Gray Jacobik, a professor emeritus, is a poet, mentor, and painter who lives in Deep River, Connecticut. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Best American Poetry, American Poetry Now, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Poets Guide to the Birds and Poetry from Paradise Valley. Among other honors, she has received The Yeats Prize, The Emily Dickinson Prize, an NEA Fellowship, and served as the Frost Place Poet-in-Residence. Her book, The Double Task (University of Massachusetts Press) received The Juniper Prize and was nominated for The James Laughlin Award and The Poet’s Prize. The Surface of Last Scattering, published by Texas Review Press, was selected by X. J. Kennedy as the winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize. Brave Disguises (University of Pittsburgh Press) received the AWP Poetry Series Award. Little Boy Blue: A Memoir in Verse is newly published by CavanKerry Press. Gray invites anyone interested in learning more about her work, upcoming readings, essays, paintings, or in linking to her blog at the Michigan Quarterly Review’s website, Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby (dedicated to the art of close reading), to visit her website.
In the placable air of long dissolved discord, we wait
with our daughter, days overdue, our single shared
goodness. She carries our first grandchild.
I saw him last at her wedding––before that, as rarely
as faint decency required. We’ve led vastly different
lives. He’s not unkind, only holds a dizzying number
of opinions. Like bombarding mosquitoes they fly in
and out of range. Across my face I draw a tight mask
of passive acquiescence. The skeleton underneath
threatens to grin, but he’s the one who’s dying—
of AIDS and its complications—the effeminate,
virginal boy I married when I was twenty-two.
Can anything be said to those we betrayed and
abandoned? Neither of us knew ourselves; each
feared we’d be destroyed by the other’s needs.
That fear seems exorbitant from here, and pointless,
yet I remember staggering about for weeks feeling
as though a beast were daily ripping the sternum
out of my chest. We shred our nerves against the grate
of one another’s youthful insecurities. Weak, slight,
vulnerable, only his voice is unchanged—
I must have loved its sound once! Maybe, strangely,
in the unreckonable realm of human life—our daughter’s
and her child’s—whoever we marry is ours forever.
And in some sense he is mine, and I almost want him––
but only out of pity, or forgotten guilt. All the dross
that had to go was long since skimmed off. Here
we are, his once-wife, my once-husband, the child
we made who is with child, this summer evening’s
sterling light and the mystery of how each moment
goes on and on and holds us present until the last.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in late July 2002 while I was poet-in-residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire. The occasion the poem describes, my former husband and I waiting with my daughter over a period of several days prior to her giving birth to our first grandchild, occurred six weeks earlier, mid-June 2002.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don't remember precisely. I was free to write all day and my best guess is that I worked on it for several hours one day and then revisited the poem, making minor revisions over a period of days.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don't believe in inspiration as traditionally conceived: that is, as having something to do with a god blowing an inspiriting breath into the lungs of a poet, or a visitation by a muse. I agree with critics, such as Harold Bloom, who says that "poems beget poems." I read a lot of poems, read, study, analyze, teach, think about, write out in long hand, and thus I am inspired through the cultural mechanism of writing and reading: inspired by literature.
However, I want to add that I went back and looked at my journal entry of June 11, 2002; five days before my grandson was born, written while my ex-husband and I were visiting our daughter. Referring to him, I wrote that "his voice hasn't changed low these thirty-six years since I first met him. Neither of us is in anyway the same person we were in 1966 . . . I can hardly remember who I was then . . . " Then, referring to my daughter, I wrote that she "thanked me for being gracious this morning toward her father. What else would I do? In fact, I hadn't tried at all to be gracious."
So while I hadn't had my journal entry in mind when I sat down to write this poem, I believe that having put on paper some of my thoughts of the moment, the kernel of the poem began to form in my subconscious mind. Here I am saying that "writing begets writing"--another form of inspiration.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Although these lines are longer than those Wallace Stevens uses, I have his tercets in mind quite often, and I can see Stevens' influenced in some of the words and phrases: "placable," "long dissolved discord," "unreckonable realm," perhaps even "sterling."
