TO MOTHER; CELLULAR ELEGY
By: Meg Reynolds
At a party under the spell of charcoal smoke
and hotdogs, I’m talking to a stranger
about abortion. Baby
She smooths her eldest’s hair. He’s been
standing there, listening in neon swim trunks
while another gums candy in her lap.
In a voice placid as scalding milk, It’s not right.
You’ll understand when you have a child.
What is a child? I can mother a sentence,
a fat stanza, an m stretched into a bird.
Anybody is the father, even her. I imagine kids
ink-dipped in the river Styx and also muscular
and uncertain, wailing over their heritage
at war’s edge. I think they want bigger bodies.
I think they want blood. In other rooms
women are unmothered by the thousands.
At the top of the fence, lightning pulses.
Zeus is warming up his arm to offer seed
on the back of a swan. I think I have this wrong.
I’ve been told this before:
I don’t know anything
about love or birth or what’s to come. I count
the low houses of New England where men become cops,
and wives leave the porch light on. Everything is fine.
A quandary is long grasses latched in the mower blade.
Should I too have my own flesh and blood? It’s so romantic,
the notion, like a warm sea or a line of rain chasing me
to the door or fresh hell on Facebook. Even my mother,
once younger than me, thought of aborting me
for a moment and I turned out fine.
The one child I can protect is the one I don’t have
but then who do I leave the world to? I want to ask them,
should we even bother? Rain descends in drops of weird pink.
O these times with so many mouths to feed.
What am I trying to say. Their names. Their heads
turning in answer.
He read somewhere that only 1 in 10 of the cells in a human body are human. The rest is a city climbing the latticework. We walk up a hill porous and unfeeling. The night dyes the hill purple and there are diamonds in the valley. Then we climb down and he climbs me, a hill arching its shoulders in the ink. Sitting on his hips until he loses feeling in his legs, I rock and wander.
Him, in a crown of burdock spurs,
tangled with toothed seeds. I loosen
each burr from his long hair, tender
each hook as though opening an infant’s fist. I let him tie my wrists with black
silk bindings. This is what passed
for feeling, our double numbness,
double binds, blindnesses. We glitter against the quiet inside us.
I believe he is what’s called a husband:
handsome and punctual, clever at board games,
consumer of the news. Any mother
would love him. Friends insisted I try him out
like a sturdy raincoat. He was even there,
hand on my shoulder, when my mother got sick.
We were standing in a snowbank
and my father said, It’s nothing to worry about,
but her legs are numb. The winter climbed
her knees. Wind smoothed blankets of snow.
I got an urge to get pregnant.
My mother said I could do anything
I set my mind to. A near-invisible baby
followed us home, into the kitchen where
he declared you only bothered with three spices:
salt, pepper, cumin. I sat on a stool chewing
the definition of spice and the absence
clapped its hands. The baby climbed
into the shower, into bed to strum the bindings
as lesions split and thickened the swaddling
sheath around my mother’s spinal cord.
We got a snow day, so he tied me up
as always, then sent me home. The baby crawled
behind me in the snow like a cat.
I was calculating: if I could ignore him
for moments and years, I could earn my mother
a grandchild. Such are women’s desires—
they are always about their mothers.
I invoked the biome he said I possessed
to look at him. I often didn’t feel like it,
all your rational sweaters and routine sleep.
Just touch him, I said, shrugging the inside of my body
against the him inside me. We often walked
through the low, frozen marsh. I let him
lead because I didn’t care. I focused on
where the wind carved snow away to reveal
the grasses: blades as sharp as sunrays and ochre
as my mother’s gilded nerves. She deserves
more children. More children deserve her.
To be clear: he was a gift for my mother.
This poem is about her, not him. See her
slipping into the foreground on smoky feet.
Could he feel me not looking at him?
How could he bear the hard, button eyes,
and hardening fists of all the tiny nobodies?
I pointed them at him like a mother leads
her child’s eyes to the horizon. Maybe I don’t
need him. I could make the baby
from my stowaway cells, condense them
into a body, and let them slip
from me like lightning and indigo.
