friday roundup: desperate times, “My memory, my prison,” and Ophelia in her flip-flops

"Ophelia" by Margaret MacDonald (wikimedia)

“Ophelia” (no flip flops) by Margaret MacDonald (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader. This week I felt like I was on vacation. There were no appointments at the orthodontist, the allergy clinic, the rheumatologist, urologist, or radiologist. No urgent care waiting rooms or pharmacy runs. The car did not break down. Nobody broke their pinky. There was a full week of school (to be quickly counterbalanced by a week off next week: “Ski Week.”). Some of the laundry is partly done. I’m willing to chalk this up as a good week. Thank you, Universe.

Without further ado:

desperate times  Desperate: adj. “feeling, showing, or involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.” From the Latin desperare “to despair, to lose all hope,” from de “without” + sperare “to hope.”

One has only to pay attention to the news to feel desperate from time to time. This morning I was feeling poetry-desperate, too. For the last few weeks, no matter how early I set my alarm for my morning writing time, someone else would wake up, too (husband, child, dog next door).  Forgive me, I prefer to pretend I’m alone in the world during my early morning writing time.

This morning, I gave up around 6:30 and, while I showered, complained to the Muse that she hasn’t send me any good scraps of language lately (cue the Barbara Streisand) , which is usually how a poem starts for me: with a bit of language that seems to arrive out of nowhere. As if to spite me, she sent a line right then: Somewhere in the loose nest / of my father’s hands / there is a river. Somewhere / is the drawer on which he wrote / in pencil, It’s cold in here / at night. FINE! I said, If you insist! and hopped out of the shower to write it down in the little notebook I keep on my nightstand. Which wasn’t there. Don’t think I didn’t write it down on the nightstand itself. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Reader, I did:


Nightstand with books, writing instruments, glass of water, and poem scraps.


“My memory, my prison.” I finished reading Roethke this week and I’m more in love than ever. So often, he writes deep inside the space of memory. And yet, in selected writing taken from his notebooks after his death, you can get a sense of him wanting to be free of that: “My memory, my prison.”

I, too, have been writing in the space of memory lately. Whether it’s from reading Roethke or facing mortality or seeking comfort in my touchstone images of shore and sand, stone and driftwood, I don’t know. Frankly, with all that’s going on in the world, I’d rather be writing about things that feel more Important and Universal: war, climate change, poverty, disease.

But I’ve been at this long enough to know that you have to write what comes, not what you wish were coming. And here are a couple of things Very Famous Poets have said that give me comfort:

“The way to the universal is through the particular.” (I think many Very Famous Poets have said this, but I first heard it from Ellen Bass in a workshop I took with her)

And Roethke: “I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words.” (this, again, from his notebooks)

Ophelia, in her flip-flops I’ve also been reading The River Won’t Hold You by Karin Gottshall. This, too, is a book of memory (at least so far — I’m only partway in). I’m taken with her poem “Pretty Stories” which first appeared in The Gettysburg Review. It made me think about all the stories I grew up with — in books and in the memories of those I loved. It made me think I could write a poem about all those stories. Maybe. Notice the way she appropriates well-known stories and sets them squarely inside the speaker’s own life. Notice all her use of connective tissue words: “Meanwhile”; “They say”; “True:”, etc. I’ll wish you a happy weekend and leave you with the poem, whose ending I adore:


PRETTY STORIES by Karin Gottshall

Ophelia, in her flip-flops, writes her paramour’s name
against the dusk with the spitting tip of a sparkler wand.

Meanwhile, the cat leaves a narrow tongue-print
on the butter Mother forgot to put away after lunch,

and two blocks down the children pursue
an ice cream truck’s canned Yankee Doodle Dandy.

They say the owl was a baker’s daughter;
here’s a rue for you and a-down, a-down-a.

True: we were all fooled by Viola the time she dressed
as a pirate and made out with Olivia under the bleachers.

In candlelight Hermia and Helena get out their makeup
kits to blacken their eyelids and shine their lips.

The pet hamsters weigh almost nothing; in the morning
they will turn to soap bubbles and rise over the roofs.

Prospero tells Miranda the same story every night:
water filled the sailors’ mouths with brine

and if you think it’s hot here, you should visit
the belly of the beast. Roses, my love. The end.



2 thoughts on “friday roundup: desperate times, “My memory, my prison,” and Ophelia in her flip-flops

  1. I think you need to varnish over those poetry scraps on the nightstand so that later scholars of your work can look into your process. 🙂

    Yay for Roethke, too often overlooked.

    And, I’m reading KG’s book as well. I got a small charge out of knowing that you are over there on the with the sand and surf reading it, as I read it from here atop this rocky, old, old mountain worn down to a nub and dotted with trees.

    • I love that we’re reading the same thing at the same time! And while I can’t say about varnishing over, my housekeeping is such that the poetry scraps on my nightstand may very well remain as they are…. forever.

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