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Writing Poetry is Mortifying

I’m steadily writing poems for a collection. It’s been underway for three years, and it will likely take another three because I waste so much time lying to my readers. That’s the litmus test for what makes the cut. Did I manage to stop myself from lying? No one told me what lying in art means. Instead, I read Anne Carson’s work again and again. The woman never lies even though she is writing from myth.

I didn’t read work from a living poet until I was assigned Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay in a survey course at UC Santa Cruz. It wounded me. I believed the strange images even if I could not quite explain them.

“Nude #1. Woman Alone on a hill.

She stands into the wind.

It is a hard wind slanting up from the north.

Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman’s body and life

and blow away on the wind, leaving

an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle

calling mutely through lipless mouth.”

An oil painting of the Greek mythological figure, Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon, who is reclined in bed. Her lover, urges her on.
Murder of Agamemnon, painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1817). Public Domain.

It is a violent image on par with the flaying, the tortures of mythology. Others have the means to change us forever, unbidden, and we will only be able to watch. We can do the same to others, though not all of us have the culture’s blessing. Carson’s violence transcends pulp because she understands it, particularly as it relates to sex. A reader of the classics, she is aware of the risks. Reposed in your bathtub, your wife covers you in a net and hacks you to death with an ax. The charming God ends seduction with assault. She knows we resent ourselves for opening ourselves to the possibility of violence or even the generic absence of abandonment.

A book cover for Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. The cover features the image of an etching of smoking volcano.
Cover art for Anne Carson's novel in verse, Autobiography of Red.

In Autobiography of Red, Carson retells the story of Geryon, the red monster Herakles slays. Geryon becomes Herakles’s lover, and just as quickly Herakles leaves. Yet Geryon is still at Herakles’s beck and call. Herakles’s new lover asks Geryon, “So what’s it like fucking him now?” and Geryon, relegated to being the other monster, the affair, can only reply “Degrading.” The truth can be stark. It all goes horribly wrong so easily, and yet we can’t extract ourselves from the one-way track. The Greek prophecies all make sense. It could never be any other way, yet it’s mortifying the whole way through.

You try to refute the oracle. You choose to write the heroic emotion rather than the truth, which is that you are Geryon, skulking for crumbs. Unfortunately, everyone can tell.

Just stop lying.

I squint at the poem.

Am I lying again?

It’s a bit like how a friend described identifying crows and ravens. When you see a crow, you debate whether it’s a crow or raven. When you see a raven, you are so taken by its size, its croaky ravenness, that you gasp, “Oh my God, a raven!” You find a raven, and you have to trot a few laps around the house, making beeping noises like the weirdo you are to sublimate the horror. For the sake of all our dignities, my family should hire an assassin to stop me.

I so badly want to be read, but I never want to look my readers in the eye. How does it feel to publish this work only for people to say they don’t get it? Degrading.

If only this process could be more respectable. I have some perfectly lovely crows, yet, I’ve never managed to publish them. “Salamanders” and “Belly of Stones” are ravens. There they are, living on Bear Review website for anyone to read. This whole poetry business is a nightmare.

Black and white headshot of Paige Welsh, a youngish white woman in a sweater.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Paige Welsh's creative work has been published in Narrative Magazine, Bear Review, and Gigantic Sequins. You can find her book reviews in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. When she's not writing, she likes to garden with her partner Chris, and their cat, Biscuits. You can follow her on Twitter @MarkThatPaige.


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