★ ★ ★ ★
Image by Inge Poelman
I Discover Geometry
I guide my carbon pencil’s point
through arc and line as I birth
elegant forms on fields of graphing paper:
tessellations and dilations. I learn of love, the great
transversal that creates congruence from disparate
beings. In school, I never master complex sums,
but still I learn. Slopes and arrows flood
my dreams as my body shifts weight,
drops its ballast of gravity into my pelvis.
My breasts and hips bend lines into curves.
Startled by the fast-changing landscape,
I conjure patterns on pages, a secret
inside my delicate arches: a face
beneath mine – antipodal points
caught within spheres of attractions.
Years later, I found the man I sought. My thumb
marks the nape of his neck, my fingers navigate
scapulae of his back, his nipple’s raised ridge.
My hands ride the concavity of his lower back, angles
of knees and elbows nestled together, as fluidity
open to possible worlds, damp hair pressed
against his hip. In time, our breathless gasps subside.
We fall toward sleep, embossed on wrinkled sheets.
We have weathered broken space, parallel lives of discontent,
skewed paths to learn fidelity is less a ring than a Mobius strip.
What little I knew of love’s fierce geometry.
Children’s Park by London’s Imperial War Museum
Like a widow outside a circle of wives, I watch my son play
as the other mothers, who’ve grown old together in tower flats,
eye me. One brings me tea in a chipped cup
from the mother shack, and we talk, though my accent breaks
as discordant notes on her Cockney ear. She carries my news
back to her crow-eyed fold. I am a mystery queried a moment:
a daguerreotype of a dead aunt in her Sunday best
a bronze visage on a foreign coin, too far removed
from the day’s laundry piles and thin soup to matter much. Chill
of October surprises with its sudden arrival outside
this mausoleum to empire that jails bedlam under brocade
and hushed paint. Near its iron gate, a last rose
holds its own against the onrush, so I press my face to it,
hear grandma’s song, sweet with its honey of lullaby, here
in this country she loved and despised, its queen, its reach
that clawed its way into her mother’s house to claim
a son. I am a child that suckled at the breast
of resentment. Some here would pen the likes of me
in wired camps, death traps, workhouses for the poor
another stolen generation. But I walk these streets free,
my boy in my arms, knowing our suitcase lives
will not end in this grey whale that swallowed a world
and then spit out what it could not consume.
Blossoming from the crumbling remains
of Petey, our dead family cat
an overpowering stench
neighbors blamed on the gingko —
inside his ribs, pennies fell into wells
as our daughters wished for his return.
Deep in the green copper of words
are missives I wrote, but never sent.
Carload of kids, you in the driver’s seat
tie askew, wearing that look I dread.
Snap to synapse, the gap
between neurons, the miracle of us:
How it keeps. How it keeps.
Loma Prieta Quake, 1989
I reach toward a cantaloupe
and tremors begin. Shocked
by my weightless arms
I whisper, Where’s the baby?
The floor undulates
beneath my feet. Pinned
to a pillar, a store clerk pleads
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
Yesterday, at Children’s Hospital
David and I sat in a hall, fingers woven
with worry, our baby’s skin
bright copper. Forced to stop
nursing, my breasts engorged
and our freezer filled with my milk.
We imagined our TV campaign:
begging strangers for money
for baby Nicky’s transplant. Now
I silence sound as glass cracks,
ceiling tiles creak and snap,
the three of us nestled like Russian dolls.
Later, we will drive through Oakland
past the Cypress, our old route home
its snapped and twisted steel bones
its pancaked decks, its spray-painted rubble:
DOA and an arrow
Body 2nd Car
and only occasionally the word alive.
Q&A with poetry Mary Brancaccio
Describe your “writer-self” in three words.
Curious, open-minded, adventurous
What is the most challenging aspect about writing for you?
Stopping the critical voice inside my head. It’s difficult for me to create when I’m beating myself up about my work. A good friend of mine once gave me a fridge magnet with Ernest Hemingway’s picture and a quote attributed to him: The first draft is always shit. It was her way of telling me to be kinder to myself when I write. It’s something I have to constantly consider.
The other side of that coin is knowing when to stop revising. While I think some of my best work has evolved in the revision process, there are other poems that needed very little work to be ready to be published. I can tinker so much with a piece that I lose its energy and freshness. So while I think there’s much to be gained from re-envisioning a piece or taking writing to a deeper level, I also need to be careful not to overwork my poetry.
Where, when and how are you inspired to write?
Inspiration is unpredictable. Once I was on a train on a hot summer evening and a woman in the seat in front of me started eating a pear. The smell of the pear immediately reminded me of my mother, who’d I lost to cancer. I wrote a poem on that train ride. I’ve had lines come to me because of something I spotted. Once when teaching on Ash Wednesday, images of my students with ashes crossed on their foreheads gave me the closing line I needed for a poem that I’d been struggling to complete. Inspiration can come at inconvenient moments, like when I’m driving in traffic or waiting in line at the bank. I’ve written lines on the back of deposit slips, on utility bills, in the margins of office memos. I did that for many years when I wasn’t really writing finished poems.
The natural world is important to me because it gives me space for thinking and draws my attention to the hear-and-now. I find it’s a powerful impetus for loosening the creative energy within. I walk a lot, which has a similar effect.
