I’ve just returned from a tangent.
It started like this: mired into a world of my own creation on the page, moving characters around to suit my purpose, giving them something to say, or striking them mute as I see fit, it occurred to me that I could throw a catastrophe at them on the next page. Ha! My beloved characters have no idea what’s coming! They are going to buckle under the devastation. Oh, the ecstasy of destroying someone on the page!
And that’s when the strange sail appears at the horizon. Something I once knew coming back to me across the ocean of memory, a familiar phrase rising from behind the curvature of my own mind. Someone somewhere once referred to my kind as “strange monsters.”
Strange monsters. The moniker floats there at the edge of my planet, a brilliant distraction. Strange monsters, not an insult surely, but an honest affirmation. Where had the phrase come from? Who said it? Go chase it!
So I drop everything for the next hour to ransack my bookshelves and flip through every old anthology I suspect may hold the lexicon of strange monsters.
For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.
Turns out strange monsters are from My Sister, O My Sister, a poem by May Sarton. I remember reading this almost 20 years ago and it knocked me out then. So I thought I would share it now, along with a recording of Sarton herself reading it aloud.
So here it is, for all the other strange monsters out there who’ve spent the past few days swimming around in the deep sea of self expression where households turn to filth and societal expectations have no hold. For all the other strange monsters who, when they look up from the flowing current of their handwritten scrawl see an on-shore world looking back at them with that uncomprehending stare.
For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.
My Sisters, O My Sisters
Nous qui voulions poser, image ineffaçable
Comme un delta divin nortre main sur le sable*
-Anna de Noailles
Dorothy Wordsworth, dying, did not want to read,
“I am too busy with my own feelings,” she said.
And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout
Are strange monsters who renounce the treasure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.
Dickinson, Rossetti, Sappho—they all know it,
Something is lost, strained, unforgiven in the poet.
She abdicates from life or like George Sand
Suffers from the mortality in an immortal hand,
Loves too much, spends a whole life to discover
She was born a good grandmother, not a good lover.
Too powerful for men: Madame de Stael. Too sensitive:
Madame de Sevigne who burdened where she meant to give.
Delicate as that burden was and so supremely lovely,
It was too heavy for her daughter, much too heavy.
Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation
Did any one succeed or learn to fuse emotion
With thought. Only when she renounced did Emily
Begin in the fierce lonely light to learn to be.
Only in the extremity of spirit and the flesh
And in renouncing passion did Sappho come to bless.
Only in the farewells or in old age does sanity
Shine through the crimson stains of their mortality.
And now we who are writing women and strange monsters
Still search our hearts to find the difficult answers,
Still hope that we may learn to lay our hands
More gently and more subtly on the burning sands.
To be through what we make more simply human,
To come to the deep place where poet becomes a woman,
Where nothing has to be renounced or given over
In the pure light that shines out from the lover,
In the pure light that brings forth fruit and flower
And that great sanity, that sun, the feminine power.
*We who wanted to leave an ineffaceable image/Like a divine delta, our hand on the sand.—Anna-Elisabeth, comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933) French poet and novelist.
Tonight I can finally see the moon is a yellow boat
capsizing in deep blue
fear is worse when you do not see
the face of those you fear
What is the worst thing?
What is beyond the worst thing?
Yesterday my country bombed Syria.
Let the sky turn orange
the air tastes of metal
and this is how we live now?
apart from each other
separated by a few feet or a hemisphere
or the wrong name of God.
I would like to say to someone
this should not happen. I would like to hold
anyone in my arms right now.
I would like to knock on my neighbor’s door
ask her to come outside with me
I can’t bear it by myself
watching the moon
with all of its passengers
-Arlitia Jones 9/25
For years, I got it wrong when I said
it was a badger I’d seen on Hatcher Pass road,
squat brown animal that darted for the brush
when it saw our truck–I should’ve known,
badgers don’t dart and anyway
we don’t have badgers in Alaska
(a child formed in the third grade curriculum
told me this) but it was smaller than a bear,
bigger than a spaniel and I swore up and down
the alternative was too rare, too incredible
the sharp claws, the pointed teeth,
nature honed to hunt kill run, dark hump
of it’s back ringed with a lighter nimbus
of guard hairs. A glimpse and it was gone
and in its place the word impossible
I picked up like a wet stone
that dried and dulled in my hand
and good for throwing.
Dec. 1, 2013
If only the moon–
give me something anything
a hint of yourself as a grail
or a swan’s egg,
even the petrified face
of someone I miss or mourn–
it would be so easy to write a poem
Moon, you’re just being a moon
which makes me nothing more than a woman staring
through dirty glass
at unnamed brightness
this morning after Thanksgiving.
Yesterday, I was so grateful.
