Where do we go from here,
when it is nightfall,
when soon the cold stars will spin,
the moon will die again,
and the marsh peeper
will call out to his coy lover,
who may or may not appear?
Must I beg for that last drink of you,
that spilling grace,
or for the touch of
a cool hand?
Longing can become a dark dog
awakening briefly to an emptied bowl.
If I leave here tonight unwhole,
will a smaller god follow me,
Even love will catch her death
under a cold moon will become
a patch of brown grass buried
beneath an early frost will shiver
into a single dark vine winding
around a splintered trellis will crawl
panting across a desert floor will dry
up to a trickle of water down the
face of a stone mountain will run
frightened through a long hallway will slip
unseen out a side entrance will know
when it is time to turn and pull
the door closed behind her.
love is a lunatic aunt
come down from the Bronx to
rant about her maybe baby
and prophesy calamity
he some dark eyed
and need him
on the side
with they aye papi way
he gonna kill me
dead that one
and snuff these holy flame
gonna do miss mujerzuela
so as give him nena pain
lo siento sobrina but
you don’t got no chance
I just thrown the lovers’ tarot
and seen trouble with romance
first I pull the tower then
the devil after that so I think
you better go mami
before you too much fat
* llamas gemelas = “twin flames”
Some years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.
One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.
Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.
For many years I have been fascinated by the use of a technique in poetry known as the “dramatic monologue.” Though he certainly wasn’t the first to use this technique (or form), Victorian poet Robert Browning perfected it in such poems as “Porphyria’s Lover” (a favorite) and “My Last Duchess.” Later, T.S. Eliot used the form in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another favorite), and John Berryman used it in his “Dream Songs.” Poems that incorporate dramatic monologue — also known as persona poems — typically make use of one “character” through whom the poem is spoken or delivered. Because a poem using this technique is often in the first person, it is tempting to conclude that the poem’s narrator and the poet are one and the same. But don’t be fooled! Writing this type of poem allows the writer to adopt the “voice” of the character and to inhabit him or her from the inside out (as an actor might). And, because there is no overt commentary about or analysis of the character given within the poem itself, it is left to the reader to decide the poem’s meaning and power by paying close attention to what the often “unreliable narrator” says — or doesn’t say.
Like that old photograph I found
at the bottom of her sea-green lunch pail,
where his tanned arm, white shirt sleeve rolled to
just below the elbow,
rests on the dark steering wheel of their old Impala,
with her leaning in,
left knee on the passenger seat.
Or like that old movie I saw,
where the mermaid bride longs for her sailor lover,
he in his blue and white striped t-shirt, both sleeves rolled to the shoulders,
and resting one hand at the small of her slender back.
“Bésame,” she begs.
Or like that old TV show I watched,
where barefoot and only half smiling
he walks slowly to the water’s edge, wet trousers rolled to the shins,
and says to a woman we can’t quite see,
And she almost does,