NaPoWriMo, Day 19 (Day 26 for Everyone Else)

Today’s poem responds to Maureen Thorson’s “elegy” prompt. I’m grateful that her prompt put a purpose to this poem, which I started over three years ago in a workshop (led by the fabulous Nance Van Winckel) but hadn’t been able to finish satisfactorily. That’s because I didn’t know then that the poem was trying to be an elegy.


Ten years old in a mowed oat field,
I plodded through stubble beside
my much-taller father. His shadow

covered me like a low roof,
his black-oak shotgun slung between us
in the crook of his left arm.

My own shadow bulged heavy
with three dead pheasants in the canvas sack
strapped across my shoulder.

The first two hens had died from the birdshot.
The third was live and flapping
when our retriever brought her back.

My father, who had seen me cry
over the death of my pet guinea pig
and decided I needed toughening,

seized the moment to teach me neck-wringing
and made me use my own hands.
He’d always despised my vulnerability as a girl,

tried often to thicken my skin with ridicule
to protect me from greater hurt.
Tried, that day, to toughen me past grieving

by putting the feathered neck between my fists
and making me twist it down to strings.
What he achieved was to make me face

a different loss, begin my grieving
of something I never have succeeded
in bringing back to life.

17 comments on “NaPoWriMo, Day 19 (Day 26 for Everyone Else)

  1. sonofwalt says:

    I felt that. Not the neck wringing, that longer lasting pain. Well done. I also like that you said the poem was trying to be an elegy. This is something that not enough poets seem to grasp, or maybe it’s mostly the younger ones. They try to be clever and smart, and “say something,” or if they don’t put in a lot of Elliot allusions and Latin phrases, they try to be obscure, and difficult to prove that their art is good. Sorry, I don’t want to lean toward a rant here, but I think you have the idea of what Stafford said once, that a good poet is not necessarily a genius, but is someone who is able to tap into something greater that is already happening. I think following a poem to see where it wants to go is so much better than bending it toward my own ends. And I think I learn more that way.

    • Dave. Thank you for this. I hesitate to accept your comparison to Stafford, but now that I know he said this, I can wish for the type of wisdom he’s describing.

      I am glad I allowed myself to trust the process on this poem–something I don’t always give myself time to do. Twice in the past, I constructed wrong endings for it, but I sort of knew they were wrong, and set the poem aside as unfinished. Then yesterday, Maureen Thorson’s word “elegy” dropped down like that perfect Tetris shape, and I could complete the poem. You say you think you “learn more that way,” and I very much agree that’s how it is; at minimum, it’s always instructive to be rewarded for having patience. Cheers!

  2. What a great read for me to begin my morning! Great setting and impactive theme. You give me a lot to think about in the observation Jennifer. – Just a reallly good poem! Thanks

  3. Jennifer, your poem is brilliant and beyond poignant, and it is so evocative. Thank you so much for sharing this. Sincerely, Andy

  4. “My father, who had seen my cry / over the death of my pet guinea pig” ~

    Jennifer, you have “my” three times in these two lines. I’m wondering if “who had seen me cry” might serve your poem ‘better.’

    This is lovely, and a poem to return to again and again. All the best, Andy

  5. jik says:

    Acutely felt, acutely wrought. Elegiac.

    • Thank you so much, Judy. I had been about to head off to research more about what, traditionally, constitutes an elegy, but I think maybe I’ll go with your definition. I’m grateful to you.

  6. Just lovely…Your verse is always a delight Jennifer!

  7. Very visceral. And I love “… His shadow/covered me like a low roof.” I really get the picture of what happened in that field.

    • Thank you, Marilyn! I can no longer remember the particulars of the exercise that Nance Van Winckel led us through (it was so long ago), but it was those specific steps that produced the detailed setting at the beginning of the poem. I need to dig out the handout she gave us and work with those steps again, to see if they can help me get going on a new poem! Thanks for your kind words.

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