Today, I’m cold and convinced the world
is ruled by a policy of ice and commerce
Why should writing a poem be any easier
than standing in line through the long night
for the discounted holy cup of the xbox?
Go be the moon. Keep your metaphors.
Your silver horn blaring through the trees
doesn’t work anymore. You’re out of the band
and according to this black dog under my desk
knocking her white-tipped tail against my leg,
I’m the big drum that booms the call to march.
Nov. 29, 2013
I love research. I love tangents and arcane facts that lead me far afield of my predetermined story. I love to get lost in the tall dark woods where I can spin around til I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Which way is home? I have no idea but I’ll find my way eventually… when I’m ready. My dog taught me that.
I love old letters, those paper artifacts of our connections to one another, the paper record of our life and times. Tonight, I’m reading the letters of Mother Mary Harris Jones and getting a glimpse into a life of purpose and will.
We glorify the Man of Action as a cultural trope, but we overlook The Little Old Lady of Labor’s Call to Action.
Mother Jones was a firebrand, all right. She was a prickly burr under the saddle of the tyrant. A righteous hornet with a well-aimed stinger spreading agitation.
I thought I’d share a letter she wrote in 1920 to John H. Walker, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor. Keep in mind, she was around 83 years old when she wrote this:
… Things are pretty lively over here, we are doing business. I had a meeting at Princeton, West Va., yesterday the first labor meeting ever held there.
It was only five miles from Bluefield, the head-quarters of the Baldwin Thugs. I must have had six or seven thousand people, there were seven wagon-loads of Baldwin Thugs at the meeting, but John, I licked Hell out of the whole crowd.
I put a new life and a new spirit into the wretches, certainly it was taking my life in my hands, because I had to come back thirty-two miles, over rough lonely roads along the mountains, with only one man and he was a lawyer, and the chauffer with me, everyone was afraid they would follow me and murder me, but we bluffed them and took the wrong road.
It was near eleven o’clock when I got into Hinton, but after I crossed the river, I felt safe. I got into Charleston at four o’clock in the morning, had no sleep for twenty-eight hours. I had to go thirty-four miles over that rough road and back the same and then speak for one hour and a half to that tremendous audience, but John, I sowed the seed anyhow, the voice of labor should not be raised there before, it was just as bad as homestead, but anybody else would have got killed.
Give my love to them all at home…
I got a package in the mail today from one of my favorite poets, Anne Caston. Wild woman of words, you can never predict what treasure Anne has carefully wrapped and taped and marked with your name and address. In the past she’s given me:
a beautiful handmade quilt top
hand dyed fabrics
her book of poems
copies of new poems
hand made soap
Before she left Alaska, she gave me a little charm of orange haired theatre woman. I hung it above my bed. A little bright spot on the wall, I think of it as an eccentric stenographer taking down my dreams in short hand.
So today, this was in my package:
The motherfucker mug looks good next to the mermaid, don’t you think?
Anne, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU!!!! I LOVE IT!!!!
And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at all times.
And for the rest of you reading this, if you don’t know Anne’s work, click on the link above for some of her poems. Explore the terrain of your own heart with her words. But be warned, Anne writes an unflinching truth and rarely provides safeguards in her poetry. That’s what makes her so brilliant.
BY ANNE CASTON
Madison, Wisconsin, 1996
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shockproof shit-detector.
Since May this year, I have spent some portion of every day writing something. A cracked poem, some loopy dialogue, a journal entry that says over and over and over one word scribbly pencil: Breathe.
(That’s as close as you can get to yoga without actually having to do yoga. Also, licking the wheels of a lawn mower is also the equivalent of downing a shot of wheat grass.)
It’s all writing. And it makes a difference. The act of writing something down on paper has a profound effect on how my brain engages with language for the rest of the day. I don’t care how bad the writing is, you have to write that shit in order to ever have any hope of getting one kernel of beauty in a manuscript later down the road.
Last week I was working on one of my new plays, rewriting pages into the wee hours. I had a deadline looming. I stayed up til 2am writing pages and pages of new dialogue, witty and emotionally deep with tons of story-propelling momentum and cool hurky-derky words. I thought. I woke up the next morning and read over what I’d so painstakingly scribbled the night before:
Garbage, my friends. Not even worthy of the deleted scenes reel. Utter trash.
I was grateful I hadn’t hit the send button the night before. No one needs to see that.
Hey, bad writing happens. No, that’s not right. Bad writing needs to happen. Now it’s a week later, and suddenly one line of all that nonsense I wrote is rising into the sky and can be seen for miles for what it really was trying to be, even by me, the myopic playwright. One line out of pages and pages of writing. Totally worth it!
And since I’m pulling inspirational quotes about what you need to do to be a writer, here’s my favorite from Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.