Christine Robbins writes about her poem “Wake.” You can read “Wake” in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review and by clicking here.
A few years ago, the poem was two stanzas and less than a page long, with a uniform left margin. It was titled “If we’re saved by what we can’t leave.” We keep a flock of pigeons in a loft behind our house, and if they are released too early in the spring, they become meals for the hawk and peregrine falcon. The poem was about these birds and the tension between being responsible for others’ safety, but also for their freedom, and possibly even their joy.
I have a fair amount of angst around “keeping,” but my concerns were more submerged in this earlier version. The poem expanded to over four pages with more white space, shorter lines, and a back and forth swing to the stanzas. I had been playing with a form that would allow room for two voices, or the braiding together of two or more poems that felt somewhat flat to me, as this original did. But the right justification of alternating short stanzas evolved into a much-needed space for my own voice to contradict itself.
This form became so compelling to me that I haven’t used another since. I think the stanza movement provides room for something unwieldy to drop into the poem and maybe alter the meaning of a word as it’s approached from a different angle. Also, the original version felt more like an artifact – the lines were the result of a creative process that happened elsewhere, and this poem documents the process on the page. It’s messier, and I hope it has more of a pulse. It’s also more vulnerable – I’m leaving more of myself on the page. I think the poem gains urgency in the process, and I want this, but it also engages more of what I’m only on the edge of understanding myself, and the diminished control feels riskier to me.
I find the idea of decomposition compelling, and the poem circles this concept – as organic matter, but also as the concept of un-writing. A being can never un-be, and words can never be taken back – not really. I am aware of my ambivalence for declarative sentences, but I’ve also been thinking about how urgent they can be in a political climate that continues to threaten the existence of so many people. I tend to claim questioning as a stance, or even an essential part of who I am, but that can be taken too far. I also need to know what I can definitively say, and it is important to me to stand behind those whose lives are at risk. When we are not safe, we need to know who is with us. I am also watching for the “I,” and aware that everything I see in others comes through my filter and I am accountable to this lens.
For the last eight years, I have had progressive trouble with my mobility and speech. It is probably not surprising that my lines have grown shorter as my capacity to physically and verbally move across space has diminished and become more halting. I am aware that the poems I’ve written recently are almost all long. If I have the floor, I have a lot to say. But it is also relevant that I don’t know why I have this trouble – I don’t have a diagnosis, and this contributes to my desire to look at language from different angles. My own language is altered from a speech disorder, but language itself might alter my perspective, if I ever learn the word I do not yet know. And since I do not have certainty (and really, do we ever?), could I wake up tomorrow and run? Will this unnamed thing kill me? Is it all in my mind?
One thing is certain: I do not want to waste time. Which means, I want to be accountable to the people I love, and in a smaller way, to this world of people. I want to write what I’m compelled to write. I want to be free to name my own mistakes. I want to be awake.
In addition to Cream City Review, Christine Robbins has been published in journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Poetry Northwest. She was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and she lives and works in Olympia, Washington.