I’m starting to carry the characters around with me, and I can’t have that.
I didn’t expect it, either! I’m accustomed to my prose characters taking up residence in my head. I hear their voices and ponder their lives and tell their stories and eventually … I have a complete novel.
Somehow I thought characters in a poem wouldn’t affect me the same way.
Let’s just get to it, shall we?
I’ll offer a post-mortem on the thing afterwards.
So! To recap: kellyrfineman has been hosting poetry sessions all month long at her blog. A few weeks ago she was describing narrative poems, and I developed a yen to write one.
These were some traits of narrative poetry that I kept in mind as I wrote (per Kelly):
They tend to be longer than some other forms, and are usually (but not always) told in first-person. They recount an episode or event in a person's life.
Make it florid and make sure it has an arc.
The story, and not the precise form, is the thing.
He came out of the sea on a surfboard
With dark dripping curls and eyes full of sky.
One look and my heart opened up to him
Like a merman beguiling my eye.
But stay - He was turning away from me!
And suddenly I became someone new.
“Don’t go back in,” I cried. “The sun’s going down.”
“What?” he said with a laugh. “Who are you?”
“The sharks come to feed when the sun goes down,”
I called out, as the sea crashed in my soul.
He lifted his chin at me. “What’s your name?”
I answered my fate and the sea: “Nicole.”
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “And don’t go away.”
He splashed back into the surf and I sighed.
I stood up to leave but somehow I stayed.
“Vixen!” I said to myself. “Have some pride.”
But I’ve never regretted my boldness.
Albie used to praise my poise with great glee.
“I never would have had the nerve,” he said.
“You were too fine for a surf bum like me.”
A year later he got down on one knee.
“Marry me, Nicole. You’re the love of my life.”
“You’re crazy!” I cried. “You know we’re too young.”
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Please be my wife.”
We were married at sunset while the sea
Sang its wild and inexorable song,
He smiled at me with those eyes full of sky
And we pledged a troth both joyous and long.
“They’re so young,” was the refrain everywhere.
We shrugged and went on being in love.
We finished school; we did not make babies.
We made jealous the gods in the heavens above.
One day he roared up on a motorbike
And I groaned, “Tell me that thing is not yours!”
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Come on, Nicki!”
Then we rode off into the great outdoors.
Our next adventure took us far from home,
Away from the moody song of the sea.
We bid farewell to the place where we’d met,
Then drove east, “from here to eternity.”
First we shivered through a Boston winter
While he finished his MBA degree.
Three days a week I taught music to kids,
Saturdays I sold handmade pottery.
When summer came, a good job opened up
In the city of skyscrapers and steel.
“Can’t we please go back home?” I beseeched.
“Oh, but Nicki, this is such a big deal!”
I flew home for a visit without him
To breathe the salt air and settle my soul.
People hugged and kissed me, then asked for him:
“Where is your beautiful surf bum, Nicole?”
Those three weeks at home dragged so listlessly
That I knew, “This is no longer my home.”
I would live in a tepee in New York
If I could be with my merman, my own!
The plane seemed to crawl like a snail through the sky
By the time we arrived my ache was acute.
“Nicole!” came the sound of my husband’s joy.
But look! My surf bum was wearing a suit!
We missed the refrain of the crashing waves,
We listened to horns and sirens all day.
If not for my beloved, I would have
Shriveled and withered and wasted away.
August in the city was hot and rank,
But we toured Manhattan uptown and down.
We strolled through Central Park and fed the swans.
We went to all the museums in town.
We ferried to the Statue of Liberty
And admired her lofty lifted lamp.
We ate international cuisine daily
And rocked out in hot clubs until damp.
Our humble walk-up we named The Love Shack.
It held some shelves, a small fridge, and a bed.
But it was close to a French bakery,
And we woke up to the smell of fresh bread.
September came. I was done with New York.
“That was fun,” I remarked. “When do we leave?”
“They want me to stay,” said my darling man.
“It’s the best offer I might ever receive.”
“I don’t want to live in New York,” I said.
“You promised we would move back to the coast.”
“Don’t be afraid, we won’t live here forever,”
He vowed. “Our beach town is the place I love most.”
Well! No more than two years, we decided.
I grumbled and sighed, and then I refrained.
What did I care where we resided
As long as our love and laughter remained?
I was home alone when the first plane hit.
I ran outside; sirens started to wail.
“Oh my God!” I cried when I saw the smoke.
It came from downtown; I felt my heart quail.
The phone was ringing; I grabbed it. “Albie?!”
It was him: “Nicki, something’s going on.”
“What? What? Is the building on fire?” I cried.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but something is wrong.”
I could hear the fire alarm and yelling …
Screaming … people beginning to panic.
I started to sob. “Run! Get out of there!”
My legs were shaking, my thoughts were frantic.
“Wait!” shouted my love and the phone went dead.
“Albie!” I screamed. Someone banged on my door.
“It’s a plane!” came a yell. “One of the towers!
“They’re saying a plane hit an upper floor.”
“Which tower?!” I screamed. “Oh God, no! Which one?”
I opened the door to my neighbor Nate.
“Your husband!” he yelled. “Is he at work now?”
We ran down the block together. “No, wait!”
“What if he calls?” I cried. “I have to be home!”
The phone was ringing as I burst in the door.
“Alberto!” I gasped as I clutched the phone.
“Nicole,” rasped a voice I'd not heard before.
“We can’t go any farther,” he coughed.
“It’s too smoky … can’t see … can’t breathe … I’m afraid!”
“You’ve got to keep going,” I ordered him.
I heard crying and retching … then I prayed.
God didn’t hear me that day; he was busy.
The gates of heaven received a steady flow.
The sky turned black and rained down human ash.
Those souls floated free while we suffered below.
I walk these streets and I’m never lonely,
Surrounded by the living and the dead.
Everyone tells me to move back home.
I will not. Not till all my tears have been shed.
I have no desire to live by the sea
Where my merman will nevermore be found.
I had no ashes to scatter on our beach.
Here in this place, his blood cries from the ground.
This was really hard.
Not just the mechanics of writing rhyming narrative poetry … it was hard to write about 9/11.
I’ve never written about 9/11.
I had no right.
I wasn’t there. I don’t live in New York. I didn’t lose any friends or loved ones.
But as I was working on this poem, Zacarias Moussaoui was sitting impassively in a courtroom while people opened up their boxes of pain again. I listened.
Then the characters in my poem moved to New York to complete their story.