~This poem was previously published in American Poetry Review (1996).
Docs like dad’s standard-issue dress shoes, combat
boots with zip-laces to accelerate the kill;
the leather jacket, the Joey Ramone.
Going to clubs in second-hand clothes,
bodies starved to sticks;
black liner, animal eyes, as if
to take back restless glances,
the desire to see and be seen…
In photographs from the ’50’s, the action painters’
wives are decked out, living dolls, the men self-important,
otherwise engaged. To hell with the beauty of easy equations—
creeps, criminals, flasher among the stacks—I’m talking
the flip side, damage we did: closed hearts, open legs.
The first fight I had with a lover ended in fists,
the blood left there till it flaked. Burning with boredom,
we wanted the ugly out in the open….
Destroyer, Great Mother, let me lay it on thick,
the shades I still own, blue-black as the bruise
left there, thick marks
like blood welling up.
~This poem was previously published in Court Green 5 (2008).
Letter in February
for Sarah Hannah (1966-2007)
An aria of snow & ice, white-out over
footprints, tire tracks, my swatch of yard
with its winter-killed weeds—
A whirl of weather & as it all goes under—
a loss to consider, a legacy—
not some moneyed future,
buyer’s bliss, but late wind & the chronic
banner of stagey rain in that
cold country I made,
one winter, my home. This loss,
this legacy, as in Addison, 1722: Books
are legacies a great genius leaves
to mankind. Lonely & out
of love, I made my rounds
through freezing fog. Fresh
bread, papers, another day bleeding ink,
a quarter-pound of tea. Would spring
ever arrive, spring with its bevy of roses,
damp air doused—a perfume
of flame? In November’s
arctic shadow, my train pulled into
Exeter Station. I drove deeper
into England, black taxi tunneling through
hedge-lined lanes. To mankind (locution, 1722),
an aria of words, not weather . . . In Devon’s
fluid air, in the manor house
with its flagstone floor
I could almost smell the sea. The pine
table in the room where I worked
opened out to a landscape of hills &
sheep. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll claim
no apparition, no aria of advice or
epiphany. My daughter drowsed,
treading her fathoms of sleep. Later
I read that in the year of Sylvia’s
singular death, in the quiet dark
of domestic space, wives & mothers, divorcées,
widows, & even single girls turned on
the gas taps in record number. The fleetest
beast to bear you to perfection
is suffering? Dear Sarah, your books,
the white-out of “by her own hand”—I wish
for an aria of words to plumb
winter’s due season of grief. Books. A genius leaves.
What else but to work in the space of that shadow?
~This poem was previously published in Crab Orchard Review (2006).
You hate the work, starched petticoat
you slip in & out of, sole model
of good will & restraint.
While Brother Dear brawls in the tavern,
you stiff-upper-lip-it, admonished
sweetheart, Miss “Put-Upon” . . . . Handkerchiefs,
lessons, & linens—I thought I should have vomited . . . .
Still it’s better than being idle, at others’ mercy,
empty-handed & alone by the fire.
But how you’ll pay in the end for your freedom,
bouts of illness bringing you back into the circle of sisters
where stories spun out around you. Beyond the hedge,
pollen rises like smoke; you’ll cringe at stains
in your charge’s dress,
all that you couldn’t bring to birth, intimations that
to ask for more would be your own undoing.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
Back in the early nineties, I was taking a graduate art history course in American Landscapes, the sole writer in a class of high school teachers and college admissions counselors who were working all day and night-classing to earn a Master’s that would buy them a raise. Midway through the course, we arrived at the abstract expressionists. I was already a fan of Jackson Pollack from years back. Between poetry seminars and my own classes at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I’d made regular visits to the art museum to take in the layers of paint and studio debris that composed those textured visual fields. But now, married and living in Baltimore, adjuncting and knocking out poems in Word Perfect 3.0, I was taken in by Lee Krasner’s lush canvases and her equally compelling work in collage. Though the dynamics of the tumultuous Krasner-Pollack marriage were tragically interesting in their own right, I was struck far more deeply by the mutual artistic exchange—that interplay of imagery and cross-pollination which we sometimes call “influence.”
One afternoon, passing time in the library basement, I scrolled through old newspapers on microfiche. The sexism of that era, once forgotten but brought vividly back into our collective consciousness via Mad Men, was evident in publicity pictures and reviews of exhibits like Man and Wife, where the wives (abstract expressionist painters in their own right) were relegated to secondary status. At the same time, I’d become a fan of British singer P.J.Harvey and thought I might bring her anarchic spirit to my poems. I’ve also borrowed a line from The Clash—a great fave from college clubbing days. “Lipstick” comes from this collision of influences—it’s a poem that surprised me with the immediacy of its arrival and its break from a self-conscious literary style.
Within a year, I’d be living in England where my daughter was born. Somewhere, there’s a photo of me on the steps of the Brontë parsonage, looking out to the misty moors like some character from a Gothic novel who sees a black door instead of a future. Charlotte’s novels made a path through grief; happiness—in the form of marriage to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell—was cut short. In the year following this literary pilgrimage, little one by my side, I read in Judith Barker’s epic biography, The Brontës, that hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of “morning sickness,” was the likely cause of Charlotte’s death. My experience of birth was both dramatic and difficult—a hundred years before, I wouldn’t have lived, let alone “bounced back” from postpartum depression.
The fragility of life itself is never far from any poet’s mind. Which is why, in February 2008, on the anniversary of Plath’s suicide, I had a vivid recollection of standing in the dinner line at VCCA with Sarah Hannah chatting about our mutual love of Plath’s sonic structures, which often go unnoticed by readers swept up in Plath’s tangled biography. Sarah had a striking tattoo with a Renaissance motto, a sharp wit, and a generous laugh. Later, she sent me her essay on Plath. We exchanged wisecracking emails about the Paltrow biopic, then wine and war stories in a hotel bar just months before Sarah’s suicide.
I mourned the combustive forces that snuffed out her life, but found myself thinking of back to a week I spent at the Arvon Foundation. Deep in November, under the exquisite cloud play of Devon’s skies, I worked, read, and talked with poets in a thatched manor home with flagstone floors. My own time of “hanging on”: it was like being dropped into the landscape of Ariel. Winter was near, but I was harboring birth. As artists, we stand on the shoulders of giants and work in the shadows of the suffering, paying tribute to the beauty of spring even in the darkest seasons.
ABOUT JANE SATTERFIELD
Jane Satterfield’s most recent book is Her Familiars, published in 2013 by Elixir Press. She is the author of two previous books of poems: Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic, as well as Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the William Faulkner Society's Gold Medal for the Essay, the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, the Mslexia women’s poetry prize, and the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from The Bellingham Review. Satterfield is the literary editor for the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative and lives in Baltimore.