Principles of technique? My technique consists of writing the best sentences I can write, trying to vary type and length of sentences, adding as much rhyme, consonance, alliteration, and assonance as I can without sounding too obviously poetic. Then I spent a lot of time searching for synonyms that might be more interesting, more precise or more musical than my first word choices. I know that I stop myself a few times and ask whether or not I've got something to say; any central idea. The ideological level of poem making is important to me. I don't care for poems that carry only impressions or sensations and little or not thought. I try to make sure there's at least one line that aims at what I like to think of as the intellectual underpinning of the poem. Lastly, after everything else has settled down, I begin shaping the poem into lines and form, although some lines, as lines, form themselves from the beginning. This is a simplification, of course, since thousands of decisions, some conscious, far many more unconscious, are made while writing a poem; at least that's my sense of things.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
"The Ex" was accepted by Peter Makuck and published in Tar River Poetry about sixteen months after I wrote it. Later it was anthologized in a collection called The Breath of Parted Lips: Poems from The Frost Place, Vol. II. This last is edited by Sydney Lea and published by CavanKerry Press.
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?
As a general trend, the older I've gotten, the longer I've written and published, the greater the length of time I sit on work. I know longer fall in love with my own creations and race off to share them with the world, as I once did -- sometimes mailing off work the very day I wrote it. I have several dozen poems, probably publishable ones, that I've been sitting on for eight years or less. My practice does vary. I try to psych-out the fit between the publication and the poems I'm sending for consideration, but I question my powers of discernment in this regard, and still wonder whether trying to find this fit is a waste if time and energy. I still receive dozens upon dozens of rejection slips.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
There's not much fiction in this one. It's fairly autobiographical. I do not recall feeling anything like what is expressed in the phrase "I almost want him." I am pretty sure I said that for dramatic effect. I do remember having a long meal in the evening on my daughter's patio, and my ex-husband expressing what struck me as numerous ill-founded opinions. I remember feeling strained into keeping a pleasant expression on my face. I was being duplicitous for the sake of geniality. I remember, as well, how beautiful the California evening light was, and I was overcome with a sense of the mystery of "the present moment," the sense, that I try to capture in the poem of "how each moment/goes on and on and holds us." I have always been captivated by the idea of successive moments of now being all we ever know, or can know, of existence, and yet each moment is so ephemeral, so fleeting. That fascination I take to be the real subject of this poem, along with the idea that occurs earlier that "whoever we marry is ours forever" in "some sense." I am married to my third husband, and when I think about the previous two, I do feel tied to them even though they are complete strangers to me. I suppose because I pledged myself to each in good faith when I married each and I had a child with each. Such things bind us in a metaphysical sense even if nothing else does.
Is this a narrative poem?
I would classifying it as a lyric poem with narrative elements. It is primarily a meditation and thus fits the definition of a lyric fairly closely: a short, personal poem that focuses on a single emotion, and that is primarily meditative or reflective in nature. I'd call the emotion a blend of two: nostalgia and wonder.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Well, I've mentioned Stevens, and I can see a touch of Bishop here as well, in, for example, the simile that describes the ex-husband's dizzying opinions as showing up "Like bombarding mosquitoes" that "fly in/and out of range." Bishop may show up in the phrase "as rarely/as faint decency required." Since I wrote this poem in Robert Frost's former home, and while I was re-reading his complete poems, I wouldn't be surprised if Frost, as well, isn't hiding out somewhere in these lines, probably in the tone.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No I don't. I feel amazed, and honored, when anyone reads or listens to one of my poems. I'm happy with all comers and write for all comers.
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've belonged to the same poetry group for the last sixteen years; we've been a changing group, as such groups are. The members have vetted all my work, plus a few other friends I meet with less frequently. Often, but not always, my husband is my first reader. He's good at seeing what doesn't need to be there.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don't think "The Ex" differs significantly from the personal lyrics I write. At this stage in my writing life, I'm writing more dramatic and narrative poems than lyrics, and I like to write hybrids that combine two or three modes and that sometimes incorporate fragments I have not composed myself. So of course "The Ex" differs significantly from such poems. Among the lyrics, I write some that are more outward looking, less personal, that take as their subject something in the natural or cultural or historical realm, rather than human interaction, than, let me say, the psychological domain of experience, as "The Ex" does.
What is American about this poem?
I think this poem might have as easily been written by a European or a South or Latin American poet. I do not see anything particularly American about it unless it is the mention of AIDs, although, by now, sadly, AIDs shows up everywhere in the world.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Oh, finished. I declared it finished. I've never found another way to finish a poem.