Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pruned back Prose

April is poetry month, so Kass reminds us. I thought I might therefore try to write a poem.

When I was young my family nicknamed me ‘the poetess’. But I am no poet. I am a prose writer. I cannot condense words the way a poet might.

This morning I read on Eryl’s blog her suggestion that we write a poem or prose about something fearful, something that scares us.

So I took some prose and pruned it back.

Alone with Him

My father comes into my room
Crawls over the top
Of my mother’s body
Into the middle of my shared bed

I can smell his wine breath
The stink of cigarettes

His skin presses against my arms
I close them round my front
Like the body of a dead saint

If I were small
I could slip through the gap
Between the wall and the bed
Slide down onto the floor
Out into the hallway and away

It is hot beside my father
But I keep the sheet pulled to my chin
And hold my breath

If he touches you scream
My sister has said
If he touches you scream

I flatten myself
Like a sheet of paper
Thin enough to blow away

He touches my mother
His hand on her body
Under her nightgown
She says
He nuzzles into her back

My baby brother
In the next room
Starts to cry
Like a lamb bleating

My mother pulls herself
Out of my father’s grip
And totters to the half open door
Open the way he had left it

She closes the door behind her
With a thump
As if to block him out

But what about me
Has she forgotten me?


* said...

Yipes, this is fine poetry.

I like the idea of pruning back prose into a poem.

joanna said...


I hope she is not forgotten ---

love the lines "I flatten myself
Like a sheet of paper
Thin enough to blow away"

speaks volumes for someone in that situation ,,


jabblog said...

This was neither an easy task nor a pleasant memory but you triumphed - in so many ways.

Avo said...

Evocative and expressive... Good work.
I didn't know about poetry month.

Kass said...

This prompt from ReadWritePoetry about fear is one I couldn't tackle. You smack me in the face with your poem here. It's so well-crafted and honest and scary and crying-out-for-help-that-never-totally comes. I think you have spoken to that child with this poem. She is not forgotten. You have gone back in time and given her the care and concern she deserved those many years ago. We are all more whole because of this. Well done.

Lisa said...

The cry for help from the little girl will haunt me for a while.

Eryl said...

This is so ominous and terrifying, like the threat of a nuclear winter. I love the similes: 'dead saint' and, 'I flatten myself / like a sheet of paper' they really bring it to life for me.

Have you read Adam Foulds's The Broken Word? It's a brilliant book length narrative poem about the Mau Mau uprising and has such wonderful lines as: 'he levelled himself / naturally as a glass of water.'

I'm also a prose writer and find poetry difficult. So I'm using the Read Write Poem, Poetry Month prompts to try and push myself in the hope that I'll at least develop a bit more of a poetic sensibility. Sometimes, I think, by cutting back and focusing on the details poetry is more able to deliver a story right to the senses.

Anthony Duce said...

A very uncomfortable poem, telling a complete story as well as if you had added a lot more word, something a good poem does. You have written a very good poem. The fear and emotions both scary and very, very sad.

melissashook said...

Wow...good for you...

The Weaver of Grass said...

This is very powerful stuff - I really think you have earned the name Poetess. I think your use of the word Pruning is the essence of all good poetry.

Aleks said...

Oh dear! This is not a poetry to me but it is so wonderfully written i have to embrace it,on that way I embrace a little girl!! I did not expect this to hit me this hard but it did! It was not my father but the door was closed and no one heard my cry for help!For years!The shame and not knowing the reason why was that happening to me and cold,cold universe around me,wow!! I need to step out of this for a moment or two,it is mighty powerful feeling that threatens to blow me away in million tiny pieces any moment,but I thank you for this Elisabeth,it might be a right time for me to face the demons from the past!
Love,light and peace to you and your lovedones!

Jim Murdoch said...

It would be helpful if I could deal with this in two parts.

Firstly, content: this piece effectively communicates what you want to say; it speaks plainly and there is no room for ambiguity. In that respect it is good writing. There is also little scope however for the reader to contribute to the process because everything is spelled out. A poem is like literary fiction: how something is said is more important that what is being said.

Secondly, form: arguments rage all over the place as to what is and is not poetry. As a general rule of thumb I think if the piece can be reformatted as prose and lose nothing then it’s chopped-up prose which is what I think this is. It has some poetic elements – the two stanzas where the child wants to make herself small and thin – but that’s about it.

