ELEGY WITH YELLOW BOAT
To Ann Byers
The inconsiderate gulls came early
each morning, crying like old hinges.
Tom had trouble sleeping. But you
slept soundly and when you woke
sat with coffee, stealing a little time
on the dock before the children
commenced their litany of need,
your two-handed grip tilting
the mug to your lips, your eyes
squinting happily in the brightness–
blue above translucent green.
Turn: calmly as I approach
with the camera, click: your skin pale
as the white mug, your black hair
lifted by wind to the brim
of your straw hat. Jack, bitten by
a horsefly (the infected wound
ballooned his arm until it seemed
the arm of an older, fatter child), played
a round of miniature golf,
his hand raised in the air as if
perpetually waiting to be called on.
This was long before any hint
of your illness. We all felt sad for Jack.
At night you and Tom and Sarah
drank wine while I, newly sober,
made do with cranberry juice
and soda water, all of us talking/
flirting/teasing on the glassed-in porch,
light comedy played against the sun’s
hammy death-scene, neon-orange
and purple sinking down
behind Horseshoe Island. And
Tom, remember? looked like a giant
in the little yellow boat;
when he stood and tried to fix
the mast, thirty yards out
then swamped–Christ, we laughed!
And: picking cherries in the orchard
outside Fish Creek; the cherry-
pie making-mess that filled the kitchen
with white dust; our children’s voices
spiking off the bay’s surface . . .
Ann, it’s hard to talk to you
now. When I’m with your husband
and children your absence whelms,
I feel submerged, and see you
with my latent eyes
stroke Anna’s hair, Jack’s cheek.
You are someplace, sure.
And I don’t mean that swarm
of atoms giving you form has found
other form, or will. I mean woman
we would recognize, a place
that is a place. Where
is it then . . . We took a sail
on the little yellow boat, you and I
one dusk when the water smoothed,
careful stepping in, pushing off,
so as not to follow Tom.
I don’t remember what we said
though we must have joked–
your dry wit straight-man to my
absurdist bent. Or was it only that
I loved your laugh? I do remember
the wind was off and on
and we drifted, becalmed, watching
gulls wheel over Anderson’s Dock,
small waves fold in beneath
the hull. Also, I remember our families’
impatience at our return, because
we’d kept dinner waiting: squalls broken
out among the children, meat overdone,
etc. All came right before sleep.
This is what I remember.
Now you have drifted out alone
and we are still on shore, if you’ll
excuse the beaten metaphor.
But maybe you won’t. Maybe
I should say you died and let it go
at that, the distance too far
for any language, common, or rare.
Besides, you knew the difference
between true feeling and sentimentality–
knew then and must know now
where you stand. But, listen: I’m glad you
have not left us, entirely.
I’m glad love is too enormous
to follow rules of time and space;
glad you can read this now without glasses.
And: I’ll see you, when I see you.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It was written in the late nineties, soon after my friend Ann Byers died of breast cancer.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Fewer than most. I believe I finished this poem very fast; perhaps a week between the first and final draft.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, and pray it visits me often. But always it comes in its own unpredictable time. And one goes on writing in any case. This poem happens to be one of those “received poems,” largely because, I think, I was not writing for any reason but my own grief. I wanted to make something that would hold the memory of my friend, and not thinking a whit about publication. Really. As to sweat and tears—I remember the poem arrived with relative ease. The tears came before, and after, but not during composition.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
With my narrative poems, of which this is an example, I generally begin by re-placing myself within the perceptual space of a memory. In this case I remembered a joint vacation on Green Bay with Ann (and her husband Tom and their kids Jack and Anna) and began with Tom’s complaint that the seagulls woke him. From there a string of associative images unrolled like a scroll painting. I looked, and the words came more or less simultaneous with the images. Our time there was brief, like all vacations, but had a kind of laid back intensity, so that the details had a searing brightness. Or perhaps Ann’s death suddenly cast all memory of her in the dramatic light of mortality. In any case it was fun, and the deep value of friendship casually apparent. During composition I also followed my mind, as it shifted, allowing naïve questions we are perhaps not supposed to ask (Where was “Ann” now? What had happened to her essence, her Ann-ness, her soul?) to enter the moving scroll. Speaking of which—the poem, now that I think of it, pays homage to Wang Wei and others of his period.
Well, I’m no longer sure what technique is in reference to poetry. I know, I think, how to write a line with leanness, and to focus the vision so that irrelevance is excised. I know how to tune an image, a verb, an adjective, etc. —to maximize freshness and surprise. I think I know how to do
these things. But I’m not conscious of doing them. Is this technique?
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think this poem appeared in the Southwest Review a year or two after I finished it.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
My practice varies. I like to let poems sit, generally, a year or more before sending them out. My judgment about new poems is crushingly suspect. On the other hand, patience is not one of my natural virtues, and occasionally I send things out the week after composition. (Note to self: Do I have any natural virtues?).
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The emotionally charged fact is what I wish to find and use to build the larger fiction of a poem.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes. Though I like to think I write more of a narrative/meditative kind of hybrid. Narrative poetry has become unfashionable just now. But in fact story is neither in nor out of fashion, but above it.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
No, I honestly don’t remember. I’m always reading something, of course. But as I said, I hear Wang Wei in this, and maybe the Rexroth of Signature of All Things, and, oh, a hundred
others . . . .
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not when I’m writing. Then I am only writing. But I think all I do is eventually aimed at people like my father—those who came from the working class and, by dint of awareness, intelligence, invention, compassion, and sweat, work themselves out of it.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I’m very lucky to have married a superb poet/writer named Sarah Gorham. She reads every poem I write, and is my best editor. I try to return the favor.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It sounds very like my other good poems, I think. It is one that people seem to react to strongly, though. I wish such reaction for all my poems; but one can’t just write elegies. The cost to those around one would be too dear.
What is American about this poem?
It is big-hearted, and both blunt and precise.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. You would not be interested in my abandoned poems.