for my mother
Stunned by the iron heaviness of her blood
filling the tiny
veins in my head, she charts a blue lined map
of streams winding
my skull, then eases down to encircle my eyes
and ears, speaking
her words, telling me stories. Years later, under skies pale
as the bluish milk
of a swollen breast, the creeks I follow rush on,
flow into rivers
and over spillways, until what feeds the mouths of hungry
carp flinging themselves
up and over each other, feeds me, too, and all I can see
is a bed
of fish thrashing scale over scale, their white edged gills
like smoke swirling
over the thunderous water, their tails a hammering
of iron tongues.
Dreaming the Never Born
All night they are falling out
of their beds, the sky rushes in,
voices call, shout-out the heads
of the tired, all rust-shattered,
grease-sleepy. The wake isn’t
salt-eyed, the wake tale is this,
she remembers, what takes time
isn’t the arrow, isn’t the narrow
branch fattened, water-stained,
bursting in mid-leap, slipping
from bark’s skin. My daughters,
I never saw you, you slept
curled in the curves of my arms,
wearing your stick grins, swearing
through lips grease-kissed, wary, no
charm could explain the workings
inside you, no schematic drawing,
that which is my lot, the inhabited
hallways inside me, offer no clue,
who is this that never became you?
Crammed into pockets of a black leather bag and far
from the faraway Pacific the shells are hidden in a bureau drawer
in the room at the top of the stairs
where I go to slip away and listen
in that hour of gray quiet
when no one will miss me
Beneath me beneath the house’s damp basement
rides a hillside layered with shale and coal
and riddled with tunnels collapsed or forgotten
while above the house’s flat roof
clouds blow by their shapes open and close
like the web of a crocheted doily stretched between two hands
Outside below the window where the dog all day long
jumps to meet the gate
lies the cinder lot
its color a lake of rusted water or a sea of ground cloves
depending upon the day and the hour
But now with one hand
I recite my petition for quiet I pray
that no one discover where I am so that I can go on
holding in the palm of the other
these shells of polished brown and black
with their tiny spots of cream
Hold carefully their smooth backs exotic and miniature
and dream of what is other—
these creatures plucked from a sea
I will never see
My fingers read each shape rub the tiny teeth-like openings
curving into their undersides
their mouths that never open—
Outside a bus groans by
and when it stops at the top of the hill
where the street leans alongside a blossoming locust
old women wrapped in black skirts and sweaters
will lift their swollen ankles
and step off into dusk.
Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli (www.mariepavlicek.com), poet, painter, and printmaker, is a graduate of Seton Hill University (B.A., Studio Art) and Warren Wilson College (MFA, Poetry). She has been a Fellow at both the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. Her poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Raleigh Review, Watershed Review, Border Crossing, About Place, Ekphrasis, Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, and others. She is a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Grant in Poetry and leads poetry workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: Poems most frequently start as fragments—an image, a memory, a piece of a dream, a phrase that repeats itself like a loop playing in my head. If the impulse to work isn’t accompanied by one of these fragments, I let something in my immediate line of vision or an overheard piece of conversation suggest a starting point and I go from there. The poem develops associatively; sounds find echoes, as do images; patterns of syntax constructions occur or a certain underlying rhythm emerges, etc. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly happens in the poem’s early stages because much of the process is intuitive, but through a seemingly disinterested though very attentive play with the material of language itself— as if it were clay or paint— I get an inkling of what the poem will be about. The next step, which can go on for many drafts, is the shaping— and it’s through this process that I more consciously construct the poem, juggling all of those elements in the poet’s toolbox until—if I’m lucky, have worked hard enough, been patient enough, and have kept some spark of life in it—the poem is finished. I’ve abandoned or temporarily abandoned many poems, some at the early draft stage and some that I’ve worked on for a long time.
Q: In “Secrets” the narrator’s fascination with secrets enclosed in seashells is opposed to a ruined industrial landscape that hides its own hidden caverns and tunnels. How does such a place affect the people who live there?
A: This is something I think about a lot. In the place where I grew up—a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh—people lived very close together. Big families—many of them Catholic—and small houses. There was little privacy and the secrets that one had would be difficult to keep hidden, though surely some people did. I know they did.
I have to admit that I often find the post-industrial landscape seductive— simultaneously ravaged, ugly, scarred, and beautiful. I sense an honesty about it. It wears its history openly and posits the questions; How did this happen?, Who did this?, and Why?.
I think that the people who live in “ruined industrial landscapes” understand quite early on that a pretty low bar of expectations has been set for them. The blighted landscape, a mirror to the self, confirms it. But there’s still an inner life which imagines some different scenario for how one’s life will unfold. These are the most intimate secrets, hidden even at times from our own selves.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I didn’t have a specific type of item that I collected but I did have a hidden drawer in my dresser where I stashed things like my mother’s autograph books from when she was a girl, holy cards and little plastic statues I’d won in grade school contests, handkerchiefs embroidered by a great aunt, old keys and coins that I found in my father’s workshop, pieces of worn, colored glass which I’d set on the window sill. Later: thick black vinyl jazz records, 78rpms, found inside an old cabinet stereo, someone had given to my dad and which I claimed as a combination window seat and sound system for my bedroom. I realize now that much of what I was drawn to collecting were things touched by other people, objects that showed age and wear¬. Or—in the case of the contest prizes—that affirmed my own secrets, my hidden ambitions.
Q: The way a mother imagines her child seems quite as real and powerful for the unborn as the one in her arms. How much of who we become can be traced to the visions of our mothers ¬— and fathers?
A: Again, this is something I think about a lot, both as a daughter and as a mother of two grown sons. The ways that a woman takes on the visions of each parent are complex and convoluted, conscious and more often, I think, unconscious.
As I age, I recognize more clearly there are connections between the person I’ve become and the impressions I have internalized over the years about who my parents were, what they valued, how they saw themselves in relation to the larger world, etc. My mother’s love of language and ideas, stories, conversation, and the value of an education, led me—I know this now—to poetry. My father’s capacity for hard work, the way his hands were always nicked and dirty, and how tired and frustrated he often was, gave me an awareness of what physical labor demands of human beings, of class structures, and also of the value of “making do.”At times, when I’m working in the studio, working with my hands, I think of the years he spent in his garage, alone, working, aiming, in his way, for perfection in what he was doing.
It often occurs to me, especially during conversations with siblings or close friends, that we’re always in conversation and/or struggling with an ever-changing version of who our parents were, even after they’re long dead, and especially once we have children. We’re imprinted, deep, below the surface, and that’s a big part of the material we tangle with in living our lives.