Lucy looks in the mirror and sees
a lidless eye. A hole of lye. The herpes sores the nun’s slide show
glowed before their fourth grade horror. Sees hairless cat. Trash
bag a raccoon teethed open, (if I don’t eat for one whole week,
she bargained, if I stitch my lips—) its Kool-aid pool ant-stuck
second draft //
a lidless eye, hole of lye,
the herpes sores the nun’s slide sho
glowed before their fourth grade horror.
If I don’t eat for one whole week,
she bargains. If I stitch the lips, glu
each opening. Lucy sees the hairless cat,
trash can the raccoons teethed open, its Kool-
aid pool, ant-stuck and sunning.
first draft //
and sees skinless face. A hole of lye. Bargains,
if I don’t eat for one week. The herpes sores the nun’s
slide show glowed before their fourth grade horror, hairless cat,
trash bag a raccoon teethed open, its Kool-aid pool, ant-stuck and
Lucy is afraid of the place where disease takes hold: the site of rot and shame: it’s unclean and she hates it. The nuns at her Catholic school, who are really the nuns from my elementary school St. Joan Arc, show the students slides of genitalia oozing crusts of pus-blood. After that, Lucy sees horrors in the mirror and vows to never eat again. The major revision I made to this poem involves Lucy’s promise to starve: I stuck her vow in parenthesis and used it to rupture the raccoon and ant image, which enacts how the nun’s slide show ruptured Lucy’s ability to feel safe in her body.
Girlhood's Dark Energy
I had imagined Lucy as an amalgamation of me and my girlhood friends, though I don’t know anyone who tore her dog’s fur with her teeth as his yelps sequined the room, and I never met a girl who built a terry-cloth house and named it tumor, and I didn’t feed worms to my sister or tell her that six-pack rings murder sea turtles. After reading a handful of my Lucy poems, my friend Mike said that she “embodies the dark energy of girlhood.” Though many of Lucy’s thoughts and actions are based on what happened to us, just as much about her is invented. In other words, Mike’s comment was an “aha” moment.
We held a few drops of hope in our bodies but mostly we were made of hurt and rage: the usual culprits of white suburban girlhood—date rape, absent fathers, mothers who pause while chopping vegetable, stare with blank eyes out the window. We smoked cigs behind the tracks; hickeyed each other’s arms to “practice”; spray painted “fuck Jesus” on the front wall of St. Michael’s church in all our originality; drove past the strip mall’s neon glow and danced to strobe lights and techno.
Sometimes, Lucy seems 8 or 10; other times, as old as 16. Once, she grew horns from her forehead; another time, she became “the beloved blonde, a party’s favorite streamer,” which is to say I don’t know Lucy’s age or appearance, don’t know where her shame began or why she hates her mother. Her story doesn’t matter to me: it’s her voice, her energy that I am mining.
Like so many young poets in their twenties, I had been writing biographical, coming-of-age poems and they’d been mostly good, with some decent images and original turns of phrase, but the poems were nothing special. Then, while visiting my folks in Ohio, I sat in their parlor to write and a girl named Lucy started praying her mother would die in a car crash, and she pressed a Reddi-wip nozzle till her mouth filled with sugary relief, then went to bed where vampires raped her in her sleep. I had discovered a body into which I could pour the dark energy of my girlhood: I had found the voice. After that, the poems came quickly and easily, some only needing one or two drafts. Though my earlier, more strictly biographical poems, had needed 10, 15, even 20 drafts, Lucy often arrived nearly complete.
What no one ever said in the many workshops I have taken is this: the point of revision is not always to perfect that particular poem—it’s to develop a closer relationship with one’s aesthetics, which is a fancy way to say what you like and don’t like, which simply means what you keep and what you cut. Once I had developed that intimacy with my aesthetics, Lucy was able to arrive and stay largely unrevised and largely spontaneous. Yes, I make cuts and additions; I tweak or re-order the phrases, but the core of each poem mostly stays intact. She’s a whole voice, a finished girl—
Claudia Cortese has two chapbooks: a collection of Lucy poems, Blood Medals (Thrush Poetry Press, 2015), and a collection of lyric essays, The Red Essay and Other Histories (forthcoming from Horse Less Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have found homes at Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and Sixth Finch, among others. Cortese lives in New Jersey and is the poetry editor for Swarm (swarmlit.com).