A woman, concealed by the wide brim of her hat
scans the lines of the water where I’ve come to drink my coffee
and paw through my notebook, menacing me away
from any spot too near her eye-line or her. The turtles, sun-bathing
there‘s a touch of nature worth watching. But my body
and the uniform it’s dressed in do not belong
in her idealized siesta on the bank.
I know this world of hers, how it skirts between ideal and reality.
She has more money in her purse than I do in my bank account,
and this afternoon she’s manufactured, the timed sun, the measured breezes,
the pond dug by Californian developers, it is only a scene of imperfection to her.
She has so much of what she wants that everything else, everything
that remains, causes more pain than I will feel in my whole small life.
The proud ducks glide on Dasani, colored by kelp
shipped from New Zealand in ten-pound bags labeled, certified, proper.
I wonder if the ducks’ breeds were selected from a catalog,
if they were constructed feather by feather to please these visitors,
the families at the upper-crust market, the wives
visiting their corpses at the heart hospital, the spun-out
staring over the fences of the sanitarium, employees of each of these,
leaving cigarettes for the lost grackles, and me.
Between the “wild flowers,” the turtles, ducks, and Starbucks-green bridge,
I sit with my words, my uniform, my precious free time, admiring a precarious beauty.
She turns her head towards me – towards the rushing sound of the fountain
whose sudden eruption, not far from my feet, makes its little concrete erection
so obvious even the children point and stare. The mist it makes
the sun separates into four billion colors, the arc of a glare – a rainbow –
was this, too, intended? Or a happy accident?
I see on the other side a young man, who starts to unpack a fishing rod
and I almost can’t help but laugh. Weren’t we just reminded
almost viciously how sterile, how fake this nature is?
The woman turns her head as if to follow mine, and her gaze pierces him.
As she stares I wonder – if I’m an eyesore here, does he appear
prettier, or more natural? Is it his cheek-bones, his attire?
Has this place become so false that we, as people, see and think
men and women like these two actually belong? What a joke!
A travesty, even, that we are used to this.
But how can I complain? Between the high sun, the blue skies,
the old oak whose unimpeachable life spreads two hundred years
of credibility even over this pure falsehood of a park…
and somehow I am the only one who knows this world is beautiful,
without pissing rainbows or trying to pull fish from a glorified birdbath
like cum from a stone. Somehow I am blessed. I am blessed
until he reels in that thin, white line, and that fish like a dagger
or a gypsy dancer, splits whatever’s left between what isn’t
and what is, and the man and woman
fuck like wild tigers on a bed of glass-green scales.
I wrote the first draft of this poem almost four years ago. Over that amount of time I’ve produced 10+ drafts, and basically never found path forward that worked for what I wanted to do with the poem. The original intentions are vague to me, but I wrote it based on direct observation and wanted it to maintain a sort of folksy meandering quality, filled with distinct people and events that didn’t necessarily drive towards any conclusion, and yet all contributing sort of subliminally to the ending I had in mind, drawn from my impression of the location as a whole.
In this draft, I rewrote from the ground up, fully eliminating the children, turtles, and ducks as “characters,” though they remain as images. I drew everything towards a theme of sex-as-adversary — a sort of corollary to the nature-vs-society the original focused on. Sex and nature stand in for one another a lot in this draft, the main difference is that the eye of the story, my “character,” takes on the part of nature or of society depending on his own insecurities. The natural-ness that he longs for is twinned with the natural-ness of sexual attraction which he tries in vain to turn into a cynical construction to match the scenery. Or something like that. I just wrote it, it’s not like all of this was consciously intended.
I don’t normally hold on to old drafts, I feel like the changes I make tend to be fairly straight-forward improvements, but this was a special case. So I thought it might be a good opportunity to go back in time, go through them, and see what I can learn.
The First Drafts
It seemed at the time fairly straight-forward, and I didn’t anticipate much trouble editing it. The concept was clear, decent imagery — so much so that I imagine some of you reading this prefer this version to the “final” — the major problem was getting the ending to land the way I wanted it to.
In my second draft I tried to contextualize my own presence in the poem and embroider some of the events, with mixed results. I was a little cowardly with changing the ending, and as a result it lands about the same as before, made a little more obvious with the children but it was arguably already too clear in the original.
The woman in her sunhat sits
primly on the shore, where moments ago the ducks launched
calm and ludicrous, waves of water rolling from their backs
marking their paths in confused rebounding, I,
perched on my outcrop of dust and moss
read secular psalms and watch them pass,
green and purple and orange in their black skin
like gasoline was in their feathers, pure
tan underbellies mocking boats,
the proud little things hold their oiled heads
upright, aiming, like roman ships ready to breathe fire.
The woman looks vacantly, sitting motionless
not over at me, not down on the ducks
like Hera in a cloud, but towards
a handsome idiot trying his best to cast,
in a manufactured pond with no real fish.
Cat-tails bend like pubic hair
at the spot where a low hissing begins,
a metal spigot, like a dumptruck’s cock
struggles briefly, then projects a stream
or clear bright urine through the air. Between the jet
and its descent, a brilliant rainbow!