Sometimes my curiosity or fascination with a topic inspires me and that finds its way into my writing. I spent one morning reading articles about the hypothetical mining of asteroids for rare metals, and sure enough, the concepts and language snuck into a poem I later wrote. Gotta love those internet wormholes!
I find when I feel restless and irritable, it’s often because I need to write. I am either putting it off, or I don’t have the time to write. Eventually, I am overcome by a tide of emotions, and I just have to sit down and write. When I write more regularly, that internal tension has less control over me.
What are you reading right now?
On my nightstand, I often have something written by Thich Naht Hahn. Right now, it’s Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. I usually read several books at the same time, jumping from one to another and then back again. It creates interesting cross-pollinations in my brain. I just finished reading Michael Garrigan’s River, Amen. He is an ecopoet from Pennsylvania. In his book, he grapples with questions about faith (like me, he was raised Catholic), anchoring his spiritual explorations in the metaphors of fly-fishing. His diction, imagery and musicality are impressive. It wasn’t a book I expected to like, but when I read his poem about infertility, I found myself deeply moved. It was so vulnerable, beautiful and sad. Reading Buddhist philosophy while reading Garrigan’s book meant I picked up more quickly on his spiritual journey from Catholicism to Eastern mysticism.
I’m also reading Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Both writers write their truths in language that is forceful and exacting. Their work gives me much to think about, both as a poet and as an American. And I’ve been slowly making my way through a new translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. I love reading the dual translation because it improves my German.
Best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Dig deeper. I remember Jean Valentine reinforcing that during my MFA studies at Drew. She was right. The best poems come from really deep dives into the questions we struggle with, or the secrets or suffering we seek to repress. Gregory Orr wrote that “silence makes us the victim of our experiences, not the master.” My stronger poems tend to evolve from journeys that go farther than I knew I was going. My weaker poems push to easy conclusions, strong finish lines that sound good, but stop short of revealing anything. Those are moments where I am hitting an obstacle, often a silence caused by fear, or shame or humiliation. Or a sense of powerlessness. Pushing through those blocks is how I fight
those silences and heal.
Deep dives require being incredibly honest with yourself as a writer. Writing deeper work requires exploring one’s own pain. Take grief, for instance. Understanding my grief over my mother’s death in all of its intricacies led me to a better place in the end. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I think real wisdom is hard-won.
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
Your words, your experiences are valuable. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. And find a mentor. When I was first writing poetry, the publishing world was dominated by men and by male fixations. I remember worrying that I couldn’t write a good poem because I’d never been to war, I’d never killed anyone, I’d never been in a bar fight. What a terrible world I inhabited! Poetry written by women was denigrated, our topics seen as too light, not significant. Now, I am happy to say, more and more women are finding audiences and getting their poems published. And I think that’s making us as a society more open to explorations of both the heart and mind, of emotions. Women were silenced for so long. I didn’t have the courage to write about my experiences as a young woman—sexual harassment, abuse and assaults. I wished I had had a woman poet who could have mentored me as a young woman. It might not have taken me so long to write my first book.
Which poet or character from a book/movie would you invite to dinner and why?
This is a tough one because there are so many that I love. I’d want someone who’d be a good conversationalist, someone who would enjoy exploring ideas, someone who’s experiences would be enlightening. I think that some of the poets I like wouldn’t be very talkative. I remember conversations I had with Jean Valentine—she was a wonderful person to talk with—her experiences and her spiritual and philosophical explorations make her an ideal dinner guest. But I would also love to talk to Gwendolyn Brooks about poetry, art, America’s harsh history, and how we might go forward. I love her writing, the power of her poetry. I think I could listen to her for hours.
Tell us about Fierce Geometry, your poetry collection. What was the inspiration behind it, and how would you introduce it to our readers?
Fierce Geometry is a concept that is behind my use of imagery in the book. I reference images that form arcs, lines, circles whether when looking at alluvial fans and dried salt flats in Death Valley, California or tracing the arc of a comet across the night sky. I invite readers to look for those images as they read.
In Los Angeles in the late 1990s, my family had the pleasure of meeting geometric abstractionist painter Edwin Mieczkowski at a seder dinner at the home of Judy and Gordon Davidson. Ed had the children, and then the adults, create illustrations using just lines and circles that intersect. We had a terrific conversation about seeing the world through a geometric lens. Perhaps that fed my perceptions of the world I saw—I’m willing to give him full credit for the inspiration. If you look at his work, you’ll see a fierceness in his geometric paintings. They are breathtaking. They capture much of the complexity of our world in
images. And the beauty of images is that they can often say more in pictures that we can define in words.
My book is not meant to be read as a primer on geometry, but as an exploration of the intricate beauty as well as tragedy of human existence. When I think of my life, I imagine it as one of those rock formations in the American West that has been etched by wind, fire, and water. I think of those forces as being like the events, encounters, experiences that have shaped me. Any life, over time, will be marked by love, by things we yearn for but which remain out of reach, the losses of people we have known and loved. I have tried to write honestly about my experiences. There’s pain and suffering in there, but it’s also a book about healing and resilience.
Mary Brancaccio’s first full-length poetry collection, Fierce Geometry, was recently published by Get Fresh Books Publishing. Her poetry has appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Minerva Rising, and Edison Literary Review, Adana Literary Journal, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Brancaccio’s poetry is also included in Writing the Land: Maine and Writing the Land: Northeast, as well as two international anthologies of poetry. Brancaccio has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University. Her website is ghostgirlpoet.com.