Gaia, Dreaming by Philip Metres

From the amazing contemporary poet Philip Metres, whom I first heard at Split This Rock. Philip’s own poetry blog is:Behind The Lines. This poem is from the chapbook Ode to Oil, which you can buy from Kattywompus Press here

Gaia, Dreaming
Philip Metres

She dreams she is body again.
In the open field, sound of sky and wind
through grasses.

And the water is a burnished mirror, mind for the wander.

The body beneath the klieg lights is ethered
but breathing. Her breast is rising and falling
not seen by human eyes.

And the wander is drilling under.

In the dream of the body, men
in white masks. The gleaming
instruments upon a table.

And the drilling is a kneading, a rising of what is under.

The sound of them like mandibles of ants,
a clicking like watches thousands of times
magnified, the machinery of mind.

And what is under once was over, flowing like rain.

The body is restless but tethered.
In the dream she sees herself as nothing
but table and harvest.

And the water is a river, coursing beneath our feet.

The men—now feathered—have lost their arms
to black wings. They lower their naked faces,
beak out the viscera of her dream

and the blood. She sees it all now
as if through a hole in the sky, beyond the blue ether—

And the blood is a burning river, mined from the vein


Making a Manuscript—Structuring Intuition

Inspired by Michelle Ovalle’s description of her process, a few notes on my own, up to this point. I’ve no idea where the manuscript as it exists will go as I revise over the next few months, but at least I feel now there is something there, some key structural element.

When I started last August, I pulled together way too much of everything and let it overwhelm me. I started making piles, which wasn’t helping. Then, on my friend Kim’s suggestion, I bought and read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. That gave me a great swirl of ideas, including these few favorites:

I think all good books of poems must have drama-something at stake, a larger meaning, and the feeling that the book, while perhaps composed of smaller stories, is at the same time telling a larger, overarching story. (Liz Rosenberg)

The most important thing is not “imposing” an order, but discovering the relationship between the poems and letting that suggest an order (Beckian Fritz Goldberg)

Reading a good book of poems is like traveling unknown terrain at night, glimpsing in each lightning bolt a swatch of vastness (Philip Brady)

So I gathered all this stuff and thought hard about categories. Last spring I’d helped poet Dane Kuttler arrange her manuscript, which coalesced around Hillel’s three questions. Remembering that, I found my four categories—earth, water, fire, air. The working title was then “Earth My Body” from a pagan/wiccan/Peace Camp chant. Those categories gave a clear way to organize most of the poems, but then a subset didn’t work so I invented a floating fifth category of poems about loss.

But that was first draft. With a strong push from my mentor, I abandoned, for now, the poems in earth (about coal mining) and water (about rivers, oceans, the disaster in the Gulf) and started again on the remaining work. New themes arose: loss, sex, desire, surviving sexual abuse, a sequence that combined surviving sexual abuse with past lives and desire and drowning. I was writing new poems, too, in part because there were clearly holes in what the bigger story was telling and in part because the poems were pushing themselves out of me.

I knew I wanted sections in the manuscript because the poems were distinct and because, as a creator of ritual, I wanted to build an emotional arc that made sense to me. But I also knew I didn’t want something too direct, too obvious. I’d been reading such astounding poets, especially poets whose books had some kind of conscious narrative far beyond being a “collection,” and I wanted my own work to feel anything remotely like how these books made me feel. At some point in November I had the PERFECT arrangement, based on how Toi Derricotte, in her collection Tender, created sections that were not meant to be read in order but to exist as spokes in a wheel around a central poem. In a fury of work and insight I pushed my poems into shape around the concept of a labyrinth, with sections representing the four quadrants and a section representing the center. I arranged the table of contents so the sections were not in numerical page order, to push the idea that the poems were meant to talk back and forth to each other, the way that, when walking a labyrinth, you move from side to side, close to far, winding around in no straight way to the middle.

“Perfect!” I thought.

Until the next day, when my Beloved pointed out that the whole concept of “labyrinth” was imposed order unconnected to my poems in any way and that a labyrinth has an extremely clear, directed path—one does not wander, but moves along a determined trail. Shit. Back to the drawing board.