Not that I would suggest spending a lot of time on it but you could take this piece further by expanding the imagery. For example, the feeling of crawling could be made to apply to more than simply the father in the first three stanzas:

        A thing crawls into
        the bed
        I share with my mum.
        The thing looks like Dad.

        He is not alone:
        smells crawl
        in after him and
        all over my skin.

        I want to become
        small like
        a roach or a bedbug
        and scurry away.

You get the idea. The man is a big bug (‘cockroach’ is so often used as an insult, the lowest of the low), he makes the daughter’s skin crawl and she wants to become a bug herself. Calling the man a “thing” depersonalises him. He’s not just a bug, he’s an unknown bug which is far worse. If this was mine I’d work at picking the best words for the job, fiddle with the rhythms (these three stanzas have 5-2-5-5 shapes) and I’d look for internal rhymes too if possible; I’ve managed a few in the few minutes I’ve worked on this (lots of s’s and c’s). It needs more work.

End rhymes are a bit hokey these days and need to be handled with care but can be devastatingly powerful. Imagine if you had written this piece so that it runs like a nursery rhyme.

steven said...

elisabeth - in my own world the form writing takes isn't as important as the fact of its existence. this was very difficult to read, the images crystal clear for me, resonant, and deeply painful. left behind. forgotten. i wish wishes for the little girl. steven

Karen Xavier said...

Oh man! this was scary... that poor little girl, my heart goes out to her. The poem is gripping and stark, makes you shudder...
I wrote a poem once called 'Wonderful Nature'. You can read it at my blog when you get the time. Here's the link...

Maggie May said...

This is so powerful, to poignant, so beautifully expressed. Thank you for sharing this.

Rosaria Williams said...

This is heavy and sad and full of fear. Who told you you're not a poet?

Leslie Morgan said...

Thank you, Elisabeth. I'm glad you let me know you had seen my private comment. Please, if you ever wish to reach me, my personal e-mail address is

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Beautifully done. You have pruned this right down to the menacing thorn.

I think you are very right in the metaphor of pruning prose to make poetry. Most of the poems I have posted begin much the same way and I initially do not know if they will end up as prose or poems, paragraphs or stanzas.

This is a very effective poem. Seemingly simple, but the thump of the door leaves the reader trapped in the room with the plaintive question at the end, distraught with fear for what is not said but ...

I look forward to seeing more poems from you.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Terresa, for your comment. I'm glad you like the idea of pruning back prose into poetry, but as Jim Murdoch says further along in this stream of comments, pruned back prose does not quite constitute poetry.

Thanks Joanny. You've picked out the lines that Jim Murdoch suggests might be most poetic.

I find it helpful to have the lines that work pointed out.

I suppose there are two aims here, at least two conscious ones, one is to communicate an experience through the words, the other for me is to use this opportunity as a sort of writing workshop, which is why I come back to Jim's comments.

It seems to me he has a finger on the pulse of what constitutes poetry as opposed to other forms.

Again it may not matter, but as an exercise I'm interested to explore these things. Also, it offers some distance from the content.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your comment, Jablog. It's good to get an immediate and visceral response and I'm grateful that you share it here.

Alesa, thanks. Yes, it's National poetry month and as far as I can see many bloggers who don't necessarily write poetry are giving it a try, along with most of the regular blogger poets. See Kass's blog, from 2 April.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Kass. I suppose I come back to these themes often. Childhood is the place wherein most of us locate our fears. Thanks for your encouragement.

Thanks, Ocean Girl. It's good to be unsettled, but I hope not for too long. I think one of the difficulties with this sort of content is that it can be disturbing, but i hope that doesn't mean it should not be shared.

Thanks, Eryl. You inspired me to get out the secateurs and prune.
I haven'tred Adam Fould's work but i shall check it out.

I found the pruning process helpful here. It alerted me to how much we use words in prose that do not need to exist, especially such attributions. You just don't need them so much in poetry. It was a great exercise, I thank you for giving me the courage to try.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Anthony.

I suppose it's a bit of a word picture and as I've said to others earlier, it doesn't quite convey the emotional impact of poetry, but it's a start.

Thanks, Melissa. I tried. I'm pleased with myself for trying. You must keep trying too and keep on eating.

Thanks, Weaver. I'm afraid the term poetess still belongs to the past within my family. I cannot lay claim to it. But I'm happy enough to call myself a writer, and it seems it's not so long ago that I would not have dared to do that. These days, I do.

Elisabeth said...

