ELEPHANT, 1916; SMITHSONIAN DISPLAYS DAGGER FROM THE STARS; IMMORTAL JELLYFISH, 1998
By: Bailey Blumenstock
One great tooth was infected,
hollow as a gun barrel.
Before the parade, they gave her
bourbon to drink and capped
the tusk with brass, draped
a thin velvet cape over
the crumpled skin of her back,
strung beads from one
beaten ear to the other.
When the man mounted her
holding the bullhook aloft
like a knight before the joust,
she noticed only the smoothness
of the cobble beneath her,
the wide-eyed child, held high
on someone’s shoulders,
the lilies the city planted
in anticipation of her arrival
And then the steel prod
met her cheek at the place
where the infected bone found flesh
and carved a canker there.
She screamed a sound hoarse
from submission and bucked,
the man pitched onto the street.
When her foot found his skull
and shattered it, she felt nothing
but the heat of the sun, unadorned
warm on her neck and pate,
perhaps knowing that tomorrow,
as she sways in the noose looped to the derrick,
she will only be able to look up.
SMITHSONIAN DISPLAYS DAGGER FROM THE STARS
The blade is straight. There are no rubies in its hilt. It sleeps in the glass tomb, meteoric and dull, metal woozy as an oil slick I imagine shattering the glass with my thumbs, pressing and pressing until I am cold with glass and bleeding, my full weight upon the pedestal. Once free, the blade fits into the curl of my wet hand I am already an open wound and the killing slips in easily It is nothing but the drawing of a sword, a raising of a fist, a cry, a fall and a plundering. Everywhere is treasure.
IMMORTAL JELLYFISH, 1998
Immortal jellyfish grow to 4.5 mm, the size of a rosary bead. The bell is perfectly transparent, disclosing the cruciate stomach to the sea, red and diffusive as menstrual blood. When held in a human palm, it appears only as a puncture, like something blunt was thrust into the skin and then removed again. If hurt or anxious, the jelly, brainless, shatters into a polyp, a colony of child-creatures, and each begins the process of growing up all over again. Unless eaten or captured, this reliving can go on forever, each new medusa squeezed into the ocean and left alone to drift. In a bathtub, on an island, one block from the sea, a father washes his daughter’s hair. Salps and comb jellies fall from her into the grey water like drops of lead crystal fall from a chandelier: the child-creature breaking. The showerhead cries and cries. When the father is done, she is so small. She fits in his hand, mouth.
Bailey Blumenstock is a third-year MFA candidate at American University in Washington, DC, where she is also an adjunct instructor. Her work has previously appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Little Patuxent Review, minor literature[s], The Mochila Review, and The Writer's Center magazine. In 2018, she was the first-prize winner of the Bethesda Urban Partnership poetry contest.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?
Bailey Blumenstock: I wrote my first poem when I was 12 for a poetry unit in my Language Arts class. It was about an owl.
CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
My fifth grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Porter, read a few stanzas of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” to us. I had gym class the next period, and I remember standing there, in a daze, unable to think of anything but the last two lines: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Those lines are not, perhaps, the most intricate or rousing in a poem practically bursting with images, but to me, at eleven, it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I didn’t know words could do that. CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Dead white people speaking, Rilke, Whitman, Bishop, Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Larkin were all very important to me during my “baby poet,” years, and still are. These days, I really admire the work of Kaveh Akbar, Ilya Kaminsky, Ross Gay, Marie Howe, Carol Forché, Tracy K. Smith, just to name a few. I’m also completely unabashedly a huge fan of the work of my professors from the MFA program at American University – Kyle Dargan and David Keplinger.
CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
To be honest, I’m not a very disciplined writer. Now that I’m in the last semester of my MFA, and no longer in workshop, I’m lucky if I write a poem a month. Usually I’ll think of a line, or see a photograph, or experience something beautiful or terrible or profound or whatever that triggers what I guess you could call “the poem response” in my head. This means I will pretty much carry that thing with me until I sit down and write the poem. It’ll be in the back of my mind always, and then I’ll really think about it on my commute, or in the grocery store, or at work, or in class when I ought to be paying attention. And when it’s ready, I just know. It’s like needing to sneeze.
I usually write in the morning, and I have a rule that I can’t talk to anyone before I start writing (within reason). I’m easily distracted, so I have to be totally alone. Coffee helps, too.
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?
Oh, gosh, I’m terrible with form. During my first workshop with Kyle Dargan, he talked a lot about how the content of a poem ought to determine the form, as opposed to the other way round. I pretty much always follow his suggestion. I’ve usually written all the lines of the poem before I start trying to figure out what it is going to look like on the page. I read everything out loud to myself, so my basic strategy is to break the lines wherever I’d naturally take a full breath. And then I go from there.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Read. Read. Read. Read widely and often. Subscribe to AAP’s poem-a-day series so you have a poem in your inbox every morning. Follow poets that you know you like on Twitter – so many important conversations about poetry are happening there – and see what poets they are reading and retweeting. I know an alarming number of poets, from my alma mater, at AU, and otherwise, who don’t read! You will not ever write worthwhile poetry if you don’t read other poets. That is a hill I am happy to die on.
What is your editing process like?
Usually I’ll write the thing, then walk away from it, then return to it a few days later and spend a long time deleting lines and rewriting them, or moving lines around, or thinking too long about punctuation, etc. Then I’ll send it a trusted reader, someone who knows me and knows the intentions and concerns of my work -- most often David Keplinger -- and he’ll move commas around and break lines and offer suggestions. And then I’ll repeat the initial process of deleting and rewriting. This cycle could go on forever, if I let it. I think a lot of poets feel that way.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
This is a cliched response, but they’re never finished (as hinted above). Poetry is so perfectly mutable. I love returning to old poems and deleting lines and words and punctuation that are no longer working. Nothing about any poem is truly permanent. I love that aspect of it.