In Conversation with Brendan Kennelly
Starting at 4:56, poet Brendan Kennelly discusses his poem Bread and refers to an “old Irish tradition” of the speaker and voice in the poem being anything other than the poet. The language of his words moves me, “I am everything except me.” What does that mean to you?
I don’t know if I’ve written a poem in the voice of an inanimate object (or a mask poem), but it did suggest another way to begin or rewrite a poem if it’s not working in the current voice. Or simply as a warmup exercise.
Our expectations and experience shape us. When we write we must find a voice that expresses our sentient self, not some idealized version of a cogent self, devoid of the exacting life-altering lessons that come with enduring a variety of experiences.
― Kilroy J. Oldster
Pat Schneider has a writing exercise in her book Writing Alone and with others that begins with a line from B.H. Fairchild‘s poem “In this one you are…”. The idea of doing this exercise brought up an immediate memory of my older sister and me in the backyard of our beach house. My nana is canning. Every summer, she “puts up” New England style pepper relish and bread and butter pickles.
The East Broadway house’s kitchen is large, twice the size of Lake Street but it’s August in Connecticut, so I know it’s hot and muggy. Every burner of the big white gas stove is lit and covered with tall speckled enamelware canning kettles. My nana looks cool with the fan blowing on her. She is wearing a crisp plaid seersucker dress. She directs us to our prep tasks outside.
We take turns feeding the red and green peppers and onions into the meat chopper that is clamped onto the brick-red picnic table. The chopper handle is heavy to turn if you put too many vegetables in at once. You are ten and I am eight years old, lean, tall, and tan in handmade bathing suits. In this photo, you are wearing a groovy yellow and orange print two-piece. You look happy, the camera catches you mid laugh; your hair tossed back over your shoulder is dark and wavy.
My mother had taken strips of old cotton sheets and wrapped our damp hair into rag curls the night before. I think this came from my nana. Nana also rinsed our hair in diluted white vinegar to make it shiny and instructed us to brush our hair at least 100 times before we went to bed. But it could also be our love of Little House of the Prairie. It was the mid-1970s, and I clearly remember Mary and Laura in rag curls.
You are posing for the camera and pointing to me as I take a turn with the wood handle. Later we’ll help cook the vegetables down with vinegar, sugar, and mustard seeds before we are released to the beach while you boil the jars.
While Schneider suggests referring to an existing snapshot or photograph, you might also have an immediate mental image as I did. And you may be surprised like I was, what memories unfold. Now get back to work!