Thank you, Aleks. You're right, it is not poetry. It is an attempt at poetry and in so far it evokes a meaningful response from some it's worthwhile writing of sorts, I hope.

Thanks for your god wishes, too, Steven.

That little girl exists now in our imaginations.

I have no doubt there are many other such little girls, not only in our imaginations but in fact, today, yesterday and in the future. This sort of thing will probably go on as long as life does. It's sad and the best I think we can do is recognise it, try and put a stop to it if we can and after the event allow help and time for healing as well as understand the causes, which are manifold. Thanks, Steven.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Jim, I'm interested in the way you pull this writing apart suggesting that there is further scope for the reader.

I'm not sure I can do it, and as you suggest, it's not worth spending much time on, especially when I'm forever reprimanding myself for allowing myself to be distracted with trying to write poetry in the first place when I should be working on other things.

Your version here reminds me of Kafka's Metamorphosis, the cockroach reference is obvious.

It's a tough one this, Jim. And I'm very grateful for your comments. I know that you will make me work hard, and you will not let me get away with very much at all. Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Shadow in the Moonlight, Karen is it? I read your poem and enjoyed going through the process of writing it with you. These childhood experiences are so memorable. They stay with us.

Maggie May, you are generous to comment, when I consider where you're at in your own life at the moment. Hold onto to that new life and thank you so much for taking the trouble to respond.

Thanks, Lakeviewer. There are many arguments around as to what constitutes poetry. I'm comfortable to say I try to write it occasionally and that I am as a rule a writer of non -fiction, an autobiographer who occasionally dabbles in other forms.

Thanks, Lesley. I needn't have included this here. I did so by accident. Let me now if you want me to delete it. I imagine there's a way.

Elisabeth said...

Lorenzo, I like that expression 'the menacing thorn'.

Scroll back up, if you're interested, to see Jim Murdoch's thoughts on pruned back poetry. They're worth considering.

I'm not usually too fussed over arguments about what constitutes this or what constitutes that, but the actual discussion is usually worth having to help us formulate our perspective.

I'm not sure you'll see too many more attempted poems from me. Prose yes, but I think I'll leave the poetry to the poets. It is a different skill.

Both prose and poetry are valuable, each in their own way.

Thanks again, Lorenzo, for your thoughtful and generous response.

Kass said...

Of course Jim is right, but does that make what we are doing bad poetry? Breaking up the lines of prose does not a poem make and yet, look at all the people who responded to what you did? Poetry is all over the internet and some of it is REALLY REALLY bad, but I'm hesitant to point it out....(as if I'm any kind of expert). That's why I sort of love/hate Jim. I trust him - even with his truth about lying. Do we aspire to write poetry? Or are we just trying to get it out there? It's like the directors who change the time period and costuming for traditional operas. They change the whole format and purists have a fit. Who gets to decide what is art? Sometimes I want to become a rapper or a hip hop artist so I can just scream obscenities and call it art.

Mike McLaren said...

A very powerful piece. Who says you're not a "poetess"? More poems, please.

Kirk said...

That last line is devastating.

Kass said...

...and furthermore, what about the narrative poem? What about Mark Strand, the past Poet Laureate of the United States? The Monument?...what could be more beautiful than a straight-forward approach. He begins:
During the night
a storm broke,
striking the monument,
sending it down,
stone and green
pieces of bronze,
onto the lawn....
...All I'm saying is, there is a place for the way you wrote that poem exactly as it is.

Noxalio said...

this one builds
strength as it progresses.

i felt more and more
uncomfortable as i read on,
and then, heart-broken
at the end.

Jim Murdoch said...

@Kass – Part of me keeps promising never to pass a critical eye over anything ever again. But what good would that do? I know that Elisabeth is not seriously considering working in poetry. This was an exercise. I would call it “a bit of fun” were the subject matter less serious. I didn’t say what she wrote was bad because it’s not. I was simply asking that question that keeps cropping up on the Internet: What makes a poem? I have my opinions and there are plenty of people out there who will disagree with them. And that’s fine. But I think every poet needs to ask themselves questions about what they do. I’m really bitterly opposed to the it’s-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is school of thought. It’s a cop out.

What I did with the first three stanzas of this piece is work it up in my style to show where I think the piece’s weaknesses are as a poem not as a piece of writing. Part of me really doesn’t give a damn about labelling our writing. There is only writing that works and writing that doesn’t. Elisabeth’s writing works. It’s clear from the comments that it works.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Kass and Jim. I think I shall adress this comment to you, Kass and you Jim, simultaneously.