But from that idea I did pull vital elements of my final form, mainly a sense of repetition, mirroring, circling back. I realized I could build the sense of ideas, lines, images in conversation with each other by how I structured and titled the work, so suddenly three different poems had the same title and opening line, two other poems also shared a title and opening image, and the title of one poem was the title of a different section. From my friend Carol Burbank I received a structural idea for how to encapsulate a complex idea in a simple structure, and let this also recur throughout the collection to pull the poems together.

And so to enter into my body was created. It’s not nearly settled. Poems are being edited and more will be written and some removed. The final two sections might be switched. A section that is a single long poem called “Headwaters” (a very very unfinished long poem) might be cut completely, for the poem is so rough and also maybe unnecessary; it was part of a vital conversation in my head about the connection between the survivor poems and the sex poems, but the manuscript might not need that philosophical argument at all. The poems themselves, flashes of lightning, will make the connections they make without my trying to force narrative or explanation on them, and I should shut up and let them do so.

And while I read several essays cautioning against having a title poem that stands alone before the first section, for it becomes so fraught with meaning and significance and if not perfect can scare off judges and editors, I have exactly such a poem, one that, for me, speaks to all the themes but also stands on its own. And because the final poem of the last section summed up only that section but not the book, I also added a closing poem. Someone I read this fall had the same poem at beginning and the end, which was perfect because the poem now meant something completely different after the journey through the book, and I loved that idea, but couldn’t pull it off with anything I’d written. So I added something I’d written last year, a piece more prose than poetry, but that felt like it fit. Readers so far feel like it fits, and that is really the clearest description I have of why it’s there.

Maybe the best advice I have so far, with an MFA manuscript but no book published, is that the process is one of structured intuition, with the latter ruling the former.

Which is why I chose to enter an MFA program and not a Ph.D. Intuition for me does create structure, rather than the other way around, and the rigorous intellectual critical analysis I was pushed to do during that ugly year in UCIrvine’s PhD in critical theory felt too much like shooting, gutting, and draining poems of all their blood instead of entering them, grateful for the invitation into their world.

So often now I’ve no idea

So often now

So often now I’ve no idea who’s
contained within this skin: woman, child
(boy or tomboy), horse. Polar bears
are said to shed their hides and live as humans;
peel my skin and you could find a bear.
What we are is merely social invention:
white, female, human, dyke, all labels
threatening to become as stale as celluloid.
Only a sense of myself seems solid—I’ve
failed at that before. What is the opposite
of shape-shifting? It is my shape that’s fixed,
a screen these movies move across, made
without directors, without a leading lady,
with a cast of thousands, each one an I.

September nowhere near poem a day


if one woman told the truth about her life, the world

if I told the truth, the world would

but I is world’s restraint

or rather the illusion of I
or rather the necessity of the illusion of I

if we told about our life
I would split open

if one woman told the truth

the world, open

Notes toward a poem about Hedda and Lisa

Having just read an amazing poem by Jane Mead about Hedda Nussbaum and Lisa (do we still in good conscious use the last name of the man who beat her to death??), I’ve been thinking on them all morning. These are very rough notes toward something, although nothing like the firm calm grasp of an actual poem. But every start is a start, and everything that is grows from having been willing to start.

Hedda and Lisa

I understand, Hedda, I do,
I do, what happened to you, how
the shame bound tighter than
the pain, how you could no more
have saved yourself than Lisa. No more
have saved Lisa than yourself.

Lisa was yourself.

But I’ve been that child, too, and you,
goddamn you, were an adult and really-
really?-there was no single time when you
could have run, could have called 911,
could have locked out me out, made me
wander the halls crying until someone could
no longer refuse to see me?

Let’s talk about how traps work.
Let’s talk, let’s call Oprah, let’s weep
about how a coyote in a trap
will chew off her own leg.

But who sets the trap?
Nevermind, we’ve talked that to death.
Whose hands bear the animal’s blood?
We all know we all do and also
how we’ve made popular the wearing
of red gloves to make fashionable what is true.

But who made the trap, whose job
is forging, polishing, packaging,
boxing, driving, opening, pricing,
placing just so on a shelf?

