Myth: eels, uneaten, will return
to life in the night, lip below
your bed or into your pillowcase,
pulse around your ankles. Myth:
children taste nothing but sweet.
Enough can ever be enough.
Myth: dogs sleep facing west,
cry to the north. Rivers pour
themselves south instead of down.
Water is enough to bring you
clean. Myth: not that the ring
is there below the surface, but
that you could ever still
the swimmers enough to catch it.
That it is smooth. That it should
be yours. Myth: weaving eel
skin can protect you from
visitors. Dark men at the door
are lucky. You can check anyone's
tongue. Myth: I wanted what
I could not speak. I thought
I would be heard. Not that breath
disappears before it freezes—
that part is true. But that
it belonged, submerged, to you.
Never Have I Ever
Seen the fish, but held myself from gasping for the illusion of grub or meal.
I have never sat on a stone wall with my feet hanging over the water, never watched the falling stars or their reflection.
Besides, what falls and what shoots? And how to know?
All of my songs are exile songs, but I have written none of them.
I have never spiraled like snow, never risen when I was supposed to be drifting. I have never burst in a surprise of glitter.
Tethered myself or allowed myself to lift. Been lifted.
Once the rain begins, I have never asked it to cease.
I have been doubled, but never recognized. Have been almost halved. I have never known the difference, it seems.
Against an alligator, I have never lost.
Have never been found or founded. Nor inhaled the dust of mortar.
I would have said I had never thought of delphiniums, but I never lie about the important things. I never knew its larkspur secret, never knew its poison.
I have never painted my eyes with the dust from a moth, and would bet you have never either.
If I bet at all, which I never do.
I have never crouched beneath a hedge, waiting for snakes. I have never believed in the snake before it came.
Have you seen shrimp and thought fingers? Held fluttering and thought froth?
I have never closed my eyes in front of a fire, never sat outside the smoke, never trusted the end of smoldering.
I do not recognize birds by their nests or calls. And I do not answer.
In the rumble of an engine, I never hear escape.
I have never drowned a hornet in a bird bath, but I have let one sink. I've laid a branch for honeys or bumbles.
Not once have I stood aghast at the blue.
I'm told it's possible to miss yourself in a mirror or a photograph. It is said we do not recognize our own voice.
If led to something pulsing, I cannot help but reach.
Listen: no one wants to believe this, but I have never laid my longing down in the tumble.
A tumbleweed of hyacinth, I say
but the flower is wrong—think
blue, think pink, think a creamed
bridal white. Magnesium or
copper, something in the soil
unseen and unremembered.
Essential, like potassium or lime.
Coffee grounds. Steel wool. I
would rummage in the cabinets,
bury random trinkets at its roots.
Today, I heard about a man who
sat beside a dying fox, both
panting on the macadam, temporary
companions. We all make our own
journeys—how I hate the word.
Nothing is ever destination. Besides,
he might have made it up—the fox
returned to life, waiting out
the lie of the workday, the drive
to a sympathetic veterinarian.
Dead things stay dead. They roll
across the dead end street in
the smallest wind, but that doesn't
make them living. I'm told
it's possible to propagate hydrangeas,
something about cutting the plates
of leaves at the diameter, then
a series of mysteries, then
a cacophany of blue. Or pink.
Something about aluminum,
something about pennies. Something
that should be flat and bypassed
filling instead, and rounding.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Antiphon, The Bellingham Review, The Louisville Review, and Sou’wester. Her chapbook Dear Turquoise is available from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as managing editor for Cider Press Review.
Q: Poetry demands boldness, that we claim things, assert understanding. In “Never Have I Ever,” you push back at that mystique. How did this poem come to be?
A: I’m not generally a fan of poems that assert too much understanding, poems where the speaker knows all the answers. I wonder about things all the time, ask questions, look things up. And I still don’t always find my way to a satisfactory answer. There’s a lot of room for mystery in poems, and my favorite poems live in a bit of mystery. I think perhaps the role of poetry for me is not to know the right answers but to ask the right questions.