I would stand over them, half there,
and teach my monsters how to sing
for her. I’d be her daughter, brave enough
to keep living as she has. We wouldn’t tell
science. I wouldn’t tell him. I would
set the seal pup at my mother’s feet
until her heels alight with feeling
and prove that I wasted nothing.
I am sad. When I did my own research,
his theory had been debunked. Scientists said
there is no to way measure the size
and scope of everything that lives inside you.
The city leaves my body like fogs of snow
lifting through conifers. I blame him
for his limited imagination.
He could never see me for what I was:
a gumball machine filled with pearls.
So what am I mourning?
We broke up and my mother is still
alive. Who cares about the miles
of bacteria and mossy microbes coiled
inside anybody? I do. They filled the shadows
with survival, a phantom force for good.
Now so many sweet, cold, little nothings
are gone. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Meg Reynolds is a poet, artist, and teacher living in Burlington, VT. Her work has appeared The Missing Slate, Mid-American Review, Fugue, Sixth Finch, The Offing, Inverted Syntax, and the anthology Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman as well as The Book of Donuts and With You: Withdrawn Poems of the #Metoo Movement. She was recently selected as Fearsome Critter's Top Hybrid Works Contributor.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?
Meg Reynolds: I’ve been seriously writing poetry for about 12 years. I was working at an elementary school teacher in Arizona and found that poetry was a mobile art form. I could write work in between classes on post-it notes or read a poem to myself while students were finishing reading time. I was in Teach for America then, and I would sit at teacher trainings and grad school classes writing poems while the teacher talked. If anyone had been paying attention to me at all, I would have failed those classes. Fortunately, they weren’t and I cruised the poetry foundation website teaching myself poetic forms. Poetry is also pretty low cost, which has always been good for me. I read somewhere recently that that is why poetry is often associated with social movements and revolutions. You don’t need a ton of money to make it.
CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
MR: We read Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein in school. I read Silverstein’s poems with my mother and brother in the backyard during the summer. My mother and I used to read poems from, “Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices” by Paul Fleischman, going back and forth before I napped in the afternoon. Poetry became a comforting space for me. It still is, though I am now more prepared for the particular kind of challenge it offers its readers.
It was much later when I thought seriously about it - focused attention on it and read widely. James Wright, Sharon Olds, and Kay Ryan were early favorites of mine just after college as well as Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich. I had a similar experience as many young poets where I read, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi,” or “Diving into the Wreck,” or “Lady Lazarus,” or “The Fish” and sat astonished in the library, seriously considering shouting the lines at strangers. You read a line like, “cold dark deep and absolutely clear,/element bearable to no mortal,” from Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” and recognize that cold, clear space inside of yourself. I think a line like that is so generous. It helps us vanish our edges a little and think of what of ourselves could be swimming whole and complete under the surface of our everyday consciousness, both connected and disconnected from the racket of our lives. I have cried many times reading, “Milkweed,” by James Wright. I think Tim Seibles makes hilarious and compassionate work. He advised me for a semester in graduate school and I still quote him to my students.
CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
MR: It’s a really thrilling time to write and read poetry. It’s hard to pick a favorite when we have so many people doing such extraordinary things. When I read Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, I teared up at the sheer mastery of it. It’s formally so accomplished and exciting. He asks the reader to tear pages from his book to build a sculpture from his lines. It’s a work of art. It’s sculptural. They way you read the poems gives the book almost a third dimension. It makes the work hybrid, the themes and images lifting off the page and into the realm of the real.
And he is one of many poets doing hybrid works. Anne Carson with books like Nox and Float similarly extends metaphor through the body of the book itself, rather than just her words which are so finely rendered already. Bianca Stone’s poetry stuns me and her comics poetry is continuously inspiring to my work.
And I’ve loved every book I’ve read by Bhanu Kapil, particularly The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. To make it, she interviewed strangers with a series of strange and difficult questions and then built poems from what she was told. I love that. It makes me want to make a million books, each with a different process and set of tools. Life isn’t long enough to make all the things you want to make after reading something like that.
