September 3, 2018KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Origin Story,” by Karin Gottshall, appears in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

When I first read the title of Karin Gottshall’s poem, I thought of comic books—how the origin story of a superhero or villain reveals the character’s backstory, telling us how they got their powers, what made them good or evil. It’s the prequel to the action, the backstory the audience needs to understand why Peter Parker was a boy one day and a web-spinning, skyscraper-climbing hero the next.

Biologically, our origin stories are not that varied—sperm, egg, and so on. But what child hasn’t at some point asked their parents: Where did I come from? Where was I before I was here? Why am I the way I am? Knowing the science that brought us to the world doesn’t shut down our curiosity or the sense that some magic was involved.

In Gottshall’s poem, the first two stanzas anchor us in time and location, the Midwest in 1969, and with particular parents (the muumuu, the steelhead), but they also float us up over and beyond the landscape. In the very first line of the poem, the speaker confesses that she thinks she has been conjured in a lake’s dream, born magically from the deep—the subconscious, that is. The deep’s deep.

But suddenly in stanza three the voice of a seagull interrupts—not the crying we might expect from a gull in a poem but full English sentences. What he says to the speaker is harsh in tone and a mix of surreal and banal:

No one dreamed you, stupid girl, the seagull
said—you came straight from the belly
of your granddad’s school mascot.

You wore plaid skirts and bruised your knees
and lived across the street from the motorcycle shop.

Later in the poem, the seagull asks, “And before that?” There is always a before—a door behind the door we’ve just opened. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker traces herself back through myth, back to what feels like pre-civilization, back to fire.

As I read this poem I was reminded of another kind of origin story, the Native American pourquoi tales, which explain how things came to be and why things are the way they are—how the crow came to be black, how the beaver got his tail, how day and night came to be. The talking seagull, and the dreaming Lake Michigan with its whispering dunes, give the poem the tone, the metaphorical weather, of myth. What Gottshall unpacks in this poem is personal mythology: We are the stories told about our lives. And history, whether personal or public, is a story we tell as well.

I’m so impressed by the intelligence and imagination of this poem, but I’m also grateful for what it can teach me—teach us, as readers—about craft: the integrity of each line, the brilliantly loaded enjambments, the pacing. I’ll come back to this poem again and again.