If you don’t count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote — and tried to sell as little books — when I was twelve, then my writing career technically began with poetry. If you’ve never written poetry, you might wonder where the poet gets his ideas. If you have written anything creative, you know that the ideas are always out there. It’s the getting them down on paper so they make sense to other people that’s difficult. Though my poems eventually became so long and contained so much narrative that I eventually switched to fiction, even the reviewers of my first novel said that I wrote like a poet.
Originally, my two poetry collections were much smaller and were part of my Creative Writing dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives. Eventually, while trying the get the book accepted for publication, the dissertation grew into two books because I continued writing poems. Love in the Time of Dinosaurs included any of my poems that were not on The Holocaust, and Where Lightning Strikes contained all my Holocaust poems.
My earliest successful poems, both in terms of positive reactions from readers and in getting published in university or literary journals, were those that dealt with family and relationships. They eventually ended up in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, in the section called “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” — named after one of the poems. In those poems, though they contained some aspects of my private life, I adopted a persona of an unnamed woman who was struggling to make sense of relationships, family, marriage, divorce, and children that were not her own.
I was in a relationship when I wrote these poems, and the man had children from a previous marriage, but we weren’t living together. When I wrote it, while living in my one-room apartment, and it won a prize. The judge who awarded the prize thought it was memoir. At the Awards ceremony, he asked exactly how many children I had. I told him I had none.
He asked how long I’d been married.
I told him I was single.
“But you live in a big house, at least, right?” he said.
I told him I lived in a tiny apartment.
With obvious surprise on his face, he told me he would’ve given me an even “bigger prize than the Grand Prize” if he’d known I wasn’t married nor had any children and lived in a tiny apartment when I’d written it, just for “writing a relationship poem that made [him] think it was memoir, albeit a very well-done memoir.”
Later, one of my friends was so moved by the relationship poems in general, and by “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” in particular, that she painted The Yellow Teapot in its honor and gave me the painting as a gift.
Portrait of the Poet as a Woman
Your second wife calls to say that the children get
ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must
be something they eat what do I feed them something
dreadful? She calls collect when she’s away. If I
ask who’s calling she says, This is his wife. If I
don’t ask, she says, This is his wife. Sometimes she cries.
I want to feel for her pain, but loving a man
is penance enough. In the yellow tea kettle,
the water steams. Holding the phone to my ear, I
sit at the table with this morning’s dishes. At
breakfast, your youngest son decided to hate the
toast, the jam, the world, me. I wanted to hold him —
the hands covering his face seemed so small, but his
older brother’s stare fixed me, as if in a bad
photograph: off-center, one hand reaching out, the
other almost tipping my teacup, mouth open,
staring straight into the camera. Lot’s wife stilled in
faltering. Pinned without wriggling to the wall. One
of the children slams the bathroom door. The water
steams, without whistling, in the yellow tea kettle.
Last night, one of your children cried out in sleep. The
wood of the hall was cool on my bare feet, and
my nightgown brushed my legs. You were already there
in his room. I stood near the open window and
listened to the hum of your deep voice, woven with
your child’s answering sobs. The white lace curtains brushed
against my flattened belly, aching to be child-
swollen, to share you with something of me instead.
The water steams and she reminds me again that
I have moved into her house. I crumple some burnt
toast with my fingers. Outside, two brown sparrows hop
together in the dried leaves, talking bird-somethings.
Sometimes my Poet-persona had two step-children, sometimes three, but she always felt isolated from them, excluded from their world and their love, no matter how much she loved them. Much of that may have been because I never felt loved as a child myself, but it also may have been due to the fact that, since I wasn’t married to the man with whom I was in a relationship, my status was legally undefined.
Is the girlfriend allowed to tell the children what to do? Is she allowed to discipline the children who aren’t hers? Even married couples with children from previous relationships have to consider these things.
I created other poems narrated by this woman Poet, in which she attempted to emotionally connect with the children who were not hers, as well as with the husband who, technically, was hers. “Holiday” was one of the poems that came from my own experiences but which was transmuted into the Poet’s life.
The dream she has was, in fact, a real dream of mine: it was that very same dream that inspired this poem. Even though, at the time, I didn’t consciously realize what the dream was trying to tell me about my own relationship, I was still able to create poetry from the dream. By the time I was finished with the poem, I understood enough about the dream — and my relationship — to find exactly the right epigraph for it.
Day followed day, and this and that
Seemed to be happening
As always, but through it all
Already loneliness was seeping.
