How Poems Work

It was a small, compact mirror

But it was enough. He took it everywhere he went, so snug in his pocket it made a small, pleasant shape in the well sewn suit. For those rare moments he did not see himself reflected back adequately he was always prepared. I am here, he might say, here I am.


Questions for the author:

Q: First of all, why is this a poem? It looks like a chunk of prose to me. What’s the difference?

A: I call it a poem.

Q: And why not prose?

A: I could just as easily call it prose, today it’s poetry.

Q: Are you serious?

A: Yes, and no. I think it’s a poem in the sense that it’s operating on the level of metaphor, it is using imagery to evoke something, the language is slightly condensed–though perhaps not as much as I would like in a poem, or even a prose poem versus a short/short fiction. The argument for categories I find a bit dull however, which makes me misbehave. My apologies.

Q: While I find the mood of the poem affecting, it’s also a bit dark. There is a sense of foreboding.

A: You’re right, it is all of those things.

Q: I am confused by the poem. It seems to be taking place in another world, far away from the one I inhabit at the moment. Can you tell me why that is? Where it is?

A: Well, the poem is in English. It is on a blog. That is already in another world, or an in-between world. It was created in my mind, which was, at the time, in several places including a certain spring day in the English Countryside, Berlin, April 30, 1945, a small restaurant near Haverford College, 2006, my apartment in Brooklyn, 2004, and Montreal, January 2008.

Q: No wonder I am confused. I see no evidence of any of those places in the poem, which really doesn’t give specific clues. Am I missing something?

A: You may well be. Currently I am missing several things. Some of which I have just mentioned, some I can’t mention here, or won’t. The beautiful thing about missing things however, is that while you are longing for one thing, you open up space for other things to appear.

Q: Do you think it’s fair to not be in a specific place in a poem? How do you expect readers to react to such nonsense?

A: No, I don’t think it’s fair. And I expect them to react as they wish to react. Poems are not made to love or understand necessarily, or only, they can also frustrate, compel, sadden and so on. Still, I think the poem is quite specific actually. It takes several moments, having occurred in different times and places, organizing them around a central image. In this case the small compact mirror.

Q: Can you tell me where the poem came from exactly? How did it occur?’

A: As I just said, from the collision of ideas around that image.

Q: So, can you walk me through the thought process leading up to this poem?

A: Do you really want to know?

Q: Yes, why shouldn’t I know?

A: If I tell you where the poem comes from it erases the nuances of the original which I left up to you to fill out.

Q: Perhaps, but I am interested in knowing how it “fills out” for you.

A: Okay. Well, as I said, it was born of several moments that collided in my head very sharply, and which I felt compelled to explicate by way of words in order on a page. The moment evoked feeling, and don’t people like to quote Wordsworth and argue poetry is an overflowing of such? Well it is, and as Wordsworth goes on to say, it is an overflow of feeling given much thought. So to wrestle the thought and feeling into some shape. To transform it from the original. The image at the core was Hitler’s gun. I had dinner once with Lee Miller’s son and he told me the story of Lee Miller having acquired Hitler’s pants (among other things) from his apartment in Berlin. You know she famously arrived there shortly after he and Eva Braun had vacated it. He told me of the small dent in the pocket of Hitler’s pants, made especially for him, with many special features including the secret gun pocket. He said you could still see the outline of the gun itself, how it lay against his body all those years. He said something about gun powder too, perhaps one could still smell it in the air, and he said it would be, and perhaps it is now on display at Farley Farm, which you can visit.

I wondered if he could also smell evil. I thought of Hannah Arendt’s writing on the banality of evil and connected that with lesser forms of meanness in the world, which made me ache a little. I thought of Lee Miller, whom I admire tremendously, having such items in her possession all of her life. I wondered if there was any getting away from such heaviness. One could simply list those heavy items. Objects themselves tell stories. I also remembered Miller’s photographs of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub. I mourned the fact that she never photographed again after the Second World War. I wondered if she was ever able to see the world though a clean lens after such images were burned in her mind. I thought of how terrible it is that we take our ideas of things everywhere with us and attempt to order the world to align with what we want to see, and then how some of us do this consciously, others unconsciously, and how difficult becoming conscious can be.

I think Hitler also had a mirror, I’m fairly certain Penrose said something about that. But no matter, by now my mind had moved on to ways in which we see ourselves reflected back at us. I had been thinking that in some way nature poetry can seem like a man standing in a field with a mirror, so I thought of replacing the gun with a mirror. There are a few other strands too, but I think I’ve revealed more than enough. In any case, all of these ideas exploded in my mind. I started with the title. Then described the use of the object trying to keep it as simple, as matter of fact, as I could.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Virginia Woolf.

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