This week at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I am in a workshop with the poet Martha Rhodes, who is the author of Mother Quiet, Perfect Disappearance, and At the Gate. She is encouraging us to experiment with the way we revise our poetry by playing with tenses, structure, line breaks, and sequencing.
According to Rhodes, there are four aspects that feed into the creation of a poem: music, imagination, narrative, and structure. They are not mutually exclusive, but it is helpful to know which, as a poet, is one's dominant way into a poem, or way of reading a poem. It is clear to me, after working with Vijay Seshadri and now with Rhodes, how much my poetry is informed by my musical ear.
This poem by Rhodes is posted online at AGNI Magazine:
A hose ran through our house, used
to wash our windows down; to keep
us teenagers in line; to dilute Father’s
martoonis; “to make life a little more
exciting,” Mother said.
When Mother turned 70 and renamed us
“Enormous One,” and
“One Who Walks Bare on Rug,”
and “One Who Hideously Shares My Bed,”
and “Which One”
we hosed her into the corner of her dressing room—
Clean out the cobwebs.
Cold showers are a cure-all.
Mother would giggle herself silly when we’d towel her dry,
dust her with powder, pull the bedrails up.
The mother in this poem, although claiming that the hose makes life "a little more / exciting," actually uses the hose to control her family: it keeps the windows clean, monitors the kids' behavior, and prevents the father from getting drunk. Her family has learned this; so when illness leaves their mother in a frenetic, uncontrolled state, they hose her "into the corner of her dressing room" to regain order. Even then, she "giggles" when washed with cold water, and rails are needed to pen her in.
This is a very sad and powerful poem, and what I admire about it is how an extensive, emotional story is compacted into 17 lines. We get a sense of the entire family dynamic very quickly (nobody says martoonis unless they drink a lot of them), and the inevitable fall of the mother into an uncontrolled state, despite her attempts to always control her environment. Maybe that is the unltimate conflict here: that she could gain control over her environment, but not over her internal self.