I pour myself another glass of wine, then lounge
on the wicker couch of the sun-porch, my bare feet
propped on an old milking stool, surrounded by texts
on the psychology of dreams. Late this morning
your first wife phoned, from where it is not raining: your
three children huddled around, chirping, while the cat
lapped milk from their cereal bowls. Outside the grey
rain shimmers, chanting the glossary of terms I
have yet to memorize. Thirteen-year-old Laura
eases into the Bentwood across from me, rocks
slowly. Her brothers pirouette onto the porch,
in-school songs. I reward them with cookies, so they
dance away to the kitchen, crooning rain-songs for
each other. Last night the youngest stole two-thirds of
your gin-and-tonic, inquired of your mother:
Barbara, when you get drunk, do things look all different?
Beethoven drifts out from behind the door of the
room she’s sharing with your daughter. Your typewriter
clacks as Laura strokes the cover of one of my
books. Last night I dreamed I was swimming and couldn’t
see land anywhere at all. When her brothers
bounce onto the porch and propose rain-dancing, I
send them to you. Two minutes later, the back door
thuds, and muted squeals float back to us. Your clacking
chorus resumes. I got real tired and called and
called to some man to save me but he was talking
to this mermaid. He didn’t hear me so I guess
I drowned. I present her one of the dream books; she
snuggles with it in a distant room. I wander
the summer cottage, open a second bottle
of wine, memorize your sons in glittering pools.
Last night I, too, dreamt: I was unrolling faded
oriental carpets onto scuffed wood floors. Three
sparrows fluttered down, whispering among themselves.
Their words swelled, joined hands, became the cars of a train
yanking away from an abandoned platform. My
legs lumbered after. The sparrows darted down,
snared the ticket from my extended hand, raced each
other to giggling clouds. The ticket escaped, spun
itself into a whirling dervish, scattering
the clouds and birds. Then I roamed through some crumbling old
house, breaking open all the curtains, unlatching
windows. You followed around behind, closing them.
I don’t recall exactly when I wrote “The Toast,” but I’m sure I was beginning to suspect that the man in my life was being unfaithful, despite his denials. Later, after I discovered that, for the final year of our eight-year relationship, he’d been having an affair with my best friend, who was married with two young children, I left him, changed my phone number, moved, and never answered his letters begging me to forgive him and to just talk to him and listen to his side of what happened.
I didn’t need to listen to anyone else’s side.
The pain and the grief had been too much for me to bear: the woman he had been involved with had, metaphorically and emotionally, died.
I was the survivor, and I wanted nothing to do with a man who defined “love” like that.
The Poet persona, however bitter, stayed with her unfaithful husband, and I got a series of good poems out of exploring the betrayal and pain of infidelity. One of the poems dealing with those issues, “The Toast,” later won a prize.
Though I don’t know if I ever would have gained the ironic tone of the poet had I stayed in my own relationship, I know that leaving that unfaithful man after eight years certainly improved my writing.
Who did not save us.
(after a poem by
Let’s drink a toast to this dreadful old house, filled with
lost ghosts who come every night to roam around the
downstairs rooms, their limp ghost-hair straying across their
gloomy ghost-eyes. Let’s drink to all the empty rooms
upstairs, meant for an absolute infestation
of tousle-haired, rosy-cheeked children, but housing
instead only walls of books, empty as our eyes
at the breakfast table when the drinks of the night
before have deserted us, leaving us only
each other. Let’s toast the sons your scorned first wife hid
in Italy: your just and deserved punishment
for requiring someone younger, but for which you
never pardoned the new wife. Or let’s toast that faint
stirring in my flattened belly — only once, long
before you were free to claim it. Let’s raise our glass
to the clacking and clanking of your manual
typewriter in the middle of the night, and to
mine, which has been holding its electric tongue for
weeks, except to murmur the names in your frieze of
discarded women whenever I try to write
about something other than the space in the bed
between us, something other than our excuses
for not touching. And let’s not forget to drink to
nineteen-year-old Seraphina in your fiction
writing class who called the house Saturday morning
and asked for you by first name. Let’s drink to the God
who plucked us from our separate lives that last summer
your second wife visited her family in France,
molded us together in His callused palm, clamped
His heavy fingers like bars around us, and laughed.
I hope you’ve you enjoyed the poems as well as some of the background information on how I got inspired to write them.
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All poems from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
Yellow Teapot © 1987 by Barbara Walker; private collection of Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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