with critique by Jendi Reiter
You wanted saving, so I tried,
Plug my strange world back in place, you said,
Make me whole with flesh and fire
In the image of your God.
A stranger to your spirit-house,
You opened up and welcomed me,
But inside I found your house was bare,
No spirit, no identity.
Yet then I saw a ghoulish thing
Wand'ring up your creaky stair,
And when I tried the door to leave,
I found it locked, the key not there.
And so, imprisoned, I became your God
While you fingered bones like rosaries
And whispered 'Love and Spirit for my Flesh'
In frantic prayer on bloody knees.
But you read me wrong, I am no God,
No three-in-one, no deity,
I could not save you from yourself,
Or me from you, or you from me.
So it was with blistered eyes I watched
My dreams aborted by your belief
And when you died, your final sacrifice,
I cried, not in mourning, but in relief.
This happened now so long ago
Yet memories still drop by on lonely nights
Like clumsy drunks they lurch through doors,
Slurring words, without invites.
From other lands, from underground,
You clutch and clutch and clutch at me,
There is no God, no after life,
You're dead and gone, so set me free.
Copyright 2003 by Natasha Sutherland
Critique by Jendi Reiter
"Little Demi-God" makes good use of Gothic and Christian imagery to tell a tale of psychological vampirism. While the metaphors are not novel, the emotional immediacy behind them saves the poem from cliché. The reader feels that the author is personally invested in this story. Some beginning writers will use archaic words and images to make a poem seem more lofty and "poetic" at the expense of sounding natural. By contrast, one gets the sense from "Little Demi-God" that these images came naturally to Sutherland, as the lens through which she saw this relationship.
The strength of this poem is its consistent narrative thread. The author advances a thesis—"you wanted me to be your savior, but instead you sacrificed us both for nothing"—and develops it steadily throughout the poem, using the notion of a Christian sacrifice gone awry.
Part of writing an effective poem is to match form and subject matter. Here, Sutherland made a smart choice to use a formal structure (rhyme and meter) rather than free verse. This style gives the poem a more old-fashioned feel that fits well with the haunted-house imagery we associate with 19th-century horror novels.
With some deviations, the lines are generally four iambs long. (An iamb is a pair of syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed.) This regular rhythm resembles a hymn or ritual incantation, which is appropriate for a poem about distorted spiritual yearnings. As the speaker of the poem becomes more trapped in her friend's dark mental world, her fruitless struggle is echoed by the relentless, unchanging beat of the lines.
How much to deviate from the meter in a formal poem is a tricky question. Many poems by beginners display lines of irregular lengths and rhythms, where the tacked-on final rhymes are insufficient to impose a poetic structure. On the other hand, too much regularity and the poem becomes sing-song. You can become so absorbed in building the structure that you forget to invest the words with real passion and vividness.
That being said, there are a few lines in "Little Demi-God" that could benefit from being made to fit the meter more accurately. In the next-to-last stanza, I loved the metaphor of recurring memories lurching against the door like unwelcome drunks. However, the line "Yet memories still drop by on lonely nights" is one iamb too long. "Still memories drop by on lonely nights" is a subtle change that returns the line to four stressed beats, if you say it right: "Still mem'ries drop by on lonely nights." Perhaps a better option is to rewrite the first two lines of the stanza: "Though this happened now so long ago/Mem'ries drop by on lonely nights." (I've contracted "memories" to "mem'ries" to show how it would be spoken, but it should be written out as "memories" so as not to look pretentiously archaic.)
Another line to tinker with is "Plug my strange world back in place, you said." I've selected this one because it's not one of the strongest, thus the poem would not be damaged too much by altering it. "Plug" seems more futuristic and electronic than the rest of the poem. Other too-long lines, like "And whispered 'Love and Spirit for my flesh,'" are important enough to the poem that they can probably be allowed to stand.
Sutherland would benefit from reading Emily Dickinson (wouldn't we all!) Many of Dickinson's poems play off of a hymn-like rhythm (quatrains of four-beat lines) but depart from that meter in creative, visionary ways.
Where could this poem be submitted? Formal verse, especially when paired with images reminiscent of 19th-century Romantic poetry, is hard to place in today's literary journals. I recommend The Lyric (P.O. Box 110, Jericho Corners, VT 05465, 802-899-3993) and Tucumcari Literary Review (3108 West Bellevue Avenue, Los Angeles, CA). Both are good small US journals devoted to formal poetry, where poems like "Little Demi-God" might find a home. Also consider magazines that specialize in dark fantasy and Gothic themes.
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.