A gateway to a land of light and love,
some skyborne world of bliss. No, no,
I won’t manufacture some perfect paradise,
it’s just a lens that makes the sunlight twist.
A bridge swaddling the pond, bow-legged and blue –
a crowd gathers on it, amazed by the simple fountain
tricked briefly into admiring
the avalanche of green that frames it.
The woman stands slowly, strides away.
The ducks, scared home by the storm,
begin to disembark again. The man
checks his bait and finds another spot
as the spigot quits, with a little ceremony,
gurgling into its pubic mound.
Some kids surround the man, curious,
and he’s gracious enough to them. Shows them the rod,
explains the rudiments of his technique. I
sit alone, with nothing but this, thinking
until the line, sunk in the shallows, withdraws into its pole.
The children smile and laugh, amused to see
the desperate dance of a small green-yellow fish.
Around this time, I was very focused on writing essays and mainly used poetry as a productive way to take time off from that. This was the first poem in my editing file, so I read it and iterated on it fairly often, but with fairly minor changes. Some people had trouble following the action of the poem. Some were too preoccupied with the vulgar imagery to pay attention to the rest of it. Someone rightly pointed out that it would work better with more disdain for the man and woman. One person, surprisingly, interpreted the fact that the woman was portrayed as dispassionate and dismissive stereotypical and sexist. In the next draft, someone correctly interpreted the two hospitals to mean one of them was a mental institution, a read that surprised me and made me think heavily about its inclusion.
A woman in her sunhat sits
tucking her dress demurely
across from the ducks, holding their heads upright
and launching, calm and ludicrous, over the water.
I put down my book to trace their paths
purple and orange in their black skin
like gasoline was in their feathers,
pure tan bellies mocking boats —
a Navy patrolling for bread and ghosts.
She glances with suspicion at the cloudy sky
as on my right a low moaning begins.
Beneath the freshly painted bridge
bow-legged and blue, a handsome idiot
tries his best to fish, in this pond installed
between two hospitals, with
the patience of a rebuffed prince.
Cat-tails bend like pubic hair
at the moaning spot, beginning to hiss —
a metal spigot, a cast-iron cock
struggles briefly, then projects a stream
of clear bright urine through the air.
Between the jet and its descent: a rainbow.
The arch of a gateway, to a land of light
a lovely dome of bliss!
So lovely a crowd begins to form
amazed by the simple fountain, tricked
briefly into admiring the world
we live together in.
The woman, scowling, lifts
her lazy body until it floats away,
highlighting the confused panic of the ships
quacking like their lives depend on it.
I fancy I love her, just a bit, but
I have learned my lesson — I won’t manufacture
a perfect paradise to embroider some odd event.
Some kids break away and clamber down the rocks
to surround the fisherman. He shows them his impliments,
while I sit alone with nothing but this, thinking
how small the world is. Sunk in the shallows
the line begins to shift.
The children smile and laugh,
the man barely moves. The sun begins
to light in green gems against
an impossibly golden fish.
Yeah, I left a misspelling in. I don’t misspell a lot of things, and I never ever make a spelling pass until I’m on a final draft or going to publish. Lines change, spellchecks are very often a waste of time. ANYWAY.
I was not happy with this draft at all. The ending lands better but that’s about it. The end of the first stanza is nonsense, added for the rhythm and no other reason. This stanza does have good rhythm, possibly the best out of all of them, but it is generally confused, messy, lacking impact. From this point on the drafts tend to be focused on rewriting elements towards the whole impact of the poem, dropping or reinventing elements that do not work for that impact. In essence, I decided that the poem had too much going on, and that either some of the underlying meaning or some of the atmosphere of it had to go.
One draft, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to have survived, had the woman recontextualized as Athena Parthenos, with the entire scene given new relevance in the shade of the Greek myths. These changes were almost place-holder, closer to a proof-of-concept than a draft, and ultimately I decided that I was bringing in far more confusion in context than I was adding to the poem.
Another draft wrote Texan mythology in, characterizing the woman as the genteel southern lady from “A Rose for Emily.” I basically liked this take, but this draft is still messy and leans on talking to the reader rather than trying to demonstrate something, a step backwards for this poem.
A woman in her sunhat sits
demurely on the shore, watching the ducks
hold their tiny heads upright, calm
and ludicrous. I put down my book
and trace their paths, subsumed.
She brings to mind Miss Emily Grierson,
that macabre character in her face
you can almost see nuzzling the lying pride
of a rotting memory, glances with suspicion
towards the storm sewer, as on my right
a low moaning begins. Across the freshly painted bridge
bow-legged and blue, a bearded man
looking like a pastor in a starched black shirt
tries his best to fish in this pond installed
between two hospitals, with the patience of a nurse on shift.
The three of us, triangulating the most
contrived and sterile paradise I could possibly imagine, even
the turtles sunbathing have had their shells manicured,
the water itself as clear and empty as the southern sky (and trust me
I’ve spent a hell of a long time underneath)
bide our time. We have too much of it.
