Keith S. Wilson
I don't always love sharing old work. Not because I'm ashamed of its quality (that's not a feeling I enjoy, but I can move past it), but because when you write anything, you embed your ignorance and prejudices into your work. Of course, this shows in your finished pieces as well, but by then you've had a chance to examine yourself and your work, and have had the ability to perhaps do some change. An early draft can expose potentially hurtful or oppressive language—thoughts that were unconscious and demand reexamination, sentences in which you didn’t know what you were even trying to say, and lines that contain ambiguities that allow for readings you don’t believe in. Language can put others at risk, and I think it's important to try to consider that risk.
Everything I write begins as a free write. I wanted “scrapbook” to be about American violence, and I wanted to do it in fragments, the way Sappho's recovered works appear, since time itself is a kind of destructive force. I named it, originally, "frags," because of the fragmentary nature of Sappho's work as we know it and the association with fragmentation grenades. At Vermont Studio Center, where I had access to a corkboard, I cut the poem into pieces and rearranged them. But the poem had evolved in my mind to be more about implied violence and masculinity and power. I worked in new scraps (highlighted in yellow), each taken from separate poems about totally different topics. The starred stanzas, short as they are, are poems in their entirety (in order from top to bottom, they are titled: “sextant,” “title,” and “parable.”)
The sextant section changed because whatever story I had been trying to tell could never be as loud as my being a man telling a woman her own feelings: “you thought a moment...” That became especially evident when it was re-contextualized in a poem specifically about this kind of assumed power. As uncomfortable as it was in this case, I would rather embody the man. I also changed the Sisyphus section, which in earlier versions felt to me as focused a lot on the dress. I couldn't decide what that meant, precisely, but it seemed to mean something concerning gender expression—that people who express themselves in what is considered non-masculine attire are saddled with the responsibility of men's actions. I wanted to allow for that read, but not position it as the only way to interpret that section.
I felt uneasy with what I was trying to say in scrapbook (or rather, whether I was saying it) up until the night before it was published—and asked close friends to read it, and read it myself, and sent late night edits to the editor. Maybe I still worry. Privilege is power, and some forms of privilege cannot be put down, no matter the effort to do so. Writing a poem like this can feel like gesticulating passionately with a gun about all the firearms in a room in which some of the people are holding guns, all the while hoping mine doesn’t go off. The alternative feels like merely holding it—deadly quiet—in my hand.
This poem was first published in Triquarterly.
< draft >
< REVISION >
< final version >
-after ladan osman
i. look—in the middle distance the siren screams
like a fatherless boy,
unashamed. ii. sisyphus hikes up her dress.
she labors pushing,
always a man,
and if she shrugs, he rolls atop her
or the town at the foot of the hill. or a man, calling himself sisyphus, knocks
and says: push is a man’s verb
but she can help. or else,
he says, quiet. iii. it’s said we are afraid
of what we don’t understand. who
among us is shaken by latin? we are terrified of what might
overtake us. sadness, marriage, spanish,
rain. iv. like a sextant he angled himself as if
(as if!) to kiss. his hands in the ocean of her
eyes and his knee pressed against the air
like a rudder. v. how can i make you
understand? as a boy i held a bell in my hand. and i grew
to be a man who looks back
on that bell. vi. what is there
to say? that was yesterday. vii. the first thing odysseus decides
when he returns is to cock his bow. fire
in the crowd. over and again, bullets move
at flirtatious angles. viii. in the city, the first november rain
laps at a set of heels. ix. a family of plantains.
no one speaks
their name. actually,
a silence, even when they are perfect and brown.
every domestic, familiar,
unpretty thing. x. i’ll say it again:
if a hand is big enough it doesn’t matter
what you call it. xi. the story of orpheus and the bear is this—
orpheus, of course,
sings. his wife is distinguished
by her marriedness
to orpheus. jumping ahead: he left behind his clothing, his furniture
and everything. xii. there is an old story
of a man. that is the story.
there is an old story of a woman
that the old story of the man spoke over.
i am his son. xiii. imagine here the voice
of a woman. xiv. a list of all that is fixed:
only the ground.