Listening for the Book

In my writing life, every poem is a book of poems. Each new idea approaches dragging a dozen more on its heels—poems which may or may not be written. I live by obsession. If I fail, I fail by grandeur—entire would-be books down the drain.

When I sat down to write Paper Doll Fetus, from which these poems in Blackbird are taken, I envisioned a book about twilight sleep, an amnesiac state once induced during childbirth. I wrote one poem. And then the world of the unborn baby, with all its magic and violence, was suddenly beating down my door. I heard the body’s organs singing a lullaby to the child; I saw midwives burned at the stake.

I made a list. I organized the list into categories. “Fetal abnormalities” and “doctors’ tools” featured prominently. Forceps! The crochet! The many mysterious and disastrous things that can happen to twins! Most of the things on the list never became poems. But returning to the list often—each time I sat to write—was a meditation, a way of listening for the book.

The book emerged, poem by poem, in voices not my own. Sometimes it was obvious who or what would speak. A fetus had something to say; I wrote it down. Writing a poem about a hideous man-shaped tumor? Give it voice to make sense of its own existence, in its own words. Let it apologize. Those were the most urgent—and swiftest—poems to write. I simply sat down and let the hideous tumor say its piece.

But just as often, the speaker hung in the shadows. And when that happened, I kept busy not just listening but actively cultivating voice. I read the work of physicians published in the 1500s, the 1700s, the 1800s. I read a material culture study on the birth chair. I read the internet. I looked at too many disturbing pictures on the internet.

When a subject arose, I wrote around it, literally: most of my notes were sideways and included arrows and circles. I wrote lists of words, lists of phrases, lists of sentences with various syntactic constructions. I transferred my notes to the computer. I copied a picture from the internet.

Eventually, some way or another, the voices spoke up. Sometimes they materialized through diction and music, as when suddenly I’d recognize the linguistic tendencies of a physician creeping onto the page. Sometimes they were dictated by tone or argument, as when making a poem either sad or hopeful depended on its point of view.

It may seem simplistic, but without a speaker, there is no poem. And I don’t always mean persona. Even if it is the voice of the poet, a poem must have something imperative to say. So I listen carefully. And if I’m lucky, I hear a chorus.  end