August 24, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsEthicsReadingWriting

Poetry and Origin

Through the lens of Khaled Mattawa’s “History of My Face” and through the lens of Camille Rankine’s “Genealogy,” I’ve been thinking about poems as explorations of origins.

When we think of “origin stories,” we might first think of theology:



Or of comic books:



But poems, too, can function powerfully as origin stories, particularly as a poet’s self-mythologizing of the path to poetry itself. When interviewers ask poets how they “came to poetry” or “knew they were a poet,” I kind of cringe. The answer is usually some vague variation on “even as a young person I loved poetry” or “I came to poetry a little later in life.” No radioactive spiders, no touch from God. How unsatisfying.

Jorie Graham’s poetic origin story is the closest I can think of to an electrifying encounter for biographers and critics to cite accordingly. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker, she said:

I ended up in the wrong hallway [as a graduate student at NYU] and I heard these lines of Eliot’s flowing out of this doorway – ‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.’ And I just went into this huge, long classroom and sat and listened . . . It was like something being played in the key my soul recognized. (Schiff 64)

I think of this story as one articulation of an answer to Wallace Stevens’s question at the end of “The Man on the Dump”:

Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

For most of us, however, the actual narratives of our lives are either too circuitous and opaque, or simply too mundane, to answer Stevens with one anecdote. (Luckily, we have Emily Dickinson’s consolation that “The Truth must dazzle gradually.”)

But in poems themselves, poets can really let their hair down and self-mythologize. A favorite recent example of this is in the most recent Birmingham Poetry Review (Spring 2016, Number 43), the literary journal of The University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this issue, editor Adam Vines included two poems by Tara Tatum, an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Florida. One of these, simply titled “Origin,” begins:

Born inside a thorn-thick
dragon fruit, I was carried to Texas.

While Tatum did literally grow up in Texas, this first couplet immediately asks the reader to invest in a different kind of origin story – metaphorical, symbolic, poetic. The poem gives us a kind of oracular midwife entity called “The hungry” (“The hungry sliced its pink throat open / with a stolen Damascus blade, and I tumbled out”; “The hungry said she will be the daughter of a _______ / the wife of the _______ . . . but no one knew.”). The poem gives us a bricolage of mythologies and readings (“the fumbling, the passing through Freud’s jewel-case, // laughing at the Medusa”). And the poem gives us the imagery and diction to read this poem both as a woman’s origin story (“my she-skin / binding feather and scale under an alien sun”) and as a poet’s origin story (“Leaves began growing from // my shoulder blades, crawling with beetles / spreading their black ink”). Both woman and poet are forged monstrous through mysterious rites and violences of cultural influence and the physicality and sensuality of the body itself.

When I recently taught this poem to high school students at the Baltimore Young Writers’ Studio, I was thrilled when one of the students focused in on the lines “I refused // to be a preposition. I became a gerund: the fumbling . . . the passing through . . .” The student noted that a preposition plays a supporting role in a grammatical unit, while a gerund is a kind of active hybrid of verb and noun, powerful and present. Here, the speaker transitions from passive (“was carried”) to active self-making, with the poem itself functioning as that becoming.


You can read more poems from this issue of BPR here, or subscribe here.