By Victoria Reynolds
I’ve always said I don’t have a narrative bone in my body; hence my leaning towards poetry. But I have a fraught relationship to the act of writing itself — how deaf I can be; how often words scurry for cover just when I need them most. I seem never to be able to exert mastery over my materials, no matter how much I study the craft. I want to communicate to a reader, but I also want to explore the ineffable. In my opinion, poetry does this best, by pointing itself towards the deep structures of our meaning- making. Sound, rhythm, syntax, diction — these are tools at the poet’s disposal to enact experience and to create reality.
For me, the start of a poem is like the ringing of a far-off bell. It wakes up some wanderlust in me. I feel a strong pull to follow sound and sense into the wilderness to find out why those words or that image is meaningful to me. Or I may have an experience that morphs into a dream and the dream serves as the bell. For instance, a few years ago, feeling acutely the suffering of my brother during his early death to cancer, I read Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” and the line “and each body,a lion of courage” rang and rang in my mind. That summer, I was biking out in the countryside and saw a snapping turtle in the road. While trying to urge it to the other side, it leapt, turned its whole body and snapped in two the large stick I was using to prod it. Help not welcome. Such energy! Such a sur- vival instinct.
That night, I dreamed about a turtle hit by a car. I did not know in the dream whether I would try to save the turtle. The bell had been rung. In the poem, I lamented the casual violence and suffering, my ambivalence towards it all. The poem is a combination of visual description and interior monologue, signaled by the italicized lines:
When I saw its sticky, crimson leg
and heard its grunts of pain,
I could not be sure if I would help him, or leave him to die. Horrible human.
The poem goes on to discover that the turtle shell was inhabited by a small black dog:
…skinny as a pipe cleaner,
emaciated, and uniquely ugly.
His long spine was bowed
and bent into the shape of a question mark. Who could love this? Horrible burden. Horrible question.
In the dream, the ugly little dog is overjoyed to be liberated from the turtle shell. In the poem, it scampers around my legs, full of life, oblivious to its imperfection and the horror I’m seeing.
I struggled with the ending of the poem, unable to see where the bell had beckoned me. Instead, I introduce an image of a lariat spinning overhead and an indecisive narrator “unwilling to rope loss to love.”
But I see now that the ending calls me to a more precise location. It calls me to the struggle. To reach towards the ugly truths of all love — its darkness, its questions and misshapen manifestations. I see now how this relates to my brother and his life. In the poem, I can travel towards some kind of understanding: how, out of the crushed shell of our protections — out of violence and suffering — we can expect more life. Life that bears the shape of its history, but that also carries an irrepressible hope of liberation, and love:
While the dog, suddenly liberated, and fatted with delight,
scampers in figure eights
around the turtle shell,
Like many poets, I revise almost everything I write. Only rarely does a poem arrive on the page fully formed, faceted and polished as a ruby. Of course, these rare gems are the most alluring, and make me feel the richest. No doubt, they’ve been cooking in the vast earth of my inattention for undisclosed periods of time, but I don’t care. I rarely question or revise them. In fact, they often prove impervious to revision. They may not be my best poems, but the experience of their arrival, in one complete nugget, is a felt sense that cannot be disentangled from the memory of their birth.
I admire and try to emulate poets whose poems are limpid pools. I study how they achieve such clarity. On alternate Tuesdays, I conclude that they are simply superior thinkers, deeper human beings than I. Most days, though, I think their success is a question of craft, their hard-won mastery over the workings of language and their mighty efforts to ply it to their intended ends. For me, most days, the bell rings, and it is craft that gives me hope enough to give chase.
Victoria Reynolds is a poet and psychologist who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with the painter, John Beerman. Among other places, she has studied her craft at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, The Vermont Studio Center, and the Frost Place Conference on Writing.
This article is an excerpt from Art in the Making: Essays by Artists About What They Do, published by The Fisher Press & The John Stevens Shop, 2022. This collection has been assembled by Christopher W. Benson — painter, author, and the director of The Fisher Press — and co-published with his brother Nicholas, who currently owns and runs the John Stevens Shop.