Velcro, Cottonballs, Muse

EMC over Boston

Okay, so I know I have written before about my yoga teacher, Erica Magro Cahill, and how she says things that get stuck in my mind like a cotton ball clinging to Velcro, which then leads to a poem. Or ten. Usually about yoga, because, duh, yoga teacher. But not always. One turned out to be about Odysseus and two are meta, being about the ways in which the things she says end up with me writing and/or changing. Here is the beginning of a sestina; note the end words, which come from something she said back in December:

In the crash and tumult of the year’s end, hearing the heart’s

Voice is difficult, especially if it is a shy, halting voice

Unused to asserting itself. So many other things are louder:

Car engines, sirens, the mind insisting it’s more important than

Everything else. As in an echo chamber reverberating, the mind’s

Insidious messages bounce back and forth against the bony walls

Of the skull.

And here is part of the Odyssey poem based on her phrase: “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…” The phrase “muscle hugging to bone” also comes from her.

The percussion of the human heart, its calm

And agitation, how it pushes blood through

The body, emotions through the mind. Just as

The x-ray bypassed skin to show muscle hugging

Bone, to introduce me to my trembling heart,

So too, sometimes, do the songs we sing

Bypass the outer shell, however beautiful,

To speak quiet comfort to the fearful, feral

Cornered self within another body contained

In skin, the reverse of Siren song.

And this, which I wrote last week:

Because of You, I Carry the Sky Everywhere with Me

for EMC

your phrases like cirrus clouds

belie the true weather

grey, it may be, and

cold or raw or wet

and roaring

but inside my head the weather is

clear, the sky robin’s egg

blue, traced with fragile willow

buds and yellow and

clean, like early summer

almost a year I have listened to

your wisdom, your poetry

scudding across my wide blue

mind, chased by gulls

who also desire

outside, everything vibrates, frantic,

tidal: few sail through serene,

sails up, prow unwavering

few speak of these things

clearly, or at all

I have tried to learn to speak of that

particular wind that drives me

how to sail through

the roar, not

your way, but mine

to offer the wisdom and passion

I have for this one

thing: the words

and the heart facing

sky, our only ship’s compass

Process: Notes on Competing Priorities


Okay, so yesterday I wrote a poem for which I am using the working title Odyssey, because it ended up being about Odysseus and Penelope. Let me unpack my process.

Inspiration: Something my yoga teacher said, because, duh, Erica Magro Cahill. “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…”

Part 1. The image of my heart peeking out from behind my sternum on an x-ray of my esophagus and larynx.

Problem: The point I want to make is about the heart but suddenly my larynx is involved.

Solution: When we sing, we don’t think about the bits of our body we are singing with, we think about the heart and what it does and wants. This leads to the idea of singing comfort to a “fearful, feral/cornered self within another body contained in skin, the reverse of Siren song.”

Part 2. The image of the skin as a map, marked by scars, wrinkles and ink. Using the concept I got from two separate students last semester that it helps when you suffer from depression to tattoo a message or symbol on your body to remind you that life is doable. This allowed me to use the line that Sir Terry Pratchett quotes in his recent nonfiction book, A Blink of the Screen, which he attributes to G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist, for they already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” But of course, this is wordy and I already have the map, so:

Application: “Even tied to the mast, straining against our good sense,/We remember: Here be dragons. Reading our skin,/We recall, relieved: Dragons may be slain.”

Part 3. I need to get from Odysseus tied to the mast back to Penelope waiting on Ithaca, fending off suitors with her ten-year-long craft project. I start with the sail as a reminder of our fate as it is woven by the maiden, matron and crone: “We weave what they give us/Into something of use…” I transition to Penelope’s weaving. In the original, she tells the suitors that she cannot marry anyone until she finishes weaving her father-in-law’s shroud.

Feminist Revisionist Mythmaking: (Okay, here is the fun part!) I turn the shroud instead into a 1) tapestry of 2) Penelope herself as the matron Fate weaving and unweaving a tapestry of 3) Odysseus’s ship. “She turns its prow repeatedly/Back toward Ithaca. With each reweaving,/She brings the hero that much sooner home.” With this I take the power of the Fates and the Gods who are pissed off at Odysseus and give it to Penelope, making her thwart all of them and get her husband back sooner. Very meta.

Part 4. Now the first three parts have had relatively even stanza sizes: 1) 3 stanzas of 6 lines, 2) 4 stanzas of 4 lines, and 3) 4 stanzas of 5 lines. That is just the way that it worked out. When I started Part 4 I had a big long stanza that I did not know how to break. I had two ideas when I started the section: that all of us are all of the things I have discussed: “ship, map, compass, sail;/…the perilous waters and the sweet,/ Populous shores of home… ” But I also wanted to talk about fate and choices and somehow get some closure back to the x-ray. Further, although I did not hew the line, I was pulled in the first three sections toward blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I suspect because the topic is Classical Antiquity and Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin name for Odysseus) is in blank verse. But when I broke that first stanza of this section in half, I found that both of them started with a middle length line, followed by lines that got longer, followed by lines that got shorter: kind of like waves going in and out of shore! Nice… Then I noticed that the first was six lines and the second fifth: kind of like my verses were ebbing….

Solution: ALWAYS FOLLOW ARTISTIC SERENDIPITY. (Repeat after me: I meant to do that!) All I needed then were two more stanzas with a similar tidal/ebbing structure, so I ended with:

“How hardy this tremulous heart

Peeking around the mast, not deaf to these

Lyric-less singers, the waves assembling,

Disassembling, dissembling…

How impotent the gods

Who made us like themselves: willful,

Changeable, immortal.”


Waterhouse, John. Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891. Penelope and the Suitors, 1912.