The whole world betrayed you, Hedda,
and Lisa – hell, you weren’t even real
enough to own the expectation of a right
and the wrong done to you was barely
a crime at all. Manslaughter? As if
a six year old girl were a man, as if
one could slam a child into a wall
and say I did not mean to kill.

But still.
A coyote who would leave her leg in a trap
would not leave her cub trapped there.
She would stay, fight, face the hunter
and his club, his gun.

Or so I need to believe. Better
that you stayed, Hedda, when you could not
get her free than that you were too crippled
to run. But could you have crawled,
dragging shattered legs across the ground,
your cub in your teeth, across broken glass
and burning ground?

In the Disney movie, you would have.
In the Lifetime movie, too. In the starring-
Angelina-Jolie film you would have twirled
and blasted Joel with blazing guns; in the
sisterhood version, a tribe of Amazons
would have rescued you.

But in the real world, the easiest plot
was for the hunter’s clan
to club you. Hedda, battered
by one man and then the whole world
felt justified in beating you while Lisa
just went on being dead.

Poem a day #18 With Practice, Drowning Gets Easier

With Practice, Drowning Gets Easier

With practice, drowning gets easier.
At first you welcome the unconsciousness
that protects you from the moment when
the water expulses the breath from your lungs.

With practice, you can stay awake
to know what happens next, how your
body, heavy now with two hydrogens
for every oxygen, begins to sink.

How your mind is aware, how you could
describe how this felt, as guillotined heads
could talk for up to twenty seconds,
if only you were not alone.

With practice, you ride the wave
of air as it leaves your mouth, rest
on a rock, observe how your arms
keep reaching for the closing surface,

how your legs, straight-jacketed by
your skirt and slips, despise you now
for being born a woman, how the beat
of your heart sends circles of ripples

that hours too late will lead him to
the body now floppy as the doll never made
for the child who will never be born.
Your little one! You reach back to yourself

knowing she could yet breathe, so float
and be found, if you could get her out,
but the only rocks are too dull to cut,
and the faint bruise you leave on your belly

will be dismissed as evidence of nothing.
Knowing she may only now
be gasping her first surprised gasp,
you flee downstream on a trout. The sea

when you arrive is deeper than death,
and pulls you apart, thought by thought,
until each bit of sorrow is
smaller than salt in the finest spray.

You learn to condense and direct the drops,
follow him and fall as warm rain.
All he plants will thrive even as
he goes on shriveling in the drought of your loss.

Poem a day #15 Found Poem in Explanation of Events Beginning October 2007

if there is a lyric poem inside every narrative poem, isn’t there also a lyric poem inside of an essay? At least inside of a well-written essay, the pleasure of which is the combination of the well-researched opinion and the exceptionally good writing? It’s a theory, as is the Timing Hypothesis Cynthia Gorney explores in her wonderful article in the New York Times Magazine

Found Poem In Explanation of Events
Beginning Approx. October 2007
From the article “The Estrogen Dilemma”
by Cynthia Gorney

“Dr. A., do you remember me?”
“I’m so sorry. Should I?”

warring, gesticulating, fluorescent,
reverent, sputtering, fading
Alzheimer’s brains

the timing hypothesis layer of complication
to the current conventional probing,
interrogating, poking—
permitted, distracted,
hallucinatory clashing data
suppositions, mysteries, arbitrarily
coming and going in waves

personal interior chorus of quarreling voices
ferocious hormones
vicious recurring hormonal hiccup

wondrously bland phrasing, explanatory graph,
overlapping lines that peaked and plunged
Climara-surge of industrious scrambling—
some menopausal malady is genuinely making you miserable

daunting influence of a drug industry,
concentrated soup of a pill, conjugated
equine estrogens, vigorous
and sexually satisfactory cardiac events
crank up frantically, crash
and then crank up again
ovaries start atrophying into retirement

this great Upheaval of During

density of dendritic spines,
barbs that stick along the long tails of brain cells
like thorns on a blackberry stem,
chemical solvent sloshed onto rusting metal:
the personal calculus of risk
is an exhausting exercise
phases of life
can unhinge us

Poem a day #6 – Headwaters


Sex with you is a full body
contact sport, never finished
without some evidence

a bite a scrape
a deep muscle bruise
knee-sized, on a thigh,
five-clustered bruises up an arm
a feint but lingering bruise
across the top
of a cunt
a red hand print

Seeing them I smile and then
every love-sick victim-woman
that pop-songs, the blues, the movies,
the years of work in women’s shelters
have trotted through my head chorus
I don’t mind, it proves he loves me.

