A single star
a lonely night
to burn the earth.
Sharper than my fingernails,
colder than blue ice,
torn from the pages of a comet,
it drinks me
and drains me of discontent.
I would catch it with these hands
if they were real,
and would not burn
like the gorgeous
my feet have squandered.
I would whisper secrets to it
if they were real,
and could be heard
without the ugly squeal
of tires on the road to my dreams.
I would give it a new name
if names were not real,
and able to spell death
or blood, dripping
like candy melting under rain.
I leave the star
in its new bed.
I will keep watch
and watch it sleep
Sometimes, when I write a poem, I will craft the entire body of lines first, and then search my mind for a title that crystallizes what I have said. I’d say this is my strategy around titling most of the time. But there are poems for which I begin with a title, placing a word or phrase at the core of the poem, and then I add layers around that core, in the form of lines. “Hatred” is an example of the latter type of poem.
I was not filled with hatred when I wrote this poem. Looking back on the experience of writing it, I wasn’t actually filled with any particularly strong emotion. I simply felt the desire to examine the emotion of hatred while I was in that detached state, and perhaps that’s why my mind chose the particular image that it did to guide the poem. About 14 years ago, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, I saw a meteorite fall at night. Not an off-in-the-sky safe little shooting star; I saw a quick, fiery streak that poofed into nothingness perhaps twenty yards away from me down the street, with the atmosphere choking off its descent probably an equal number of yards up into the sky. It was extraordinary. I can remember that its descent made no sound. I can also remember thinking, “I’ll probably never see anything like that again.” That was the image that guided this poem. That was the “silent star” of my hatred as I wrote.
I don’t have very much experience with hatred. I experience it when I think about certain aspects of the world we live in, like war, or exploitation – but unless I’m thinking about a specific instance of those phenomena that I have actually experienced, that’s a soft, safe kind of hatred. When I do think about specific instances, I experience the hatred in brief, searing flashes, like the meteorite’s fall. I’ve only experienced real, sustained hatred for an actual person once in my life, I believe, and that was such a scary and tainting experience that I eventually made the conscious choice to let it go. One of my favorite sayings goes like this: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die from it.” I would think holding onto hatred would be like drinking an even nastier poison.
So I had chosen a title for this poem (“Hatred”) and I had a guiding image too (the meteorite). Where to go from there? I decided I really wanted to explore related imagery and choose some striking words. The last couple of poems that I’d written were constructed as miniature narratives. The focus was on the story they told and the words conveyed plot. I wanted to do something different this time. So I did something I really enjoy with poetry and started quickly building imagery, trying to convey each image in as few words as possible.
It should probably not come as a surprise, given that this was my strategy, that the poem’s structure is very conventional. It’s basically a tiny five paragraph essay: introduction, three body points constructed to be rhetorically similar, and a conclusion. This is a comfortable structure for me and I use it for many poems when I want to put my focus on the word choices and not push myself to play with structure.
Some thoughts on some specific lines:
- “Sharper than my fingernails” – something that very few people know about me and probably even fewer care about is that my fingernails are not particularly strong or sharp. I used to peel them to keep them short and they still peel easily. So to say that the meteorite is sharper than them isn’t saying very much. I think this line is probably a reference to the softness of the guiding image in my mind. I have done my best to hold onto the memory, because it really was something extraordinary and I think I might have been the only person who saw it, but time blurs everything.
- “colder than blue ice” – for this line I deliberately chose to work with a very common image. Everyone understands that ice is cold and everyone understands that blue things are colder that white things (or nearly everyone). I wanted to use this as a touchstone for understanding, because I knew I was going to push myself elsewhere and didn’t want to risk incomprehensibility.
- “and drains me of discontent” – this line is an attempt to grasp at a less-frequently-discussed side of the truth about hatred. Because hatred can override reason, frequently when I have experienced hatred, life has seemed less complex, and in that experience there is an addictive peace. This is why righteous indignation can produce a high.
- “I would catch it with these hands / if they were real” – a reference to dissociation. Strong emotional states have frequently separated me from awareness of myself as being grounded in my body, have led to a feeling of unreality about something as basic and ever-present as my own hands. This can be dangerous. I actually got a tattoo in an attempt to remind myself to avoid this type of emotion. Hatred certainly has the capacity to do this.
- “gorgeous / clay” – here we have an example of me pushing myself. Trying to find an image that will puzzle the reader and juxtapose parts of reality that are not normally put side-by-side. I’m proud of this one.
- “clay / my feet have squandered” – this might be going too far. Even I’m puzzled by my use of “squandered” in this line. I decided to stand by the choice and not change it to something more conventional, because it just feels right, but I really have no idea why it does. Sometimes art is mysterious even to the artist.
- “the ugly squeal / of tires on the road to my dreams” – ugh. This is the image that I am least satisfied with in this poem and if I were going to change any lines in it these would definitely go first. But I generally don’t do a lot of finicky correction on poetry. My poems generally drop out of my head as units in a single sitting. I will make edits as I go, fixing a line or stanza as it feels right, but there comes a point where I feel done and I wouldn’t go back and change the poem after that point any more than a chef would try to re-bake a cake. Maybe part of it got burnt, or the ingredients weren’t mixed right, but if you want something better, you have to bake a new cake. That cake is done. And whether I like it or not, this stereotypical image about tires and roads is a part of this particular cake. Maybe someone else out there will like it better.
- “like candy melting under rain” – this line is really noteworthy only for its use of the preposition “under” rather than a more conventional “in the”. I chose “under” because I wanted to bring a sensation of pressure into the poem. Hatred can be an awful burden.
- “I will keep watch / and watch it sleep / forever” – another reference to the seductive and addictive quality of hatred. Life is so complicated, when one finds something to override and simplify, even if that thing is destructive, it’s easy to fall into the trap.
Well, that’s all I’ve got to say about this poem. I hope you enjoyed my first attempt to dissect my own poetic process. Stay tuned for more and if you enjoyed reading “Hatred”, please think about buying the poetry book when it’s done!