epistolary poetry

2 posts

Epistolary Poetry: Secrets and Epiphanies

farmhouse

This month’s issue of Poetry offers an interesting poem by Jessica Greenbaum, one that holds up to rereading because, well, it requires as much.

It is unusual in a few respects. For one, it is written as an epistolary poem with the salutation, simply enough, as the title. Two, it is one very long sentence, loaded to the gunwales with introductory phrases and clauses, breathless almost. And three, it has a turn and gets somewhere—a conclusion, a change, though the reader has to work to figure out the relationship between the speaker and the titular Charlene. The other challenge is positioning the exact moment in time the poem is written.

Me, I like working for meaning. Simple poems are nice, but sometimes the exercise of rereading (as in Anne Frank’s Diary, which makes a cameo in the poem itself) offers its own rewards. The fifth reading won’t be the same as the first, in other words, and all the introductory clutter will move more smoothly because you, the reader, will become more adept at reading them the way they should be read.

 

Jessica Greenbaum

Charlene,

one night, leaving your son’s makeshift bedroom in the loft
of the barn, in that first house I knew you in,
crunching through January’s snow back into your kitchen,
past dinner’s left-out dessert plates, then past the fireplace whose embers
still chittered like the chatting old sisters on the bus
I had taken here the day before, north, for eleven and a half hours—
a trip during which I sometimes crocheted what became
a rather long scarf for your son—then up the stairs past your bedroom,
to the guest room, up to the gables with its sloped ceiling
where waited the bed’s patchwork quilts, a painted comb, the lamp
you left on for me, and for some reason lost to time
a copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl near enough—
maybe on a low bookshelf outside the room?—near enough
for me to choose it, and once under the covers I was awake
from start to finish with Dear Kitty again, with the Epilogue, again,
though I felt I was reading it for the first time, or more like
I was a tree to which a bird returns and this time sees
the branch on which it will make its nest, and so I understood—
because being told of your death I want to parse all I have learned from you—
I understood we were to have some experiences many times in our lives
if we were lucky, but we would live them each time differently,
which seems obvious now, but then I was sixteen and didn’t know,
I didn’t know that each experience wasn’t just the first of identical ones to
come,
like a rack of same dresses, and for that reason I thought
the mother of men I loved would all be like you, and all their sons
as kind as he, and that the journey between barn and house on a winter
night
would always show a spray of constellations that would connect
all I was feeling with the goodness of the earth, also turning.

 

After reading this, you might try writing poem as old-fashioned snail-mail letter yourself. If it is written to a person whose life has made an impact on yours—and if it is driven by the engines of emotion, especially—you might find a poem you can work with.

Dear Reader,

What’s to lose in trying?

Sincerely,
Me

Not Mirror, but Wobbly-Puddle Images

olson

Have you ever written something (a letter, a poem) only to have it disappear on screen before you had a chance to save it? Poof. And so, with all these ideas in your head, you start anew. You have no choice.

But the creature created in Version #2 is a relative rather than a replication of the lost draft. A second cousin twice removed. It is the same in many ways, yes, yet different in other ways.

Some writing teachers play this game with pencil and paper (the easier to play “Poof!” with). Their students get to write a draft longhand. Then the teacher collects the work. Next thing you know, teacher is saying, “OK, students, now I want you to rewrite the poem. First write ‘Draft 2’ next to your name on top, would you?”

After the requisite groans, the student writers doggedly write again, remembering the good stuff, of course, but writing a true second draft because they have been denied the first to mostly copy and happily have no choice.

Yes, Christina Olson, winner of one of Rattle‘s 2020 Chapbook Awards (for The Last Mastodon), writes something like this in her letter-as-poem (epistolary to you) to a loved one. Notice all the repetition in Part 2. Notice how it echos Part 1, only with the sound caroming off a different slant of cliff.

Maybe you like one letter more than the other. Or maybe hearing it twice in different versions presses home the importance of certain ideas and ways of putting them, another pay-off of this technique. It’s an exercise you can play, too. Check it out:

 

Reconstruction Errors, Part 1 & 2
Christina Olson

1.

All day I’ve tried & failed to write
this letter to you. Do we deserve anything
for our failings, our clumsy fumblings
in the dark? I have no excuse
for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurch from truth to truth.
The sky can’t decide between bruise
or blue; in this way, it is like the heart.
We were a long time ago, you & I—
we had all our original teeth. You sent
me a video of the lake, the rustle
of blue on the rocks. I weep because our dog
is dying, because I haven’t smelled
fresh water for such a long time.
That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective.
The surface of the tar pit shone
blue-black, reflected the sky, smelled
of street. But I forgot my science;
there are more predators than prey
in the pits, the bones dragged to the light.

2.

But I forgot my science: there are more predators
than prey in the pits, the bones dragged to the light—
original teeth. The surface of the tar pit
shone blue-black, reflected the smell of street.

You sent me a video of the lake, the rustle of blue
on the rocks. Do we deserve anything for our fumblings,
these clumsy failings in the dark? The sky can’t decide
between bruise or blue; in this way, it is like the heart.
I have no excuse for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurch from truth to truth. We were a long time ago,

you & I. That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective. I weep
because our dog is dying, because I haven’t smelled water
for such a long time. All day I’ve tried & failed.