But they should have.
And it didn’t.

Some of those women were being battered—
I know this like I know the mole
on my own right wrist.
But maybe maybe
some walk out of dreary days
to beds that sizzle with possession
of a want not afraid to fling full force
screaming like a cat in heat and clashing
armor on armor
like giant tortoises fucking.

Between counting only the female bodies
dumped daily onto the ground
in every country, and the insane privilege
of asserting that all sex always
is only good, there must be some land
where I can stand.
and find sure footing.

Porn and pop culture may mine it,
raw product for misogynist mythography
but that is theft, not definition.

When she fucks me
into the place
between pleasure and pain
maybe that place
is a headwater, stingingly cold,
sharply crisp.

And downstream the women,
barely 18, bruised,
slurring stoned at the camera
More daddy, harder daddy, give it to me
live in the toxic stew
at the river’s mouth
where the poor and the dark
and the broken swelter
waist-deep in dehumanization,
drown in the run-off
of obscene profiteering.

Years ago I too was washed
I’ve been fighting
against the current
for so long, back to where
desire is spawned, where
our bodies belong to
our bodies, where teeming,
screaming want is not wrong.

Counting the bodies
as I’ve migrated home
I’ve wept, and known
it was not in my want
that they drowned.

Poem a Day #3 – Asthma

again, thanks to Janet Aalfs for her amazing workshop, with this writing prompt:the source of my breath is a pathway through fear, is the courage I share


source of breath is source of breath
is source is breath is breath is breath
is source, breath, source, breath breath breath
is the source but breath is source and breathing
is sore sore once sore always sore sore once
more sore again breath again sore breath
poor breath poor breath sore breath
breath at the source is sore poor breath
poor breathing poor sore poor source
poor breath at the source is sore

poor breath breath wanting breath wanting
breath wanting to breathe breathe breath
poor breath sore breath breath wanting
wanting breath not to be sore at the source
wanting breath wanting breath wanting
breathing breath wanting breathing
wanting not to be sore
breath wanting wanting waiting wanting
breath wanting waiting not to be sore
breath wanting waiting wanting
to soar

Oh breath! Oh breath! Oh breath!
Oh wanting breath oh wanting wanting
wanting to soar time to soar wanting
time to soar past time past time
past time to soar always wanting
always past time time passes breath
sore breath poor breath breath wanting
to soar breath waiting to soar breath
wanting, waiting, wanting, waiting
waiting past time waiting for time
breath waiting for time
to soar

wanting, wanting, wanting at the source
wanting at the source, breath wanting wanting
wanting at the source to soar
breath wanting at the source the source
is wanting breath the source of breath
is wanting to soar wanting to soar
is the source of breath so much wanting
wanting at the source to soar wanting
breath breath wanting wanting breath
breath wanting wanting breath wanting
breath breath wanting wanting
at the source
at the source
at the source
breath wanting, wanting,
wanting at the source
to soar.

Pick a Peck of Peaches

Picking Peaches By the Peck
version 1 draft 3

I love peaches by the peck
I’ve picked pecks of peaches

Summers past in summer’s pastures
pecks of peaches I have picked

But now, my dear, I pull not pick
hand-selected pecks of peaches

pull my peaches out of you
pecks of perfect peaches

each peach crowning, fuzzy-head
pecks of peach perfection

from between your legs wide-spread
that have carried pecks of peaches

You labor, labor, pant and moan
we’ve been expecting peaches

birthing peach, then birthing more
pecks of peachly procreation

I pluck each peach and dry its down
another among our perfect peaches

the last one birthed I offer to
my Queen of Peach Proliferation

to bite and suck and eat all up
rolling in our pecks of peaches

peach juice splashed on thigh and chin
we’ve devoured pecks of peaches

I’ve picked peaches and I’ve picked you
and we’ll pick pecks of peaches

abuzz with love we’ll propagate
pecks of plumping perfect peaches