Poetry or Dramatic Monolog?

by Mara Jebsen

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In 2006, when I had finished my MFA; when I had completed a poetry class with a famous professor I worshipped; when I had absorbed the fact that despite my increasingly panicky efforts to write a true good poem I had not only not been anointed but had not even been remarkable within the small class, I shut down completely. This shutting-down lasted almost a year, and it seemed to signal some real weakness of character. A real writer would not stop writing just because she had not been chosen by a professor. A real writer would just write.

But I didn't. Then, slowly, I did, but with a strange tic. I had to draw a line down the center of a page so that it was made of two columns. In the thin columns I could write strange little stories in the voice of someone like myself. They were emphatically not poems because I could no longer write poems. But they had to stop at the line, and so they were not exactly stories, either. I filled several notebooks with these little things, all the while still worrying that I was not writing, because I did not think I was writing. The pieces–I don't know what to call them–seem to me to be written by a woman named Lita. Lita has since become a minor character in a play I am writing about ex-patriot family businesses in West Africa. At some point in the play, she throws away her manuscript. It falls into the audience. Here is one of the pieces that falls.

In Which I Try to Tell A Frenchman What It Is Like To Grow Up Here

We lived near the ocean,

But it meant very little.

Almost Nothing appeared on the horizon

That thing just sliced

Your dreams crossways. Did you know, Alexandre

It’s the only straight line in nature, besides

The plumb line? I’ve heard

They credit geometry to sea-side peoples

Because of a circle’s enormous joke . . .

The rest of the world is a dance

Is a series of arabesques,

And who would have guessed

At the use of straight lines,

That they’d behave

So predictably and that the earth

Would fall under the sway of men

Enthralled by a magical stickish order?

————–

I mean, Alexandre, the numbers men, the enlightement ones

Who drew our national borders. . .

Build and kill and tally

One banana 2 kilos coffee, I saw

Three ships come sailing in. . .

Which men? You grandfather, Alexandre

And mine. . .

On Sundays my family walked by the ocean

One black man, one white woman

One brown child, and me

I’d wish the ocean would split

Like they said in the Bible.

We could pile right out of the country together

Us and our cousins and aunties and the elders

Barefoot on avenues made of holy sea-bed:

Seashells, colonial bones, slave-dust and shark blood.

We’d walk for Deliverance. Exodus. Either sense.

. Deliver

Us, we’d cry, from

The monotony of our heartsick twilights.

Our perfect oranges rotting on high boughs.

Deliver. . .

And there were deliveries.

Occasional ships, lumbering

Iron creatures, bearing Sardine

Tins from Europe. Dutch-made powdered

Milk. Our coffee gone chipped and sold

Back to us by Nestle. Our evening stews

Flavoured with beef bits and salty chemicals

Arriving on slow night ships

From other, shinier places . . .

You ask, did our bloods run any differently because

Of foreign-bought liquors and salts?

Is still don’t know, I know only

If Papa had not

Had to whisper political hopes and terrors

In closed courtyards,

And the nights not been crossed

With bored and stupid young military men

He might not have been so made of iron,

I might’ve Gone out, I might

Have worn clothes fresh like the 90’s,

Danced to Shabba Ranx with a nice fine boy. It

Was all of a piece, When I say

“All of a piece” I mean

We often woke in the morning

To news of new forms of political terror

Crackling from black radios over our breakfasts,

And when I washed myself

From a yellow plastic bucket I saw

The specter of the fat man of the photographs

His dictator-face dictating dustily from

Sad post-offices and banks

Oh he was stuffed with something, that magic

animal-man

I’d run a washcloth along an armpit with hairs

Just starting to show, and think how’d I cut him

Clean in two, until French-bought fiberglass

Surged and fluffed out from his chest

And the puppet-marbles of his eyes

Clattered the floor. I wasn’t

Alone. What I mean by “all of a piece” is

On a bad day back then

Young girls considered murder, even

As they bathed.

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