Robin Becker’s collections of poetry include Tiger Heron, Domain of Perfect Affection, The Horse Fair, All-American Girl and Giacometti’s Dog, all in the Pitt Poetry Series. Becker has received fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Harvard, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Liberal Arts Research Professor of English at Penn State, Becker served as the Penn State Laureate during the 2010-2011 academic year. A column, “Field Notes,” appears in The Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as Poetry Editor.
I wanted to believe in it, the word
softer than hospital but still not home—
Like any other frame house on the street,
it had a lawn, a door, a bell—
Inside, our friend lay, a view
of the garden from her room but no lift
to raise her from the bed. A sword, the sun
plunged across the cotton blankets.
I wanted dying to be Mediterranean,
curated, a villa, like the Greek sanatoria
where the ancients cared for their sick
on airy porticos and verandas
with stone paths that led to libraries.
A nurse entered her room and closed the door.
For the alleviation of pain, I praise
Morpheus, god of dreams unlocking
the medicine drawer with a simple key,
narcotic placed beneath the tongue.
In the hall, the volunteer offered us coffee.
How could I think the Mozart we played
to distract her could distract her? Or olive groves,
or marble sculpture in the atrium?
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
In the middle of my 2008 residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, I learned that a beloved friend was dying. To see her, I traveled to Massachusetts where she had moved to a hospice. After her death and funeral, I returned to New Mexico wrote the first drafts of this poem.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem had several endings before I settled on this one. In that sense, it took a long time to complete. I had researched ancient Greek practices for caring for the dying and I had settled on Morpheus and Mozart, but I couldn’t find a way to bring it to a close.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
For me, “inspiration” can mean any number of things: the “trigger” image that starts the process of composition; the phrase that arrives in the breath (and brain) as if unbidden; the bit of research that sends the poem off in an unexpected direction. I would say that this poem combined all of the above and then required considerable revision to find its final form.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The opening blank-verse couplet establishes a balanced, semi-stately tone which drops off, in line four, to become an iambic tetrameter line. After that, the lines vary from seven to fourteen syllables, returning to blank verse in lines seven, fourteen, and twenty two. Stanza shapes have always interested me. I don’t know--until somewhere in the poem’s development--what kind of stanza will suit the poem. In this case, I chose couplets to emphasize the relationship between the speaker and her dying friend.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
The word “hospice” generated the journey of this poem. I can’t think of another poem I began with a single word I didn’t ditch before the poem’s completion! Often, I let go of the catalyzing word or phase as the poem develops. In this case, it remained central.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think Prairie Schooner published it the following year.
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?
I show my poems to a few trusted readers before sending them to editors. The time from completion to submission varies with each poem.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem combines visual detail culled from memory (always questionably reliable) with the creation of a “speaker” whose perceptions, desires, and praise originate with me but then move out and away from me.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, I consider this a narrative poem in that it tells a first-person story of an encounter with a friend dying in hospice.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Maxine Kumin has had and continues to have an impact on my writing and thinking about poems. Her poems contain an accountability and specificity which I admire--especially when the poem enters mysterious terrain.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Having spent my life in universities, I like to imagine poetry students--undergraduates and grad students--reading my books. My “ideal” readers include other poets, feminists, animal lovers, and poetry lovers.
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?
Yes, I shared this poem with a few trusted readers with whom I regularly share new work.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
In that this poem becomes a meditation on a single word, it bears a close relation to another poem called “Dyke.”
What is American about this poem?
An American anxiety about death informs this poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
When I finally decided to end the poem with a question, I felt I had found the poem’s route to closure and considered it finished.