At the heart of the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln shopped relentlessly for luxury items, milliners' frill & lace. What she coveted with a ferocity of intention & action—no matter how stricken the national coffers—were gloves, jacquard, brocade, skin of a slaughtered calf. Addled by grief, she hoarded hundreds, many pairs never removed from their slim papered boxes.
I'm interested in the idea of the poem as fetish, with all the sexual & spiritual implications that the word implies. Stevens wrote of the poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice. What does it mean to hold language like a worry stone, knowing full well this fetish is frail as the human hair braided into a Victorian mourning brooch? I think of Rothko's canvases, dimestore ingredients sometimes stirred into the paint so that the works contain their own degradation, decomposition. In my work as a writer-in-theschools, one student wrote: "My father calls me Nickel because he says I'm not worth a dime." How strange to teach this girl metaphor when she's already absorbed it like whiplash. What a string of pearls signifies in Vermeer's lexicon is not what it means in pornography, & if both renderings are equally true, how can the made thing, failing at fixity, ever suffice?
In the lapse between sign & signified, my poems often place the body as ampersand. Or try to.
Keats: Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To witness frailty & damage, the world a garlanded calf going down on its knees? We all are, I think, & thus far language is all I have to leave at the altar.
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Ferry Boat Wreckby Kerri Webster
I have spent all day with the silver disc of the barn owl's face
embedded in my thoughts & my beloved under general
anesthetic, his whole form etherized, calcite laddering
his spine, strange thorns in the distinct cave of him. I wring
my hands, silly spinster-ish fret motion, I say shoo but still
the owl's trembly face luminescent or opalescent & by all
grave. I have never been to Long Island Sound nor any other
where boats reduce to timber, though I have touched
both coasts & so covet fog, more amorphous
than the owl's mercurial pallor & wholly without envy of form,
disc, moon, coin, bowl, ladle, saucer, lid, or the body's
warm terra firma containered so that it can lie on top of you,
for instance, or move about the kitchen opening packages
of flour or Irish tea. Ferries have no business tossed, slammed
like bracken, matchsticked & rendered back to bones of wood
in green-gray, in blue, in splinter, silver, splayed hull, thorn.
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From Rowing Through Fog selected by Carl Phillips for the PSA National Chapbook Fellowship competition. All Rights Reserved.