On my right the tall grass bends like pubic hair
over a metal spigot, a cast-iron little cock
begins to spit what might pass for urine
at what might pass for God – between the jet
and its descent, a lovely dome of bliss! The perfect arch
of a messy rainbow, fading into and
out of the sun’s oppressive light. A path, a gateway
signified – towards what? Or just away?
A crowd of children flock to it, stretching to see
the simple fountain in its lewdly gorgeous pit, tricked
briefly into admiring the world we live together in,
in fact amazed by it. The woman, scowling, lifts
her sexless body until it floats away,
back to that sterile tragedy, that… story, actually,
I presented her within. The truth of her is as much
a mystery to me as the rainbow’s is.
Whether I manufactured for her a nightmare
or a timid dream, it wouldn’t really matter to her, would it?
Exactly how weak is this supposedly real world
to the thoughts that hem it in? Weak enough
for writers to exist, weak enough for mental patients,
priests, con-men, and grief – which, after all,
is as much a fantasy as any memory, as much an invention
and as much a fact as this obtuse poetry is…
some kids break away and clamber down the rocks
to surround the fisherman. He shows them his weapons
while I sit alone, thinking how small the world is.
Sunk in the shallows
until the line begins to shift.
The children smile and laugh, the man
doesn’t flinch. The rod is bent, and the sun
glints in green gems against
an impossible, radiant fish.
The other drafts, despite their changes, are so similar still to the second draft that they aren’t worth reproducing here. There are a great number of drafts from this phase of writing and the differences between them can be minute and meaningless, so it was this Texan version that I settled on when I decided to work on the poem again, a year or so later.
Not long ago I revisited this poem without the weight of feedback or all the failed ideas I’d had for it. I decided one problem with it was that it opened on the image of the woman, when the focal point was really the pond and the nature scene. Making this small ordering change did wonders for this draft.
On the calm waters, ducks drift
with their tiny heads upright, snubbed
by the turtles sun-bathing on a manhole cover
rising conspicuously from the center of the pond.
The wind is crisp, the sunlight interlaced
the bluest sky, the greenest grass,
the manufactured mirror.
A woman in her sunhat sits
demurely on the shore, watching a man
unpack his fishing rod and stand
beneath a freshly painted whore-green bridge.
On my right the tall grass bends like pubic hair
over the cast-iron little cock of a fountain,
obscuring a great oak, two-hundred years old
(it was illegal to remove it, that’s why
they decided to build the park, the pond
around it) my sketch-book won’t take ink. I don’t know
why he casts his rod into the water,
I’ve never seen a fish. Between two hospitals,
a storm sewer and a Starbucks, the closest thing
we have to a natural setting. The hour passes
and another, subsumed by paths, circuitous
she brings to mind Miss Emily Grierson,
that macabre character in her face, as if she nuzzles
a long-dead pride. As if she came from paradise
but no longer remembers it. Her glance
rushes headlong past me, where the fountain
has just begun to spit what might pass for urine
at what might pass for God – and a rainbow shines
perfect and clear in the arch of its descent!
The sun’s oppressive light, shone through that gateway
hypnotizes a crowd of children, who flock to and admire
stretching here and there to see the simple fountain,
the trick. Briefly admiring the world we live together in,
the woman and the ducks, smiling, lift their timeless bodies
away, back, back to where they came.
Am I the only one who sees it? How weak this world is
to confidence? Priests, madmen, pricks. Liars, manufacturing.
Deifacturing. Dictifacturing. Fracturing. Sunk
in the shallows, the lines begin to shift.
The children have surrounded the empty man,
who has shown them how to hook a worm
and, apparently, a fish! The rod is bent,
the light glints in multicolored gems
While this draft has some wonderful additions, it’s ultimately bogged down and ruined by relics from the first draft. The deep-dives into certain images are all but gone, and instead the sheer number of images give a scanning sensation, a broadness of view that can then be constricted and warped inside the eye of the story.
What this draft loses that I dearly missed in the poem was that emotionality, that hatred for the “phonies” and the direct impact of their character and, in conjunction, the poem’s ending. This was intended to make a softer, more meditative ending because the original intent could not possibly land here, but in the end it just sort of flubs out and it reads like the eye of the story is just going “meh, whatever” to his own thoughts. The word apparently is so awful here I almost can’t imagine why I ever thought it was okay to use.
So the other day, when I decided to do some new drafts of old poems, I picked this one and I got a blank sheet of paper. I didn’t use my computer, as usual, and I didn’t reference the old drafts whatsoever. It’s not like I didn’t know the poem like the back of my hand. This draft, completely rewritten, unimpeded by the text of the original, takes the themes of the original and iterates on them until they become tired, then almost turns them against each other.
There may be some work left to do, but this version finally fulfills all the promises of the original poem except for the wandering, pastoral sort of feel I had tried in vain to keep before this. I’m not sure how it reads anymore to other people, but for me, personally, finding this poem was worth the effort of all those drafts, even if it ended up not being the poem I had wanted it to be.