darkly. Every form is part of an answer but not a clear one or a complete one. So far they are all failures, or at least in so much as they never fully revealed themselves to me, or revealed me to myself. But I like the idea that their failures are useful, even if they never lead to some sort of success or achievement. They don’t have to lead to a complete or “finished” poem. They’re an itch I like to keep scratching to see grief keep remaking itself, watch it transform with seasons. Failures are special because they belong to us. The poems we think we’ve polished and finished we share, but failures are private, intimate. That’s part of why I currently hope that my failures appear in the same book, all sharing a title and a set of language, metamorphosing into different forms across the book, never settling on a final shape, but perhaps still saying that on one day, I was made incomplete by grief in exactly this way. And that on another day it looked like this, and on another, this. In grief, the daily and the momentary are so important, and this feels like a way to chronicle the shape-shifting nature of a grieving heart. Maybe the failures are just failures to be the person I was before loss. That’s a success we can never hope to have and it feels like to write a finished or definitive version of this poem would be to say I’ve been made whole or accepted it. But I haven’t. I don’t hope to.


Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod

These are the night-blooming bells

These are the children called forth
by the night-blooming bells

These are the dreams purchased on credit
by the sin-bitten and hungering children
called forth by the night-blooming bells

This is the amethyst hour and these
are the indebted dreams purchased by sin-
bitten children hungering for the humdrum
loveliness of the night-blooming bells

This is the hour of radiant dust,
of inscrutable ascension, of unpaid
dreams come due and blinding
the snake-bitten and hungry children
called forth by the night-blooming bells

This is when swallows mistake themselves
for bats and radiant dust, ascend in tiers
through the blinding purple dusk
and silver shower of a thousand dimes
as the snake-bitten children hunger for
the call of the night-blooming bells

This is the dazzlement of mosquitoes
and the swallows that mistake themselves
for bats in bluelight, blind and not minding,
resisting the dust, nesting in the cheap
dreams purchased online by the hungry
and spider-bitten children called to
wander by the night-blooming bells

This migration of ghosts is a common
phenomenon among dazzled mosquitoes
and swallows who suppose they are bats
ascending the purple tiers of dust, that
hour between dog and wolf when dreams
are cheap and willing to charm the dog
back on its leash for the bitten and hungering
children soothed by the night-blooming bells

The hell in springtime is no different
than the ghost foretold as it manifested
among the jazzed mosquitoes
and swallows dressed as bats parading
through the radiant dust leftover
when the light ascends to another dusk
and dreams buy and sell themselves
in front of the wolf-bitten and lingering
children called by the night-blooming bells

This is the unbound book that knows
hell is what you’re afraid you are, that winter
persists with frost-furred ghosts who long
for the dazzling buzz of mosquitoes
and dull heat of swallows, the faint hearts
of bats, testing the busy dust of dusk
for an echolocated hour of prey/not-prey
mistaking the mortgaged dreams of
twice-bitten and vanishing children
for the peal of the night-blooming bells

These are the insurgent winds and ensorcelled
stars singing boondock opera and reading
the book supposedly written on a cold spring
day in hell by ghosts conducting a mediocre
exorcism of possessed mosquitoes feasting
on bewildered swallows and blind bats
flailing in the amethyst light of dusk
when dogs run wild, and dreams ascend
past the reach of coyotes in erotic thrall
and the pin-pricked children hungering
for the summons of the night-blooming bells

This is the morning Jesus sees his shadow
and crawls back to his cave of stars to read
a book bound in human skin about wind-
blistered opera and the perils of hell in springtime
for ghosts, wayward mosquitoes, and swallows
who followed bats to their caves and became
the dust that ascends the tiers of light
at dusk, and the hours grow green as cash
with dreams of changelings smothered
in the woods and the bones of children
who wanted nothing but the bloody
lullaby of the night-blooming bells



Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2017); Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn ForchĂ© for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her children’s book, Sophia & The Boy Who Fell, was published by SeedStar Books in March 2017.

About the Series

“On Failure” is a series conceived by Keetje Kuipers and the editors of Poetry Northwest, featuring essays from a range of poets that investigate the practice of failure, both as poet and citizen. Each featured writer will present a work of their own that they see as a failure, and offer a chance to peek behind the curtain at their creative process. Other entries in the series can be found here.