with critique by Tracy Koretsky
I knew cancer was coursing
through his body
in stage four deadly drama
The doctor having prepared us
for the final act
in his appointed position
A combination of God
and aggressive casting director
Allocating antidotal roles to archangels
with names like Leucovarin and Kytrel
Typecast as side effect soldiers
Performing all-too-temporary truces
I knew he'd be a memorable hero
Benchmark behaved like a hundred year oak
Even though no malignant knots
ever before blighted our family tree
He sits rooted by the peace
of each pain-free day
Suspended in the soft deception
of a leather lounge chair
While bombs of chemotherapeutic
proportion drop from plastic bags
Staging his private world war
Poisonous parts played out
in provisional victories
I didn't know I was an actress
Another stretch he's pulled
in my elastic existence
Like the tugs that lured
a little sister from farmwife fate
The push into college, classical music, safe sex
All the quality-of-life debts
scripted across my cinematic mindset
As I sit watching the IV
rerun its surreal suspense
And I pretend in Oscar-quality portrayal
that oak trees are immortal
and make-believe can recast reality
Copyright 2010 by Ellaraine Lockie
with critique by Tracy Koretsky
After I was fixed
people sent me mixed baskets of
carnations, daisies, roses
lilies to acknowledge my sterility.
Surrounded by these living arrangements
I fell into a deep sleep wondering
where a useless uterus
and a pair of damaged
ovaries would end up
while my fat orange tomcat
ate all the perfect flowers.
Only a few petals were left
Copyright 2010 by Margaret Sherman
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Illness, our own and those of the people we love, often compels poets to the page. We struggle to give voice to the mute and expression to the inchoate. Just the act of this striving is moving. We all have bodies; there is no topic more universal. Yet poems about illness can be tricky, skirting mawkish sentiment. One way to successfully avoid this pitfall is to use metaphor. In this month's Critique Corner, we will look at how two poets have attempted this. They are Ellaraine Lockie of Sunnyvale, California, with her poem "Brotherly Love"; and Margaret Sherman of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, with "Stamens and Pistils".
To begin, let's compare their basic structures. "Brotherly Love" consists of three stanzas, the first two of which begin with the words "I knew" and the last with "I didn't know." With this, Lockie ensures a turn in her poem (see August's Critique Corner) by providing a simple but durable structure upon which to hang her rumination. Sherman, on the other hand, does not ruminate, but rather organizes a narrative around a cohering symbol: flowers sent by well-wishers.
This is not to say that Lockie doesn't use metaphor. In fact, she brachiates from one to the next. In the first stanza she seizes upon the word "drama" to generate "final act", "casting director", "roles", "typecast", and "performing".
The "hero" of the first line of the second stanza can then be read simultaneously as both war hero (suggested by "soldiers" in stanza one, line eleven) and dramatic hero. In either case, the notion is temporarily set aside as lines two through five exploit instead the possibilities of "tree" as their dominant metaphor. Line nine, though, harkens back to "hero" in the first line of the stanza, still referring concurrently to both "soldier" ("bombs", "war") and to its original reference to theatrics ("parts", "played").
The conflation is somewhat confusing, a condition given voice in the strategically placed following line "I didn't know". With this line Lockie returns to the metaphor of drama, possibly implying "costume" with the "elastic" trope over the next three lines. Finally, at the end of this stanza—which by the framework of the poem is pre-designed as its conclusion—the metaphor of "tree" is re-sounded within the very same sentence as the more sustained metaphor of "drama" (now morphed specifically to mean "cinema").
Ultimately the question must be: are all these various strands of concept effective? Do they, by their very abundance, their compounding and intermingling, evoke a sense of overwhelm for the reader that might reflect the competing and complex internal processes of their narrator?
The key to understanding this poem, to my mind, is actually a single, tiny, word. It begins line nine of the final stanza. That's right: "As".
With this sudden shift to the present tense, I find myself with a clear picture of the poet with her notebook open. Lockie is an extremely experienced, well-published, and frequently-awarded artist; she knows how to generate a poem. She knows, for example, the time-tested dependability of the "I knew...I knew...I didn't know" framework as a way to initiate material. She knows the value of the specific and exotic and so gives us the names of drugs. We witness her following out avenues of ideas as she milks the possibilities of diction within the theater/cinema family.
The same generative quality occurs in the occasional examples of strained syntax ("Benchmark behaved", or the full sentence about the doctor in stanza one). Likewise for the multiple occurrences of consonance as words suggest other words to her. ("Poisonous parts played out/ in provisional" is the most extensive example of this.) Her considerable experience tells her not to overdirect, but to let the ideas come. And come and come. There is no shortage of ideas in this piece; the poet has a kit of tools and knows how to call upon them.