A: Never Have I Ever is a children’s game—or a drinking game, not that I would know anything about those—where the object is for a player to list things s/he hasn’t done but which the rest of the group likely has (I had a friend in high school who had never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She won this game a lot). I’m not sure why I started thinking of how I might create a list of crazy things that a speaker could claim never to have done—I mean, if she had lost against an alligator, she likely wouldn’t be around to tell us about it—but I do know that I was thinking a lot at the time about honesty and the ways in which we can lie—or tell the truth—by omission. Around the same time, I was in the audience at a storytelling competition where a young woman claimed to have crushed a moth and used the dust of its wings as eyeshadow. I simply didn’t believe her.
Q: The presence of death in life in “Dry Hydrangeas” reminds me of the line, “Can these dry bones live?” Might you talk a bit more about seeing the constant exchange of faces between one world and the other?
A: This may be related to the idea of a lack of certainty I talk about above, but I like the way you put it here: the world is a constant exchange of faces between one and its opposite. A lot of poems—a lot of writing in general, I suppose—live in one aspect of the world. A lot of poems are about grief or anger or beauty or joy or whatever, and I have plenty of poems that fall into that mode. But the fact is that there are aspects of grief that are simultaneously quite life-affirming (I have yet to be at a wake or funeral where nobody made a joke), and there are aspects of joy that are not at all joyful. Human beings are capable of such levels of complexity that I doubt I’ll ever write a poem that navigates it all. But I can start by putting together seemingly disparate notions, opposite motion, ideas that seem mutually exclusive, and then seeing what happens. I like the tension it creates, for one thing, and as a reader, I enjoy pulling apart the threads of opposition in a poem and seeing how they’re all woven together. I included that exchange of opposites consciously in drafting this poem, but I find it to be a useful revision technique, too; when a poem is lying flat on the page, one of the first things I ask myself is whether it needs a bit of its opposite to give it texture.
Q: What is your experience with eels?
A: My immediate response is to say, “They’re creepy and they’ll continue to move for hours after you cut them into pieces,” and it’s true—look it up on YouTube if you dare. The longer version is that freshwater eels in particular are compelling in a visceral way for me. First, there is the fact that they live on the floor of lakes and rivers—if you’re swimming in a lake, it’s likely that you’ll see some sort of fish, but you’re probably not going to see eels unless you pull them up while fishing. Again, I come back to my love of mystery. Second, their lizard-brains appeal to me in that, like snakes, they can seem single-minded, which, when combined with the idea that they are practically all muscle, is something I find quite moving. They have the capacity to be both driven and powerful, a sort of all-consuming mentality that feels simultaneously human and alien to me. They’ll travel hundreds or thousands of miles to spawn in salt water, and that also feels like something human beings can relate to, as sexual compulsion is maybe one of the few ways in which people can be as focused and consumed as eels seem to be. Finally, I read somewhere a long time ago that it was bad luck to leave eel uneaten because it will come alive again, and another superstition that if you leave cooked eel overnight, it will turn raw again by morning. I think both myths are connected to whatever it is in the eel’s nervous system that allows it to keep moving long after it should, so it all comes together in a big jumble of image and gut feeling for me. And, truly, I once saw a video online of eels moving long after they’d been butchered...and I can’t get it out of my head. They’re creepy and they’ll continue to move for hours after you cut them into pieces. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Twice.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I’ve been writing since I was a kid and my brother and I wrote skits to perform tor my parents. My cousins, my brother, and I wrote skits for our own amusement and probably nobody else’s. I wrote terrible poems and stories in school. But I became serious about poetry as an undergrad when I thought I had signed up for a creative writing survey course and the professor announced on the first day that it was actually going to be all poetry. My first thought was to take him up on his invitation to leave—about half of the students did—but then I decided that being a little afraid of it meant that it might be really good for me, and it was.
I’m not certain if my first accepted poem ever made it to print. I never got a copy! It was in a journal called Now Here Nowhere, or at least it was supposed to be. Shortly after that, I had a couple of poems accepted for The Chariton Review, and I think those are the first ones that saw print.