with critique by Jendi Reiter
How we position ourselves
for our inner audience:
you the reconciler, I the fighter
who besets you and is embraced
finally, all I've ever wanted
from anger. You see honesty
in me—after water, it alone
saves us. I will always be
the rattlesnake sidewinding
your desert, the wash flooded,
then dry, the acid pool that burns
you down to life's essentials.
Come closer, I say. Wash your hands.
Our story truly began when you plucked me
too young to bloom from a dry bed—tequila spines
drawing your blood. You anchored a desert
garden with me: evening primrose, the invader,
ice plant with its jelly bean leaves, pink pussytoes
for gossip—even yucca, that loner, as a sentinel.
And always, the romance of the yucca moth.
Dizzy with love, you would divide me, sink me
in pots for others to plant, in all 200 countries.
But I say, don't return me to any bed but yours,
keep me where light is a scar. Sun-lover,
I need to burn in summer. Your hands
make my home, my rebirth. Come now. Dig.
You, the bight of refuge
at the base of a canyon,
scatter of pebbles in front
the seep chill on my back
and then it comes: rills
sinuous down a pommel
of sunset stone
I climb up your black lip
slip into the cut wall that holds
me as rain lathers down
sandstone my bed and water
my lit curtain I open
my mouth to you
Copyright 2004 by Beth Partin
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Beth Partin's "Three Declarations", traces the many facets of a romantic relationship by recasting them as features of the southwestern desert landscape. The three sections represent a journey from tension and mistrust to openness and sensual communion, where images of water serve as signs of the relationship's renewal. This emotional movement is paralleled by a change in diction from one section to the next. The abstract language of the opening lines yields to a more physical narrative about a garden, which in turn dissolves into the run-on lines depicting the couple's passion at the end.
The relationship described by the poem is complex and not always easy to characterize. In what sense is the speaker like a rattlesnake, a wash both flooded and dry, an acid pool? These natural phenomena seem to have little in common. All three, however, disrupt the calm sameness of the desert with their mutability and their dangerous potential, just as the narrator wants to provoke her lover into a passionate response. Like flood waters, anger is not solely to be feared, as it is also a source of regeneration. The pitch-perfect last line of the first stanza works as both a tender invitation and a threat. Wash your hands, dear...in "the acid pool that burns/you down to life's essentials."
In the second stanza, the tables are turned, as the speaker's lover now tries to change her. She describes herself as a plant in a garden that he planned, a place of beauty and diversity that nonetheless chafes her with its limits. "Our story truly began when you plucked me/too young to bloom from a dry bed—tequila spines/drawing your blood." These lines reveal a wealth of mixed feelings: the spiny plant fights back against the gardener's act of mastery, yet the plant has been rescued from a "dry bed" (double entendre surely intended) where it could not bloom.
This stanza is filled with far more affection and fruitfulness than the previous one. Replacing the antagonism is understanding of the other person's motives: "Dizzy with love, you would divide me, sink me/in pots for others to plant, all 200 countries./But I say, don't return me to any bed but yours". What is going on in this stanza? I'm guessing that the narrator is upset by how her lover objectifies her, perhaps shows her off to other men, like his prize flower. Though she knows he's acting out of love and pride in her, she'd rather be treated like a person.
The last lines of the stanza move the couple toward reconciliation. "Come now. Dig." echoes the distancing, challenging "Come closer." of the first stanza, but now the speaker is open to being molded and changed herself, as well as changing the other person.
The first two stanzas could be seen as a back-and-forth struggle for control of the relationship, with the parties swapping the active and passive roles, whereas in the third stanza they have moved beyond the boundary fights. The couple's separate identities wash away in an ecstasy of rain that refreshes and perhaps reshapes the canyon stones. The musical third stanza is full of "S" and "L" sounds and other soft consonants that mimic the sounds of the rushing water and falling pebbles ("rills/sinuous down a pommel/of sunset stone").
"Three Declarations" is a well-crafted and lyrical poem that could be submitted to prestigious literary journals. It might work better with a different title, though. What are the three declarations? The first stanza's "Come closer." and the second's "Come now. Dig." are likely candidates, except that there is no parallel ending for the third stanza (nor should there be—the current ending is just right). Calling the stanzas themselves "declarations" doesn't give us much useful information about them. The restrained, unsentimental tone of the title "Three Declarations" is preferable to one that gives away too much about the poem (e.g. "Our Marriage"), but I would prefer something with a little more personality.
Where could a poem like "Three Declarations" be submitted? The following journals and contests may be of interest:
This journal favors conversational narrative free verse; see website for submission guidelines
Atlanta Review 2004 International Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 10
See sample work on the website of this acclaimed journal
American Poet Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 30
New contest run by JP Dancing Bear, the founder of Dream Horse Press
SSA Writer's Contest
Postmark Deadline: September 1
Prizes up to $300 for poetry and prose from the Society of Southwestern Authors (deadline has since changed to June 30 as of 2006)
Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: October 1
Handsomely produced journal from Prescott College in Arizona offers $500 awards for poetry, fiction and essays
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).