Now, at this stage of her career, Lockie is incapable of writing a bad poem, even as a first draft, and this poem has enjoyed multiple publications (first in the journal The Hypertexts and then in the poet's chapbook, Finishing Lines). Nevertheless, here at the Critique Corner, all poems are read as drafts. So, responding as such, I would say that, in this piece, my attention is constantly called to the poetics as I am further and further distanced from the feelings motivating it. In the end I know nothing of the brother nor anything memorable of the narrator's experience with him. I understand that the narrator senses an unreality in this experience—that she is being called upon to play-act—and I believe that to be a powerful notion upon which to base a poem, but rather than delve into how uneasily this requirement sits, we are instead asked to ponder trees.
One way the author might drill to the truth of this piece might be to recast it entirely in the present tense. By imaginatively revisiting the moment, she might access the kind of self-referential details that would let the reader truly inhabit the space with her, as opposed to watching her from a distance.
The operative word there is "details" because, by providing the reader too much undetailed information, a poet can give away some of its power. Let's take a look at Sherman's "Stamens and Pistils" with this idea in mind. In her first line she says she was "fixed". This is an ironic choice that not only tells the reader what the poem is about but also how the poet feels about it (more like broken). However, in the sixty words of this poem, we are given this information twice more: "my sterility", and "useless uterus/damaged ovaries". With each iteration, its potency is drained.
Look to the details of the poem to see what might convey the information without explicitly reporting or instructing the reader how to feel. We have a list of flowers, the aforementioned internal organs, a cat, some petals. Notice the adjectives associated with these in the main stanza: "mixed baskets"; "living arrangements" contrasted against "deep sleep" (with its implication of death); the pairing of "useless" and "damaged"; three adjectives for the cat: "fat", "orange", and "male"; and finally "perfect flowers". Within these well-selected phrases lies the poem. Notice, for example, that the flowers have no color. Only the tomcat—which most specifically refers to an un-neutered animal, as well as being slang for seeking sexual adventure—has one.
It is easy to strike "to acknowledge my sterility". The poem loses nothing since the same information is stated with more explicit detail within the next five lines. The question is, should the first line—with its all-too-rare use of effective irony—go as well? Alas, I would say yes. Beginning the poem without it would leave open the question as to why the poet is receiving flowers and return the impact to the phrases about the uterus and ovaries, where it belongs. It would allow the reader to discover as opposed to being told. Whenever possible, make room for readers to participate in putting your narrative together and they will become engaged with the piece.
The same concept can be applied to the final two lines. It is easy to identify "in memoriam" as being too telling, but what of the petals? Allowed to imagine them for myself, I conjure something that looks a bit like tears, or that browns. Even simply read as fallen petals, they make a lovely image. Just cutting the final line would leave this strong poem with a weak verb; that won't do. So, the poet will need to work with it to find something—perhaps, as I've suggested, the word "falling"—that will give the piece cadence, but retain what is powerful about it: its coherence around a simple but potent symbol, its reliance upon the logic of metaphor to speak to readers.
Because, even as we write through our grief, even as we work to release the silent tongues of our bodies, it is the reader we must write for. Whether the choice is to be more brave and share more deeply, or more subtle, to leave room for the reader to take part, the solutions become more readily apparent when we put the reader first.
Where could poems like "Brotherly Love" and "Stamens and Pistils" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Society of Women Writers Western Australia offers prizes up to A$250 for unpublished poetry and short fiction; both men and women are eligible; open to international entries, but currency exchange may be difficult for non-Australians; no simultaneous submissions
Lucidity Poetry Journal Clarity Awards
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Free contest with prizes up to $100 for poems in any form dealing with people and interpersonal relationships; authors must be 18+
Beullah Rose Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: November 1
Literary journal Smartish Pace offers $200 for unpublished poems by women; enter by mail or online
Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by November 30
Norfolk-based writers' group offers prizes up to 1,000 pounds for unpublished poems; online entries accepted
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
National League of American Pen Women chapter offers prizes up to $100 for poetry, stories, prose poems, personal essays, humor, and literature for young adults; open to both men and women; previously published works accepted
Literary Laundry Competition
Entries must be received by December 1
New online journal Literary Laundry offers free contest with prizes of $500 for best poem and story, $250 for one-act play, plus $250 awards for poetry and fiction by undergraduates
Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 15
National writers' magazine offers prizes up to $500 for unpublished poems, 32 lines maximum; online entries accepted; no simultaneous submissions
These poems and critique appeared in the October 2010 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.