I wanted to open a discussion about the poem Portrait of a Marriage. What surprised and delighted me about the poem is how you have managed to take what could be a very trite subject (love found, love lost) and by telling this very familiar experience through the metaphors of leaves, layers, entering and leaving, you weave a dense and very satisfying experience of reading, never mind one of grasping the emotion and sense of the experience being spoken of.
- How did this way of working with this experience unfold? Where did these ideas come from?
- I also found the thought that one learns through love, is taught by another, and has gained immeasurably through this education regardless of what happens to the relationship a striking and strong idea. Again, how did you seize upon that as a central idea for this poem?
- The poem has definite structure and form: each verse begins with “Between”, on the page each section is defined and definite and there is internal rhyme and repeated sound. How complex is it to achieve this?
- Would you be able to say how long it took to write this poem, how many drafts, what kind of work went into it? What does it take to weave this degree of layered complexity?
- How do you approach the rewriting and critique of your own work?
- Do you work with other writers? Are you a believer in writing groups?
Good evening Anthea,
Please take a look at the appended, and see whether it answers your questions well enough. Thank you for this opportunity – it was an interesting exercise to revisit the poem after all this time.
This poem arrived about ten years ago as one of many I wrote in the wake of the breakdown of my marriage. Writing, like any art form, is a powerful way to process strong and unmanageable feelings. Things start arriving on the page that will not do so while they are locked in the loop of thought. This is one of the reasons I run workshops on creative method and life writing – to pass on tools that have helped me so much in my own process.
I cannot remember exactly where the idea for the poem came from, except that I was consumed by a sense of loss. I had written my way through poems that captured my anger and bitterness, and had come to a place that was starting to have more moments of overview. I was trying to step back from the drama so as to capture an idea that came to me last year more directly in the following, written in the aftermath of a different relationship:
How Life Is
In the savoury air of the curry joint we sit
and eat – two women divorced from husbands
and lost lives. It might be the vindaloo,
or the wine, but I am crying, snot-nose,
in full view of those who wish to enjoy
their food. I’m trying to explain to you, or
to myself: how life is unmoved by who is right
or wrong, and who did what to whom; we are
mere players in a great pantomime,
performing parts which must stay true
to narrative alone; right now, this might mean
weeping salt into a chilli stew at a table near the sea –
that other consistent, unfathomed story
repeating, repeating, in the dark, endlessly.
In Portrait, I wanted to write a poem that did not rely on the who-did-what-to-whom, but focused on the great unfolding of story, with its impersonal inflictions of pain and pleasure, and with its immense possibility for generating meaning. All parts of the story need to be represented to be satisfying. An image of the shifting seasons, and of trees both growing and losing their leaves, was vaguely in the background. As I was writing, the connection between leaves and leaving became obvious. And then that unbelievably helpful and painful idea of a tree laying down its life for my healing – providing the paper for me to write my way through hurt and mourning, and into another season – arrived under my pen. The old idea that death and sacrifice is part of the round of regeneration and life.
The form mostly invented itself. I am very interested in form and content and how they might work together to enhance each other. In Portrait, there is a repeated refrain and inner rhythms that point to both the cycle of the seasons and to mantras – prayers that contain repetition to keep the mind still in times of great turbulence.
The first draft of the poem arrived like a download in one or two sittings, as though it had been waiting in the wings for the right moment to make a full appearance. Much of the poem was already there, but it took many more drafts over months to give it the shape that ended up in Difficult Gifts. Honing, pruning, paying careful attention to sound and intention. Here it is very important to have writing friends whose feedback you can trust.
I think of reading and writing as having saved my emotional life. Only now that I reflect on it, I realise that Portrait of a Marriage is not only a poem about the breakdown of my relationship with my husband, but also about the strengthening of my ties with the spirit of writing.
And this is the oh-so-beautiful poem
Portrait of a Marriage
Between the years the layers
between the layers of years you entered
my life a tree of spring leaves
you drew me to you through you
taught me how to enter love how to love you.
Between the soft leaves of my sex unfolding you slid
the leaves of my heart valves skipping their beats
between the beat and spurt and slipstream of bloodties
my bloodknot untied and spliced to your life
through your side I sighed
my form unfolding origami
resolving to be true, true to this story
unfolding new as green leaves.
Between the sheets, scenes and stages
I entered with you, you taught me
to love your body my body
to lay my body down my life
blind inspired I slid inside our story
the babies, timetables and weary nights.
You taught me to believe
you would not leave me bereaved
between the sheets between the beds we made
beds of spinach and leavened loaves rising
the laundered clothes the mealtime tables
the years of our loving, and hating.
Between the spring and autumn of it all
you taught me to taper myself
my very foot root caught in the boulder of you
between loud stones the silent fissure of you
holding what was true
what I thought was true
you taught me to be patient, tenacious
curious and kind
your acts of kindness left me
mindful and grateful.
Between promises and what transpired
between your random acts of kindness to others
between your other lovers
you left me
autumn layered leaves.
Between intentions and your crimes of desire
you taught me about loss, how leaves
ungreen, burn and drop,
unlearn lessons of spring receiving
seasons turn, trees unseam.
Between layers of believing and despair
your absence taught me that writing retrieves me
retrieves scattered debris laid out
like death a poem a prophesy
my pen raking shattered words
new words seeding
sown into leaves this leaving
these shedding trees laying down their lives
for my for my life tree
paper reams sheaves of paper
taught me how to lay my life down
how to enter these book-marks and earth-works.
Between lines inscribed because of you
you taught me to unbind my life my love
to untwine my root from you
you taught me the difference between loving and lies
between the bed and the door
both made of trees laying down their lives
between seeing my life through your eyes
or through mine
you taught me not to believe your story about me
not to believe you to leave you
between these acts that line my life you taught me
not to love you
to leave you
you taught me how to leave.
From Difficult Gifts Modjaji Books 2011