ESSAY WITH TEENAGE POEM, OHIO GIRLHOOD, BURNING RIVERS
BY CLAUDIA CORTESE
This is my story, my mythology. I write, “Red leaves; razor mouth,” remember 21-year-old me dreaming of suicide: when I die, my sister will find my Word file of poems and the world will discover my greatness. Stephanie said, “We can play Barbies and pirates in my room but don’t tell anybody at school that I hang out with you,” and I didn’t because 4th grade. Because fat. Because friend-less and Stephanie is the Queen. That is, until the night I prank call her for hours—“I kill cheerleaders, bitch”—before caller ID but not before the police had tracers. See what I did? Linked event A with event B and voile! My narrative unfolds in precise boxes. I write poems because Jamie in a graveyard with a gun, an unusual method for women, according to Google; the feminine choice usually involves pills or slit wrists. An essay whose author I forget says this is due to the fact that even in death women want to preserve their beauty. Jamie, first girl I kissed: 15 years old, and when she died four years later, Goth-girl-me wrote this fairly-sentimental-but-there-are-a-few-good-lines-I-think-maybe-dunno-oh-fuck-it-this-is-an-essay-on-my-growth-as-a-poet-so-I’m-gonna-share-this-poem-teen-girl-me-wrote:
All the Stars Are Dead
for Jamie, 1976-2001
One night, air all your breath,
you thought, All the stars are dead.
Sitting beside an old streetlamp,
the light flickering on and off,
your spiked blue hair lit that cold street.
You pondered the moon,
realized you were both forever bound
by the pull of things inward and circular.
We say suicide is unnatural,
no other animal kills itself.
Yet the moth is attracted to a glow
that will surely kill.
Still, it goes out night after night,
dashing its brown body
against the white light—
as if it were a hope, a forgiveness.
Like the moth,
You never knew when to stop.
Remember, the night you did E
and rolled around the cigarette-matted
floor of Club Chameleon—
a carnival of strobe lights
and house music throbbing
all around us...
Or the time we drove to
DC and you did acid
then got naked in the backseat of my car...
Your body became all bleach and hard corners.
The metal rod that held up your crooked back
popped out and tore through your skin.
The dancer you might have been
between that sick, twisted uncle
and the first time you did smack
in an LA squat.
Tonight, I watch a moth dive into a candle,
beating its wings as its body burns away,
and finally get it.
You, too, couldn’t help but dive into the flame—
the haloed glow around it seemed to whisper:
Pain ends here.
Death was just a consequence.
The first time a poem came alive for me: the night I heard Diane DiPrima read at my university. Jamie had just died and DiPrima declared, “Every man / every woman carries a firmament inside / & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky. . . . THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST / THE IMAGINATION.” Afterward, I walked to my dorm and felt a wide wildness net my body to trees and moon and sky. I had no bills, no responsibilities; I had, what Woolf calls, moments of being. And I had grief. Not the kind of grief Cheryl Strayed describes in her essay “The Love of my Life.” After her mother died, she’d wake each day and think, “I cannot continue to live [without her].” Sure, when I got the call about Jamie, I wailed and threw a lamp to the wall and sat in my car playing AFI at top volume, smoking Red after Red, but grief did not destroy me. I used it, like my rape, my drug habit, the shit relationship my parents had, and felt exhilarated.
I know this is not what I am supposed to say. I should declare that poetry saved me. I am not supposed to mention my whiteness, my class, the privilege of making art. Yes, trauma almost killed me; yes, like Sexton said of Plath’s suicide, Jamie took the death that was to be mine, but I also had nights on the wood-rotted porch of the house I rented cheap in college and vodka at midnight and serrated Oak leaves and the minty smell of mown grass and the moon between branches and drunk poetry and the time I circled my safe college town for hours and crawled to the edges of my being—its heights, its yesses, its feelings-all-at-once.
In her iconic cycle of sonnet-like poems that explore lesbian desire, “21 Love Poems,” Adrienne Rich asked, “[H]ow have I used rivers, how have I used wars / to escape writing of the worst thing of all— / not the crimes of others, not even our own death, / but the failure to want our own freedom passionately enough / so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem / mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?” These are some of my favorite lines of poetry—complex yet simple, many-layered—they are also, I think, profoundly untrue. Should a massacre be a symbol? The sick river Rich refers to is perhaps Cleveland’s Cuyahoga, which caught fire in 1969 due to the chemical sludge slicking its surface. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to college there: is that my river to use in my poem about girlhood and family trauma? When I write, “A dried out river veined the woods behind our house. / Inside were balding dolls, a rust-fucked toilet, the gold toes / of a tub curling into mold. I crawled among the wreckage / once hidden under water’s sun-blue sheen,” should I compare the burning Cuyahoga to the river of girlhood? The Cuyahoga river is a literal dying river. My girlhood’s traumas are not equal to the river’s traumas. Though I do not know which is worse or better, I know they are not the same.
Yet poetry creates equality and commonality. _______ is like _______. Or, _______ is _______. As Rich also said, poetry is “the drive to connect. The dream of a common language.” My dream began in college, 19 years old, the day I found out Jamie killed herself. The dream ballooned when I read Plath because fuck—no one nailed the death drive like she did. The dream trailed me cross country to San Francisco, where I explored redwoods and polyamory and the bubble tea shops on every other corner; it accompanied middle-class Claudia when my parents bought me a Eurorail pass to explore the continent’s _________, ________, and ________, <insert images of Europe here, reader: perhaps the Eiffel Tower or Irish countryside or the rustic stone street that leads to bougainvillea>. In fetish, the world becomes real.
I know this essay is cynical. It didn’t begin that way. It started with re-reading my college poems, remembering that initial passion unclouded by workshop criticism or “PoBiz” or career concerns: it was just me, the page, the poems, the world. I know I love poetry, and it saved me. I know my grief and trauma were real, and I used them. I know transcendence and moments of being and the cindered smell of late October air all come to me through and with poetry, and yet writing those phrases I cringe. So maybe some of what I have said is bullshit; maybe all of it is, or none. Maybe the truth—for me, for you—changes depending on the day. And that’s okay—that’s poetry.
Claudia Cortese has two chapbooks: Blood Medals (Thrush Poetry Press, 2015) and The Red Essay and Other Histories (forthcoming from Horse Less Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays have found homes at Black Warrior Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, and Sixth Finch, among others. Cortese lives in New Jersey and is a poetry editor for Swarm.
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