This week’s Poets & Writers prompt:
What is something you are afraid to write about in your own poems, either because it is too personal, or because you feel it is cliché? Create a character–a swarthy bum, a baker, a dog–and write a narrative poem in which your character addresses this topic. Let the fact that the poem isn’t really about you be freeing.
Now – this is a pretty tricky prompt. Because, just because you’re writing in character, if you’re writing about a topic that you feel is too personal…you’re still writing about a topic that you feel is too personal. Nonetheless, I attempted it. I had a few false starts where I actually attempted to write in the persona of a baker (very, very bad idea), thinking that, since I actually do enjoy baking, I might be able to come up with some interesting baking metaphors. I was wrong.
Instead, and in the end, I decided to pull out my file of interesting news clippings (something I’ve been building for a couple of years in anticipation of the book project on which I’m currently working). I came across an article about the attempted mating of two very old (one 80, the other 100) turtles. In earlier drafts (sorry, I deleted them – they were THAT bad), I tried to get across the (too personal) topic of choosing to be childless in the body of the poem while, at the same time, telling the turtles’ story. Ultimately, I found it better to simply title the poem in such a way that the underlying issue is clear – leaving me free to tell the turtle’s story.
It may turn out, in the end, that I’ve underestimated my readers. Perhaps no one really needs to be hit over the head with such a straight-forward title. But I was inspired by a poem that has stayed with me for many, many years by Jorie Graham, “Wanting a Child,” from her collection, Dream of the Unified Field, in which she writes about the desire for children entirely through the metaphor of a river. Let me tell you right now, this ain’t no Jorie Graham poem. But it is a new first draft. And I’ll take whatever I can get.
Without further ado, here it is:
“Blind Date for Old Turtles Yielded Eggs, No Offspring”
The New York Times, October 8, 2008
In the article, she is nameless, this Yangtze giant soft-shelled turtle
who had lived alone, the last living female of her species, undiscovered
inside the hull of a Chinese zoo. For half a century
no one questioned the childless ache that thrummed in her belly,
the way she sometimes sank into the murky water, eyes lowered, making
her solitary progress to the filthy bed below, the years of preparation:
fattening up and building nests, rising each year from the dark mud,
each year without child, searching out the full sun on her back, the frail
air where eggs could safely wait for one to come. The dreamed one,
the one imagined almost into being. And then scientists and doctors,
the zookeepers got involved – threading needles into her veins, exposing
her soft underbelly, injecting hormones, taking her far from home
to one who climbed on top, the weight of him pressing down on her,
the weight of emptiness and hope, the years of longing, bearing down
on her that yielded eggs, hollowed out, cracked and brittle, that died
one by one. The scientists make plans for the two turtles to try again.
How can they know how the longing slows and stills, finally dissipating
into the air like the stench of a startled and dead bird who lay for hours
gently panting at the bottom of a window pane before finally letting go?