In a cigar box illustrated with Antony and Cleopatra,
letters from your aunt to your mother.
Once in a while, you take one out and read it.
The letter—an art as lost as hieroglyphics.
The book as priceless as a painting.
The paper that you saved in hidden stacks,
in drawers, underneath beds,
is tattered, brittle.
You pick it up but the edges crumble to dust.
Not wanting to burn it outside yet,
you lay it to rest once again
and shut the drawer.
What becomes of your writing?
You stare at the sea as if it might bring you an answer,
and pause as you walk along the beach to trace
letters in the sand with a stick.
Only you don’t form sentences, but nonsense.
Bits of phrases like those magnet word scrambles
people used to post on refrigerators—
“Killer dude that was one ice hot night.”
And you wonder if that was the Alpha and Omega
of language, after all.
The waves wash over, wash out your work.
You pick up a shell, listen to the universe inside,
and walk, stop, walk up the beach.
I turn to poetry when I’m going through emotionally intense times, when prose, my usual medium, fails to capture the essence of what I’m experiencing or envisioning, and when imagery trumps narrative. Poetry almost always comes as a surprise to me—that is, I rarely sit down to write a poem intentionally—but I’ve found during long stretches of writing fiction I can sometimes get “prosed-out,” if there is such a thing. Then four of five poems may show up all at once, nearly fully formed, and afterwards I won’t write another poem for months. I composed my entire first collection this way, by accident. My relationship to poetry is a more intimate one, in a way, than my relationship to prose—poetry seems to arise from a different place, and startles me with how it reveals the subconscious so brazenly. And turning to certain contemporary poets has saved me more than once from utter despair.
For many years poetry was absent from my life, and it’s only within the last four years I resumed writing poems again. As a child I loved nursery rhymes—the first book I can recall my mother reading to me was a Mother Goose book full of classic children’s verse—and I suppose that early love for poetry always stayed with me.
At Rollins College I was in Phil Deaver’s fiction workshops, and when I showed up in his poetry class I remember he marked on my first pieces something like, “My goodness, you’re a fine poet too.” But since prose was always my first calling, I abandoned poetry after college. Not until the third semester of my MFA program did poetry come roaring back. I’m so grateful it did.
Fish rotting on the seashore;
the boats don’t come.
Our island is cut off,
the world breathing its last.
The air stinks of salt,
and the smoke from campfires
burning up and down the beach.
We burn for the past,
for the rumble of music
for the warmth of satin skin,
for the ease electricity brings.
Now our bodies stink like the fish,
only we breathe, still,
flopping on shore,
roasting our old shoes on sticks.
Our skin rough as the driftwood,
We look to the sky for salvation.
We would welcome anyone to save us—
Moses, Jesus, Siddhartha, Mohammed,
little men the color
of the toxic sea.
Even the sea no longer
reflects the past,
its green-blue sapphire waters gone.
The things of our former lives
wash up on shore:
plastic bottles with faded logos,
so many shoes, sneakers, sandals.
We forgot there could be so many.
The tide belches them up
and deposits them in a pile at our feet,
laces eaten by the fish,
plastic thongs torn,
the colors of slippers faded to dull pastels
amongst the seashells.
On our hardened bare feet,
we pick through the shoes.
Silent, they speak,
the piles a mirror of humanity,
as the sea pulls back.
Vanessa‘s work has been recognized by grants and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation and the United Arts of Central Florida, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Southern Review, among other journals. She was a finalist for the 2011 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Please visit www.vanessablakeslee.com for more.