Ode to the Unwritten Odes
You are handknitted, hours of color
gliding across knuckles, blunt points
seesawing air. Your wrought verbs
are the V&A’s iron, the balconies of New
Orleans. You’re the hip or the knee
bending without notice, no wince.
You’re no honest mistake anyone
will ever know. Crinoline, Indian summer,
velvet drapes in the darkened theatre,
the second chair tuning the violin,
the white cake whose name no one
remembers long, the green satin shoes
of the men in Saracen costume, the myth
of earthworms split living into two beings,
something anyone could understand, clarity,
the majorette’s golden tassels, her magenta
fringe, the first serve, crack of bat,
breaking glass or the ocean’s smoothed
corrections. No. Never a correction,
just simple sane perfections.
Sometimes I don’t know where I am
or who’s in the house, but that’s just sleep
not quite worn off. Pretty soon
I’ll figure out if I’m facing west
or south, if the kids are here
or in Oklahoma and which language
they speak in this country. If the rooster
is going to crow (home) or a jackhammer
will bust the street, if the TV’s
already on or the folks are all
gathered with warm mugs in their palms,
if I’m going to roll over or lean down to the dog,
if I’m going to wander in with a bed jacket
and a sleepy grin, if the sun’s come up,
if breakfast and a paper sit outside the locked door,
if the snow clouds have rolled through
the night, if it’s dark, if I just need to pee.
Soon I’ll know what’s what, what’s not.
I’m pretty sure rolling over is south
and that my day comes in from the north.
If I can figure all this out, then I’ll know.
Something is in my body
like the North Pacific trash heap
too far away to clean up or to bother.
I am trying to stay asleep
because it is not yet my morning.
Something is in my body
organ-deep, crawling up toward skin.
Not cancer, I fear, just pain.
First under my rib, the ocean
crawls with its dangerous plastic.
I turn and the tortoise turns
into my kidney, into my lung.
Body, don’t pleurisy me. Body,
don’t pain. Let the albatross
die on mistaken lunches,
let the vortex keep
what can’t spit up. Pain
recycle your own pain.
Pain insists, but the planet
is more subtle.
Live on this ocean’s indelible lump
when you die. When
the continents long fail, this.
One of these won’t be ignored.
Laura Lee Washburn is the Director of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, an editorial board member of the Woodley Memorial Press, and the author of This Good Warm Place: 10th Anniversary Expanded Edition (March Street) and Watching the Contortionists (Palanquin Chapbook Prize). Her poetry has appeared in such journals as Carolina Quarterly, Quarterly West, The Sun, The Journal, and Valparaiso Review. Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she has also lived and worked in Arizona and in Missouri. She is married to the writer Roland Sodowsky.
Q: Your poems show an intense interest in how we position ourselves in connection to the landscape. Can you talk about the landscape you currently inhabit, and how that compares with one(s) from your earlier life?
A: I came from the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Under the green waves I felt at home looking up toward air. This fish fantasy made me, from an early age, want to literalize evolution. I believe in the ocean as home, and when I see water, I want to be inside it. I walked or biked the trails of Seashore State Park as I child. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, I camped in tents that smelled of vinyl and wood smoke. Moving to Arizona, in my early twenties, I got out the Atlas and calculated the distance to the nearest large body of water. The apartment’s communal pool sufficed. Each day I rode my bicycle through the automatic sprinklers, drying, it seemed, within a block of the water’s spray. I learned loquat, mimosa, olive trees, palm. Kansas sends up tall trees. The neighbor’s sycamore litters our lawn with bark. I recognize pine, magnolia, and the dreaded sweet gum from home. Osage orange is new to me. We don’t go to the lake. We curse the puddle by the back gate after heavy rains. We hide in the basement when the sirens go. I don’t know this place like the back of my hand, but I dig in the earth and watch what grows. Vines crowd in around us. The infernal cicadas buzz their deafening buzz.
Q: The images in “Ode to the Unwritten Odes” are specific and yet oddly assorted, like an attic or chamber of curiosities. What brings these elements together?
A: Muriel Rukeyser’s idea that American poetry exists on a continuum with the great poet of possibility Walt Whitman at one end and with the poet of outrage, Herman Melville, at the other, got me thinking about where I fell on this continuum. I realized that many of my poems were poems of outrage, like perhaps “Body,” but that many of my favorite poems were poems of possibility. I have since tried, occasionally, to write the poem of praise and possibility. “Ode to the Unwritten Odes” attempts in one fell swoop to capture the subjects of many odes I might have written or might yet. These are the curiosities of my mind: those Shriners parading at their Virginia Beach conventions, my aunt afraid of them in her white majorette boots, and what is the name of that cake we had at our wedding? And then there’s this note I found on the poem, “Roland says, ‘only the unwritten, unsculpted, unpainted is perfect . . . .’”
Q: What direction do you face when you write?
A: East, of course.