Kass, I think we both share this love/hate relationship with you Jim, for me because you are so unfailingly thoughtful and respectful in your responses, but you also say things that can be painful.

No one, no matter how strong they might be, or how accurate the criticisms, likes to have their work viewed in a negative light, and yet it can be enormously helpful to take in such criticisms.

I know that you, Jim have only the best intentions with your thoughts about working on the poem the way you might approach it and I find it helpful to consider that approach.

In the end I'm likely to take some of it to heart and use it when next I tackle pruning my prose - if I ever do - but I doubt that I will take it all on board as gospel.

And yes, Jim , rather than 'a bit of fun' in spite of its serious content, it was intended as a bit of an experiment, and I'm grateful for your response.

I'm grateful, too, that although all the responses here have been largely positive and affirming, there are comments from people like you, Jim, that allow for a deeper conversation of sorts to take place. It advances the thinking and the feeling.

So please Jim, don't hesitate continuing to apply your 'critical eye' over my work. I don't want platitudes, nor I imagine do you.

I'm with you too, Kass, on the notion that there are no absolutes here, that some writing is deeply disturbing and people want it to go away, however competent it may be and then there is also plenty of that stuff we call 'bad' poetry, especially in the blogosphere, but it does not matter.

What matters here is the communication, and the effort to write in the first place.

Posterity will judge poetry's real merits. I suspect fine poetry has a much longer shelf life than the light weight stuff, but it's good for all of us to experiment with our writing.

My thanks to you both.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Mike. I hear the word poetess and in my mind I see the photo of me in the old family album, the profile shot of twelve year old girl with a long ponytail and a slightly hooked nose, which I have from my mother, and I think of my dreams and desires at that time, my wish to write sublime words to transcend all the pain and hardship of my family's life.

But for me the word poetess is an image rather than a fact, I'm still as I have said earlier, more comfortable with the notion of myself as a writer.

It seems unfair though. So many people write, some write well, but there are not so many who can write really great poetry, and yet often times these poets become excellent prose writers. Enough of all this classifying.

Thanks, Kirk. It sounds strange to say, but I'm glad to have passed on some of that sense of devastation.
Isn't that what we aim to pass on - the emotional resonance of an experience?

Elisabeth said...

Hi Nox. Your comments always remind me of poetry in their shape on the page. As I said earlier to Kirk, I'm glad the words affected you, too. I suppose that's my aim, to communicate an experience, an emotion and to elicit the empathy of my readers. Thanks for your resonance.

Kass said...

@Jim - Please don't stop doing what you do, then I wouldn't value your opinion as much. The things most people express on blogs are hard to fit into exact categories. Your blog is quite an exception. I love that you responded here. I love that when I write stuff you can't comment on, you don't comment. This is a cathartic exercise for a lot of us. I'm an opera singer who does a little massage therapy on the side. I open up a vein and it may not be rich blood, but it's my blood and you're right, it's a kick to have it acknowledged as some kind of sincere expression, however mangled in style. I may have gotten a little over-defensive of Elisabeth's poem because of the subject matter, but I totally respect your opinion and enjoyed the way you worked with it.

rraine said...

this poem (and yes, i think it is a poem) made my stomach drop to my toes. it did what poems do-reached out, and made us feel.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Nox, for your comment here. not that I want your stomach to drop to your toes, but I'm glad the 'poem' held some resonance for you.

Elisabeth said...

I see now that I have inadvertently addressed a comment intended for Standing on my Head to Nox.

How rude of me to address one when I meant another.

My deepest apologies and thanks to Standing on my Head. I'm sorry that I reversed my response and directed it to another.

Dick said...

This is superb. The devastating narrative is perfectly served by the stark, unadorned language, the quiet, disciplined voice delivering it and the ordering of the words on the page.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your kind words, Dick. I'm glad my 'poem' resonated for you and it's good to meet you here.

RachelW said...

Oh, wow. There is fear in that for me, too, a primal sort of fear. I really like what you've done with the pruning, and how it presents such a delicate subject. That's what we do in our minds too, isn't it? We prune stuff back, trying to keep the memories manageable.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Rachel. I'm late in responding to your comment here but it's better late than never.

I agree with you, pruning memories seems to be a common pastime of writers along with imaginative creation and culling.