Traffic for the blog has picked up again a bit after its summer slump, but I’m still going to be presenting a few more of my own poems before returning to our usual presentation of other authors’ words. One thing that this does is allow me direct access to the poet’s intent, so today let me pull back the curtain and discuss what choices I made and what I was trying to convey in this sonnet that is part of a series I’ve done this year about a family dealing with one of their members with Alzheimer’s disease. The main characters so far are the older woman with dementia and her middle-aged daughter. The mother has transitioned to a Memory Care Unit as her dementia has increased.
Here’s the text of today’s poem, “Smells,” so that we can follow along line by line as I discuss what I was trying to do and how I chose to do it. For today, for length reasons, I won’t talk as much about sound-music choices. Maybe another time for that.
The August after-rain smelled of rot and growth
where it dropped drought leaves on the lawn.
And by the garage door a bug had left its
solar-boat sarcophagus molt on the door frame,
implacable as any statue. Then down the block
the young dog walker looks at their phone
while the dog sniffs longingly at the weeds
tufting a stop sign. On to the MCU.
It smells today of urine just in the door;
and the mother asks again if she can leave —
which they do only for a walk. They pass
a bee garden, which has a sign “bee safe.”
The mother laughs. The daughter smiles.
She can still recognize a pun — its
Even though the poem follows the consciousness of the daughter character, the first three images of the poem were taken from things I observed myself on August mornings this summer. It can be chancy imbuing personal thoughts on a character when the character may jump across gender, age, or other boundaries from the author — but the alternative of not making that leap and to attempt to invent outside of the body and consciousness the author lives in risks as much if not more.
The first two lines discuss a dichotomy or dialectic: in this summer’s drought, when we had a short rain, it actually stripped the just hanging-on leaves off of some trees rather than greening their canopies up. Oddly, there was an autumn/spring smell from this, that, as the poem says, included a bit of decay and a bit of fertility in the air. The poet here hopes the reader can feel this moment of loss and change from these images, and as the poem develops remember how they may reflect on the other events.
It’s remarkable how the winged cicada can emerge and yet leave this detailed casing behind so intact and empty.
Lines 3-5 include the second image, another dichotomy, an inert and lifeless thing left from an insect’s life-cycle and change. I sort of piled on here with the Egyptian allusions in line 4, and I questioned that. First off, not everyone has any interest and knowledge of those historical myths, and I’m calling them in without deep expertise in that. My hope here is that neither does the reader need more than superficial knowledge. As an inconsistently educated American I see these leftover bug shells, so lifelike and yet empty, and marvel as they often call to mind the Egyptian use of insects in their iconography. Once more this is nature’s change, even growth, though with evidence of loss intentionally invoked. I think too that subconsciously I was referring to the Jewish tradition of mezuzah devices on doorposts. The traditional mezuzah contains verses from Deuteronomy invoking the supremacy of the godhead, meant to remind all that pass through doors that we may come and go, but that something else is eternal.
As an author I often find that images like these present themselves to me as images first, and I need to ask myself what they mean or potentially mean. I collect the image, and the poem to use them in follows. My expectation here is that such images are richer than ones simply ginned up to decorate or explain by simile something in a poem, but the risk here is that they may not seem similarly meaningful to a reader. How many notice something as odd as leaves falling in August instead of later Autumn, or intact cicada shells except empty of their insect, or recalls particulars of old Egyptian or Hebrew iconography?
A casual, quick reader will just see these things as time-wasters, dawdling until the poem says something. I’m putting some trust in my readers here.
The final image of the sonnet’s octet is perhaps more universal. I could see it as a New Yorker cartoon or cover, and it’s common enough that I suspect that someone has drawn a cartoon meant to make us smile at this combination: a dog smelling for scent markings left by other dogs’ urine while the human at the other end of the leash is checking something else for connections to others of their species. The opening two images are ambiguous, growth and loss. I’m hoping the reader smiles a bit at the third, assuming they pause a bit to consider this combination of the dog and human.
The octet ends with the information that the daughter is seeing this while getting into her car and then driving to the MCU, the Memory Care Unit. I worried that by itself the abbreviation will be puzzling but saw no way out inside the structure of this sonnet. In the series,* the MCU acronym should become familiar.
At line 9 we link from the comic scene before it to a more concerning one regarding the message that the MCU smells of incontinent folks further along in their dementia. Line 10 introduces what will be a re-occurring motif in the sonnet collection: the mother wants to leave the MCU, but her increasing confusion while still being active and mobile makes it necessary that she be in a constantly supervised, structured, place for her safety. The daughter and mother get a walk and make yet another nature observation: a garden intentionally meant to attract pollinators with a whimsical sign. When the mother laughs, the daughter is reassured that at least for now, the mother still understands the concept of a pun, and once more the tension of the situation is sweetened with humor.
Just as I was making the version of the sonnet shown above I decided to leave the poem’s final word on an indented line continuation. My intent here was to make the reader stop and consider why the poem ends with “accident.”
What does this poem mean by that or mean in its entirety? I occasionally get asked that and I’m embarrassed to find myself tongue-tied, unable to do anything more but burble something inane. I am somewhat aware and can articulate (as I did above) what each image or event in the poem is intending to convey, but the whole thing? Ah, err, well, a….
A confident artist would say that if I could convey the combined intent of a poem, even a short poem —perhaps even more so with a short poem — what the combination of words and their sounds and sequence means with a prose paragraph or three, that I wouldn’t have written it as a poem. I’m not being coy or secretive when I say that — it’s just that a poems indirection and sound music undercurrent means differently than a prose explication means. The foreshadowing nature images here should mesh with the events of the last six lines, and the juxtaposition allow each to illuminate each other and the reader.
“Accident” is the end word to make us consider that just as a pun makes us laugh at the coincidental double meaning of a word-sound, that the infliction of the indignity of Alzheimer’s and our accommodations as sufferers or caretakers to deal with it are not punishments or acts of evil.
My performance of my sonnet “Smells” is available with a player gadget below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.