with critique by Jendi Reiter
Seduction is an art,
And so is death.
To fan the spark of life,
Until raging flames consume the body.
She died in ecstasy you know.
Sobbing her thanks,
As her soul burned away like a wick.
I can still feel her now.
A heartbeat unique among millions.
Within the heated flow of her veins,
Had lain the throbbing birth of womanhood.
An unmarked page,
Floating in the rain.
She danced between the drops,
Waiting for my pen to make its mark.
How could I resist,
This island of purity,
In a sea of sin?
The deep longing within her loins,
Given voice through quickened pulse.
It cried out for me,
And I raged in turn,
To cleanse my soul in the waters of this untapped well,
To douse damnation's fires in this virgin's red fount.
Gentle, so gentle the pursuit.
A soft smile to mask my fangs,
A caress like silk from razor-ed nails,
A knowing look with earthy promise,
And suddenly, so suddenly,
She was mine!
Fragile little leaf,
Twirling in the wind,
Crying on the edge of eternity,
For the thunderous release of the storm.
Within shadows her flower opened,
Within whispers her petals fell,
Within shivers her womb curdled,
To the cold offal of a dead man's seed.
Fruitless rite, empty husk, innocent damned.
She seemed familiar,
Did you know her Abe?
Perhaps your other lambs will bring me peace.
Copyright 2009 by Brian Donaghy
This poem was first published on MicroHorror.com in April 2009.
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Just in time for Hallowe'en, this month's critique poem by Brian Donaghy is based on characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula. In style and tone, "Note to Van Helsing" is a straightforward entry in the erotic-horror genre that Dracula exemplifies, rather than a critical reinterpretation or ironic pastiche, of which there have been many in modern times.
Vampires are the superstars of the monster world because they represent the unholy marriage of our two great preoccupations, Eros and Thanatos. In the Victorian era, arguably the heyday of the Gothic romance, sexual taboos could be explored more freely if the literal storyline was about violence rather than sex. The tragic outcome of uncontrolled passions in the horror novel could redeem a sensual story from charges of immorality.
To some extent this dynamic is still at work in the immensely popular Twilight novels, where the decision to transition from human to vampire is a powerful metaphor for adolescent girls' anxieties about their sexual awakening and the attendant risks of peer-group ostracism and family estrangement. Similarly, one could argue that Anne Rice's elegantly tragic, polyamorous vampires reflected the conflicted emotions of the gay community during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Does the sublimation of erotica into horror reflect the misplaced priorities of a culture that finds violence less obscene than sex, or does it defend the sacred mystery and momentousness of sex in the age of casual hook-ups?
The Romantic poets wrote some of the greatest classics of erotic horror. Among them are Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee", John Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel", "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", and others. (Read about Coleridge and see more sample poems here.)
A victim of its own popularity, the Gothic poetic style that was so groundbreaking in its own day has become overly predictable in ours. Because "Note to Van Helsing" doesn't reinterpret those conventions, some mainstream literary journals might reject it as "genre" work. However, I admired its lyricism and emotional range, which make it a fine example of its genre.
The narrator speaks with bold assurance from the beginning, as befits a seducer. Even the title is cheeky, calling this elegantly worded challenge to his opponent a tossed-off "Note" rather than a letter. He can spin out verses without even trying, as smoothly as he weaves an irresistible web around his victims.
The vampire-hunter Van Helsing, like the readers of Dracula, wants to believe in his own basic decency, in flattering contrast to the vampire's boundless self-indulgence. The narrator of this poem mocks that self-image by asserting the universality of his dark impulses. Despite himself, the reader becomes aroused by the images of the girl's ravishment, and discovers within himself what the vampire has always known: that sex is dangerous, and death is sexy.
I particularly liked the passages in this poem where Donaghy reaches beyond the stock imagery of blood, sin and purity (is the vampire myth Catholicism-as-fetish?), such as the stanza beginning "An unmarked page, floating in the rain". This cooler and more contemplative moment provides a refreshing pause between scenes of overheated blood-lust. As the tension builds, the water imagery identified with the girl changes from a tranquil baptismal pool to a torrent of orgasmic release: "Crying on the edge of eternity,/For the thunderous release of the storm." She claims sexual agency, it seems, at the price of her life.
This coyness about female desire is a common and, to my feminist mind, disturbing convention of romance writing. The woman must be overpowered, either literally, as in the vampire scenario or other rape/seduction fantasies, or psychologically, by the man's charisma, in order to yield while retaining her virtue. Her flipping back and forth between the roles of victim and enthusiastic participant absolves both parties in the seduction drama.
But these strategies of self-preservation are all in vain, in the world of the poem. Between "her flower opened" and "her womb curdled" there is scarcely a breath. Meanwhile, once the narrator's thirst is sated, his coldness and emptiness return. Whereas before, the girl appeared uniquely desirable and important ("A heartbeat unique among millions"), she is now only another notch on the bedpost ("She seemed familiar,/Did you know her, Abe?"). The nickname, used here for the first time, could be another sign of the narrator's contempt for Van Helsing, but it could also be an invitation to bond over the shared experience of sexual conquest. The two are not mutually exclusive, since male friends often express their affection through teasing insults.
This emotional shift improves the poem, saving it from becoming a cliché erotic fantasy. In real life, coming down from the high of sexual union can stir up feelings of sadness, emptiness, even disgust for one's self or one's partner, as blissful self-forgetfulness is edged out by the self-conscious and separate ego once again. Sex reminds us of death because it makes us notice our embodiment, and bodies perish. What then does it mean that even immortals experience this sense of loss? Perhaps the source of our post-coital suffering is the changeableness of our own moods. We can't sustain the peak experience. The dead girl, alone, never has to face the morning after. That may be why she is such an enduring figure in Romantic literature.
For more reflections on the cultural meanings of the Gothic, check out Golem: A Journal of Religion and Monsters.
Where could a poem like "Note to Van Helsing" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Writers' Forum Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by the 15th of each month
Monthly award from British magazine for emerging writers offers prizes of 100 pounds for unpublished short poems; online entries accepted
Poetry Society of South Carolina Contests
Entries must be received by November 15
Twice-yearly contest offers prizes up to $500 for PSSC members, $200 for nonmembers, for poems on various themes; no simultaneous submissions
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Texas writers' group offers prizes up to $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
Cyclamens and Swords Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Webzine edited by award-winning Israeli poets offers prizes up to $300 and online publication; previously published work accepted; enter by mail or email
Wild Violet Writing Contests
Postmark Deadline: December 18
Prizes up to $100 and online publication for short fiction and poetry; longer poems accepted, up to 200 lines
Another publication that appreciates "genre" writing includes:
The Copperfield Review
Online literary journal for readers and writers of historical fiction
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.