Cathexis Northwest Press
CALIFORNIA; FISH BAR; THE SECOND TIME
By: Mara Lee Grayson
A woman marries, not expecting
to become a married woman. We grow used to walking
in bare feet.
Across the surge at Pebble Beach, I carve a memory
and call it conservation. Others call it
contradiction, perfect fit.
But I am restless. I sleepwalk through the midnight music,
morning coffee, aureate Americana. Jack bore us
the moon, of course –
girls like Joyce, my father’s lovers, me.
Arbiter of madness, doorways standing,
polite as a shadow: thank you
on the way out. Come again. Then enter.
Reddest mouths, barest teeth. We like sailors shimmy
up the mast, strap our bodies
cross the boom. We string flags to staffs, curtains to windows,
lashes to eyes. Every night we idol-worshippers
go from daughter to wife,
married again and again to the negative space on the page.
Inside a Village side-street bar, sometime soon
it will be morning: when sun sneaks in,
the walls in here are blue. In darkness
we are drowning, sometimes
floating, looking for the flecks of light that might
be eyes, lips that speak in echoes. Along the wall
a fat striped fish swims backward. Along the wall
a thick arm stretches, sidles; a woman’s
slender fingers trail the fish – she slips into a ship
that wakes the water. We are submarines
in cold spots, cavernous. We are single acts of espionage.
Starving fish here cough up smoke. Shutters sheathed
and surfacing, we are hands curled round a lukewarm bottle,
overlapping, feeling for our fingertips.
THE SECOND TIME
We find men faster than we find ourselves.
One light glimmers through the way they say that death is just
a tunnel (two eyelids that narrow out this life)
A single stream of light, between particles of dust, illuminates
the idol at the end of long-stretched stone.
With legs tucked in I’m staring at my kneecaps in the darkness,
feeling for the soft spots,
bruises come from kneeling.
Mara Lee Grayson's poetry and prose have previously appeared in Mobius, Fiction, Construction, The Ilanot Review, Columbia Journal, and English Journal, among other publications. She is the author of two books, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing (2018) and Race Talk in the Age of the Trigger Warning: Recognizing and Challenging Classroom Cultures of Silence (2020), both published by Rowman and Littlefield. Grayson is an assistant professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Mara Lee Grayson:
I’ve been writing since I was very little. It was always an outlet, though I didn’t realize then that it was something I could pursue more intentionally. When I was ten or eleven, one of my teachers submitted a poem I’d written to a young writers’ contest. That was my first publication.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Might sound strange, but I’m not certain it was poetry that made me fall in love with poetry. I think originally it was music and theatre, both of which were a big part of my childhood. It was about rhythm and expression, which, for me, turned into poetry.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
I have a real fondness for bittersweet poems. “Nearly a Valediction” by Marilyn Hacker and “The Benjamin Franklin of Monogamy” by Jeffrey McDaniel get me every time I read them. I’m also infatuated with the work of Jan Heller-Levi, with whom I had the privilege of studying as an undergraduate student. More recently, I’ve been reading a lot of chapbooks, often from newer poets. As someone who writes fiction as well as poetry, I love how in many chapbooks the poems collectively tell a story.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I need time to work on poetry. That’s not to say that poems never come quickly, but I think differently as a poet than I do as a scholar and it’s not necessarily an easy toggle back and forth. When I get stuck, I read. I move around a lot, from my desk to the sofa to the floor and back. I carry a notebook everywhere and I have extras scattered around my apartment. It’s about receptivity, and if something comes to me, I go with it.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
On some level, I think poetry captures moment rather than movement but it’s the movement of the poem that makes us pause in the moment. So, although I sometimes get a craving to work with a particular form, I usually begin with the poem or a line and let it guide me into form.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Keep writing. Read as much as you write, if not more.
What is your editing process like?
In my poetry, fiction, and my scholarship, I’m a chronic over-writer. I do a lot of trimming in revision. I read the work aloud. I usually edit on the computer, but I will often print a hard copy to read and reread first. The words to me always sound different when I hold the paper in my hand.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
I don’t! Eventually, I let some of them go.