Lucy plays her favorite game
on repeat: watch the news of Jessica lifted from the well. Rewind
slowly, return her to her hole.
first draft // Lucy's class watches a video on the machine
we call oil rig. She thinks, wasp. Hand that pricks the stitch in and out.The earth’s cavities.Their empties. Stepping on a crack never broke any mother’s back, so Lucy walks the grass strip from school to home, plays her favorite game on repeat: tape the news of Jessica lifted from the well. Rewind slowly, watch her returned to that hole.
In the first draft, Lucy watches a video in school, walks home and decides to re-play her favorite shot of Jessica lifted from the well, rewinding slowly and returning Jessica to her hole. While revising the poem, I realized that everything before Jessica was fluff: the heart of the piece is that Americans sat glued to their televisions in 1986, praying for little-girl Jess to be saved. She was the baby girl America rescued—a rescue clothed in hypocrisy since America rarely shows that kind of concern for girls of color and, in general, America mostly hurts its girls.
Lucy wants someone to save her, to love her—to be cradled by the man-arms of an officer as cameras record her rescue. She wants her pain performed on televisions across the country, though she’d cut anyone who tried to touch her. The image of Lucy restoring Jessica to her well captures Lucy’s (as well as America’s) contradictions: she desires hurting others but really she wants to hurt herself. She returns Jessica to her hole because Jessica’s helplessness disgusts her, and yet Lucy wants the same sort of rescue. All these contradictions are embodied (I hope!) in one simple moment: she rewinds the video. The poem doesn’t need anything else.
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 vegetables, 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’s chapbook of Lucy poems, Blood Medals, is forthcoming from Thrush Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2011, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, and Sixth Finch, and her lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review and Mid-American Review, among others. Cortese lives in New Jersey and is the poetry editor for Swarm (swarmlit.com).