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Sarah Rose Nordgren: “Letter from a New England Girl”


Shortly after I moved to Provincetown Mass. in the Fall of 2008, I became plagued by a series of horrible nightmares. I had been told that my apartment at the Fine Arts Work Center was known to be haunted, and though I initially dismissed the story as a piece of superstitious art colony lore, the idea would seep into my brain when I was again sitting upright in my bed, clutched by terror from a dream. The thematic connection between the dreams was violence: or more specifically, the self-directed brutality of women as a counter-impulse to the outward-directed brutality of men.

In this poem, which came after one of those fevered nights, Cape Cod’s long history of whaling serves as the backdrop connecting these opposing archetypes. I was thinking about how whalers would voyage out to sea, hunting whales with their harpoons and deconstructing the bodies for their parts, which had many uses. One of the uses for the baleen was in “whalebone” corsets – a common form of self-mutilation by/for women. The voice in this poem is a “ghost” speaking out of this stillness, this pain of constriction. She is the violence of isolation and patience. (Sarah Rose Nordgren)

Letter from a New England Girl

You hide me in the cupboard and I stay here
for years in darkness, counting
imaginary toads, sucking at my hair.

What was hunted haunts my body:
the fingernails growing in the mouth

of a whale. The picket fence was built
around my waist to dam the miniature

ocean my organs swim. If I reach out
my little pink fist, the air stings it. So I wait,

swallowing repeatedly my body’s
wrong opinion of itself. I remember

me in a chair with lamplight offering up
my shape like a gift to the crowded room.
I remember the adoring looks each time

I stuck myself with pins. Whatever I chose
the women said yes and the men said no, or

the men said yes and the women said no.
To me their judgments tasted
like Christmas. I, who feel that I am blessed

with both beauty and a modest soul, still wonder
what you think sometimes since I’m unable

to see you. I would tell you that I’m still here,
decoding the messages, inflicting

only the right kind of violence.
I’m afraid, lest I should offend, to ask

what would happen if I tore you away from me
like a bandage from an old wound.

Sarah Rose NordgrenSarah Rose Nordgren’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Pleiades, The Harvard Review, the Best New Poets 2011 anthology, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2012 James Wright Poetry Award from Mid-American Review and two-time fellowship recipient from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sarah Rose grew up in Durham, North Carolina and teaches at Miami University of Ohio in Middletown.

photo credit: gfpeck via photopin cc