And sometimes I just sit and think about the power of a poet like Patricia Smith - a master of form, a fantastic story teller, funny, brutal, sharp. Reading her work is like taking your medicine. You are better by engagement and trial and digestion. I also just read Jake Skeets, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers,” which just shines on the page. The lexicon of the book’s landscape dominates his storytelling. Young men bloom and break. Sometimes it's like a flash flood. I kept sitting back in my chair going, “How did he do that?” I return to Li Young Lee and Jane Kenyon and Natalie Diaz and Matthew Olzmann and Terrence Hayes again and again.
CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
MR: It’s not very exciting. I usually start with freewrites at one of my workshops or a line or stanza surfaces while I’m walking to work. I once wrote one in my sleep. I was pretty sick and had a bad fever, so I can’t expect that to be a consistent part of the process. After I get a line or two, I speak the lines into my phone and within a day, I draft a poem extending out from those lines.
I take a poem through about 8-10 rounds of revision. For the longer poems, I usually have a few days of nothing where I don’t know what to do with it. I have a requisite day of panic where I am sure I will never finish it or write anything decent again. But then an image emerges in my thinking or my experience that kind of gloms onto whatever I’m working on and helps me bring the poem to its near final form. I am also in three (!) different writing workshops, so when I get lost in a piece, I have lots of great poets here in Vermont to help me out of it. It is, in fact, my favorite way to spend time with my friends, workshopping poems. I think creativity is meant to be collaborative, and some art is meant to be made in community with others.
CNP: 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?
MR: I used to work in form very heavily, especially when I first started. I did a project in grad school where I wrote a sonnet a day for three months. I took two workshops with Annie Finch who literally breathes meter. I have such respect for that type of work though I usually don’t think directly about it. When I’m writing I pay really close attention to the sounds and flow in each line and make adjustments as I go.
My goal is to write in such a way that the poem tells me what shape it wants to take. I think about myself a reader of my own work and I pay attention to the pace at which ideas are revealed or stories are told and I adjust the line. I always want to take advantage of the potential of the line and stanza break, how it can surprise a reader and allow a line or word mean one thing then another when the reader crosses the space of the break. I use the form, like the line or stanza length to guide revision, shaving off images that don’t fit within the shape. I have become more and more aware of how the poem looks off the page, how a sense of visual completeness can also indicates that the poem is coming together.
CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
MR: Read widely and write a lot. Some people write daily. I usually aim for 4-5 days a week. I either write or read in a focused way every day. That’s important. Some people are afraid of over reading or being overly influenced by other poets when they first start, but that doesn’t really happen. You sound like yourself with a flavor of those influences. Self writing a Simic Poem, a Frost Poem, an Aziza Barnes poem.
But honestly, is that such a bad thing? You want to sound like those poets because you love them or what they have to say in the same way I love and sound like my mother. You want more of them in the world. If it comes through you and some critic says, “Wow, you sound so much like Ocean Vuong,” you can say, “Yeah, I’m going through the same obsessive phase about his work that anybody should,” then write your stuff. And credit your influences. Be honest about how in love with other writers you are. People need to know who is ringing your bell.
And take pleasure in your work. I used to pull my hair out so desperately wanting to be good. Each poem that lost its magic was a personal loss. I found that I needed to make enough work that any loss is small in comparison. So make a lot of work, hold lightly on to the idea of finding your voice while you reading heavily the work of others, and have a cup of coffee or water next to you as you go.
CNP: What is your editing process like?
MR: Other than what I said above, I read my work aloud constantly. Usually, I trip up on the messy bits and that’s the part I rewrite or revisit. Poetry is an oral tradition and is meant to be heard. I read my work aloud to myself at my desk or for friends, trying to see what it needs.
CNP: When do you know that a poem is finished?
MR: Usually when I’ve sat for 30 minutes moving a stanza around only to land on the same choices I started with, I know the poem is pretty done. There’s a feeling of finality when I realize that I’m done, that I’ve said the thing as clearly as I possibly can with the skills that I have. I look at it like a student that is leaving my class. It doesn’t need me anymore. It wants me to stop fussing it. Then I send it out.