Relics

oak seedling and acorn relic

This fact once had a hold on me: that a baby girl is born with about 1 million ova. When my daughters were infants, I would stare at them, trying to grasp the reality that future grandchildren, if I were to have them, had gotten their start as cells inside my body. And the baby that I was diapering, was watching play with her toes, was soothing to sleep had a package of potential life inside her.

Contemplating this, I had a feeling not unlike the one you have when you stand in front of a mirror holding another mirror, and hold it in such a way that you see yourself reflected on and on and on and on.

Even as the babies grew into children — the daughters and the son — and their once physical connection to me was lost, I held on to the idea that cells that had originated inside me remained inside them like traces, souvenirs, relics. At the same time I felt perversely proud of my body (for doing what it does sort of automatically), these immigrant cells felt like losses to me, too, as though they took something from me.

My contrary feelings and ideas about my old cells residing in my children were so pressing that I of course had to write a poem about them. An early version (not the first draft) looked like this:

Relic

       for a daughter

Cheeks full. Lips
dripping pearl. You
have sucked

me soft.
What I had—
sinew leaping
blood replenishing
bones toughening—
spent.  Clean shell
I cultivate urge:

grow, colony, grow!
Multiply and billow
like yeast yet keep
my relic.

Moored boat,
patient seed, egg
inside me inside she
(my harbor, my flower),

remain, and divide.

Later, perhaps years, I dug the poem out and revised and revised it. I was going through a period of loving the cooler voices of poets like Mark Strand and Louise Glück, and I was a little embarrassed by my exclamation and stacked images. I changed the title from “Relic” (one ovum) to “Relics” (all kinds of maternal cells), and I stripped the poem down, even removing the dedication. The idea is the same; the feeling is not.

Relics

Cheeks full. Lips
dripping pearl. You
have sucked

me soft.
What I had—
sinew leaping
blood replenishing
bones toughening—
spent.  Clean shell
I tend other

cells. Multiply,
billow like yeast
yet keep my relics;
remain, and divide.

I think I tried to get the second version published and kept the first version as an artifact of a particular time in my life. I pulled these out on Mother’s Day to reflect on them, anticipating that the more revised one would still be the “better” one, and I was surprised by how much I liked the first one and felt no longer embarrassed by its higher temperature.

I also realized, with what felt like a thunk, that I rarely write poetry, and I used to write it all the time. I would even think in it, the way I admittedly now sometimes think in status messages.

How did this happen?! I asked myself. And days later, still ruminating on this loss of poetry as a go-to medium, I read James’s post on his recent fall off in writing compulsion: no poems, no song lyrics, no short stories. He attributes his retreat from these forms because of intense, steady work on his novel.

To what do I attribute my retreat from poetry? After all, I’m not writing a novel. And while I am not overwhelmed by the same kinds of feelings that overwhelmed me as the mother of babies and young children, emotions still flood me often: rivalry, anger, love, guilt, hope, and hopelessness.

Still, no poems.

The blog may partly fill the imaginative space that poetry once did, but it’s not only that.

I suspect it’s that the teaching of writing is getting in the way of the doing of writing. (It feels kind of transgressive to say that, so let me put this little caveat right here in parentheses.) My energy, industry, and even enthusiasm I invest in the work of others. That is my choice, and I do love teaching and coaxing along the development and work of students. It is not unlike parenting in this way.

Even more than my expense of resources, however, my stance as a writing teacher affects my inspiration as a writer. When I approach a student’s work, I am not so much a reader as a proxy for the reader. I read always imagining the effect of the prose on an audience.  I am so habitually an audience — and especially an audience who is not me (tutors and teachers, you get this, right?) — that I find it harder and harder to write for me, to me, or even unaware of me.

It’s as though critical distance, so important when reviewing or revising, is always activated in my brain, always turned on.

I am so tired of this awareness, this intentionality. It helps me be a good teacher, which I want to keep being. It’s getting in the way, however, of becoming the kind of flexible and daring writer I want to be.

Is there an off switch?

—–

Here’s a side-by-side version of the two poems:

3 thoughts on “Relics

  1. I love reading your blog entries, and you know what I’d also love? Reading your novel. Do you think a long term project like that might allow you to be that flexible and daring writer? Maybe after diving in deep for a while you’d find that off switch? Thanks for writing this.

  2. I like both versions of your poem. I remember reading in Sylvia Plath’s journal that she quit her teaching job at Smith College because being a critical reader of student papers prevented her from bringing creative spontaneity to her own writing. Plus she felt drained. Don’t you find that teaching takes so much time and energy that there’s not much of either left for writing? And yet, for me, when there is time to write, it satisfies me unlike anything else.

  3. Thanks, Lisette. Over the years, I have had ideas for YA novels and, for whatever reason, have not taken them too far. If I ever write one, I’ll ask you to be a first reader.

    Claudia, yes, teaching takes most of the time and the energy. The little slice of summer we get seems not enough, although the writing time it offers does satisfy me “unlike anything else,” as you say.

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