Thursday, January 19, 2012

In the Midst of Copy Edits, A Minor Miracle

This week, in the midst of the semester starting, I'm doing final galley proofs for Liveaboard.  It's been crazy, of course.  I love galley proofs though...seeing the layout of the book for the first time is such a thrill.  And the production manager at Salmon did a beautiful job with mine.

But we ran into one small snag--a few lines in one of my sestinas were too long to fit on the page.  We could always wrap them, of course, which is what Siobhan did, but I just couldn't stomach it for a sestina.  Perhaps more than any other poem, those end words matter, so wrapping just wrecks it.  On the first round of galley edits I revised each of the lines that wrapped, and then sent it back.  For 2 of the 3, that worked.  But the final line was just too long.

So this week I sat down again, and tried to mess with it.  I soon realized I was going to have to completely rewrite the line--it wasn't going to work any other way.  So I did...and on the 3rd or 4th version suddenly a metaphor for the entire poem emerged--one that I think had been there all along, but that I hadn't seen before.  In looking at it, I realized one of the 6 end lines had to be changed.  This is a pretty major change for a sestina, not to mention one in the 3rd and final stage of galley proofs...but I started working, and realized that the new word fit beautifully.  It actually worked! 

In a fit of ecstatic joy I zipped the poem off to my good friend and writer buddy Robyn Holloway, who looked it over, and told me one stanza still needed work.  And she was right, of course.  In order to make the whole metaphor work, I had to completely rewrite that stanza.  And as I did so, I realized I had to rewrite the ones before and after....  As any of you writers know, revising a sestina (well, any poem in form) is so painful.  But cool, too.  I worked on the poem for two days, and like it so much better.  I'm not sure if it's perfect, or even better, but I like it better and that's making me happy.  I'm pretty nervous about sending it off to Siobhan, though, as a 2-day-old poem.  Most of the poems in the book have gone through months of revision, been seen by at least 3 other writers I trust, been copy edited, etc.  Can I possibly trust myself enough to give her such a spanking new poem?  I guess I will.  

The real gift to me, though, was watching this happen.  I've worked on this particular poem for about 7 years now, and it's always felt not quite right.  And now it feels exactly right.  I hope I'm not wrong...I hope others find it exactly right too.

Spinning Belief

-       for Terry Tempest Williams

In the mussel-shelled beach of night
I dream I am a heron, with her fine, sharp
beak—look how she stalks and spears faith,
swallows it, rises past the spinning phalaropes
into the purple shine of night, the river lost
below her, tidewater rising, spinning

like cream in my coffee, as I spin
through my morning, feathered by last night’s
dreams of this perfect bird body, never lost
in the high grasses of belief, always etched sharply
against the river. But I’m not that bird.  I’m a phalarope
stuck in a spinning, frenetic search for faith.

This morning, sitting on the river, ancient stories of faith
in my hand, on my tongue, I watch the silk spinning
of one bird and what I see is this phalarope’s
wake, morning light on the waves she creates, the night’s
dark doubts spinning away as she turns, sharpens,
becomes belly focused—everything else lost

to the task of consuming the river, all desires lost
except belly desire—this bird knows faith.
She fills her long wings with fish, sharp
bones melting into her own fine skin, as she spins
her body, turning, turning until the empty night
rolls into memory under the feet of this phalarope.

I might find, if I could touch a phalarope,
that the complicated leaves of belief would lose
hold and helix away into the consuming night,
until all that remains is hollow bones, and the faith
that fish will rise if I ask, if I simply turn, begin to spin
a prayer with my arms, my feet, my belly sharp

with hunger and need. I can feel a sharpened
desire rising, as I remember the phalarope
who lives in my bones, who just by spinning
through river water, finds the longing, once lost,
to feed this feathered heart. I remember the feel of faith,
that fullness in my belly, in the deepness of night.

I begin to spin, see fish rise in this phalarope ritual, this faithful
search for solid bodies, rising in the sharp wake of my night,
and I eat, and I eat, the belief I once thought was lost.

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