2 posts

“The Water Turned Her Skin Sky.”

While reading the November 2019 issue of Poetry, I came across a poem that lends a bit of magical realism to its grammar. Though some readers might object to using words in unusual ways, I find it refreshing to read and one of the chief joys of poetry.

The poem is “América” by Sarah María Medina, a newcomer to the magazine whose work has appeared in Prelude, Black Warrior Review, and Poetry Northwest. I will only share the first third or so of the poem to illustrate a few moves that look simple but are actually not (if you’re the one trying to think of them, anyway).

Alas, the HTML does not allow me to reflect the visual aspects of the poem, as each line is indented by various degrees in double-spaced succession. See if you can pick out the words that come across as more “poetic” than most:


From “América” by Sarah María Medina

The river was deep & wide.
Wild girls grew along
the riverbanks. Wild strawberries grew
among the wet grass. A girl tramped barefoot.
Her tips arrowed. The tracks wept
in the distance. She scavenged
wild strawberries. The river water stung her mouth.
The water turned her skin sky. Alone
the girl knelt to sift water
through her fingers. There was once a dock
with a wooden boat. Once a general.
Once a sister. Once a mother who hid
behind the general. Once a machete.
Once a girl who swallowed salt.
She held the resonance of chromatic
harmony. The quiet of faded mist…


The first unusual word is “arrowed” in L5. Arrow is a well-known noun, but less often seen as a verb. That said, Merriam-Webster provides three definitions of “arrow” when used as a verb, the first being the intransitive version, “to move fast and straight like an arrow in flight.”

What I like about the usage is its subject “tips.” This word immediately brings arrows to mind, even though it is referencing the tips of the girl’s feet. Good poetry enlists words in refreshing ways. It gives the reader pause, and any time a reader pauses for a good reason, the poem can be said to be “working.”

Directly thereafter we get “The tracks wept / in the distance.” (L5/6)  Personification works best when it works twice. Yes, it is a poetic device, and yes, we don’t often think of tracks as weeping, but when you consider looking back at your own tracks over any damp grounds and how the soft the imprints look wetter due to your weight, you see the appropriateness of “wept” as a predicate for “tracks.”

Finally, in L8, we get “The water turned her skin sky.” Again, the reader pauses at the unusual word pairings. Water? Turning skin “sky”? You might first fear that the poor girl is turning blue, but it makes more sense to see the girl as one with the natural world she apparently lives in each day. River water, sky, girl. And a “double” is scored in that we get alliteration “skin” slides into “sky.”

At this point in the poem, a narrative tempo begins to pick up. Anaphora is used in a series of “Once…” lines presaging story. And story you will get. One that might help answer the accent aigu found in the title.

If you’re interested, you can find the complete poem in a copy of the magazine for sale or at the public library. Meanwhile, as a reader and a writer, note and consider how language is used in unusual, thus effective, ways as you read poems. Grammar is important, yes. But it is never a tyrant in the Kingdom of Poetry. Poetic license and creativity provide the checks and balances. And thankfully, the rule the realm.


“As Dead Now as Shakespeare’s Children”

David Kirby, another one of those poet slash professors (in this case at Florida State University), is known for long-ish narrative poems, often leavened freely with humor. It’s an engaging combination, one I’ve been coming to know better since I picked up two of his books.

As a short intro, I found an unusually (for him) short poem that makes liberal use of personification. It provides insight into Kirby’s imagination, too.

Imagine, reader, that your broken promises came to life, that they dogged you and surrounded you every day. Think: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. As you’ll recall, she had so many children (another vagrant dad, apparently) she didn’t know what to do.

That’s you. You and your broken promises. Stuck in a smelly Reebok.

Hey, it might make for a great poetry prompt: Pick an abstract thing (like promises) and give it human properties (Boardwalk, preferably). Run with it in a poem.

Here’s what happened when Kirby did:


Broken Promises
David Kirby

I have met them in dark alleys, limping and one-armed;
I have seen them playing cards under a single light-bulb
and tried to join in, but they refused me rudely,
knowing I would only let them win.
I have seen them in the foyers of theaters,
coming back late from the interval

long after the others have taken their seats,
and in deserted shopping malls late at night,
peering at things they can never buy,
and I have found them wandering
in a wood where I too have wandered.

This morning I caught one;
small and stupid, too slow to get away,
it was only a promise I had made to myself once
and then forgot, but it screamed and kicked at me
and ran to join the others, who looked at me with reproach
in their long, sad faces.
When I drew near them, they scurried away,
even though they will sleep in my yard tonight.
I hate them for their ingratitude,
I who have kept countless promises,
as dead now as Shakespeare’s children.
“You bastards,” I scream,
“you have to love me—I gave you life!”


Note how your personification poem won’t fly unless you surround it with realistic props. Concrete props. Dark alleys. One-armed handicaps. Single light bulbs for rotten illumination.

A promise that’s “small and stupid, too slow to get away,” is not only wearing its personification on its sleeve, it’s showing off with a little alliteration to boot (note return to Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe theme).

What gets me here is how the narrator chases broken promises away but knows they will return to “sleep in my yard tonight.” Now that’s a concrete image. Rogue promises that partake of sleepovers in your back yard. Blanket rolled out, I imagine. Sleeping bags and bug spray. An empty bag of chips blowing in the wind.

So go ahead. Promise to write a personification poem. If you don’t, it’s just another broken promise ringing your doorbell at 3 a.m. (Serves you right.)