I dreamt last night that I was moving out of my house. The new owners were arriving in the morning and I was checking to make sure nothing had been left behind. First I found an unemptied desk, then a closet, then whole rooms overlooked. The dream grew, unfolding itself into an array of incredibly detailed items nearly forgotten, and in a panic I rushed back to every house in which I have ever lived, only to find them still filled with my family’s things, as if they had been left suddenly without explanation.
It was not a difficult dream to decode. The previous evening my husband had commented on the overflowing file boxes in my closet. When I first began writing poetry, someone suggested that I save every draft of my poems in order to get a sense of how the drafts evolved and cohered into a poem. And so I began meticulously labeling and filling manila folders for each poem in progress – a habit I have found difficult to break. The boxes continue to accumulate, despite what I considered a ruthless culling while writing my thesis and first collection.
Phil gently mentioned that at some point I might want to look through them again, salvage what I could, and perhaps weed out a few of the weaker non-starters. A good suggestion, but one that struck me as overwhelming – the kind of task likely to expand exponentially once the lid was lifted and the sorting began: all those desk drawers, closets, rooms, and houses… In my dream, I desperately salvaged items based not just on what was meaningful to me, but on what I guessed my children and their children might find of interest. And many times, those decisions (in our writing as in life) have to do with the glimpses they offer of who we were and how we lived. In a poem, these glimpses are often not central to the poem – and so, easy to forget – but become more valuable as the poem moves further away from the time and place of its writing.
I am thinking at the moment, of poems like Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” and “Mending Wall” – poems that explore large ideas and question our shared human experience, but also fascinate me in their moments of domestic detail. The fact, for example, that at one time in a particular place, deceased family members, including those children who didn’t survive infancy, might be buried in a small plot on the family’s property in graves dug with the help of neighbors. And that some of those neighbors may not be particularly friendly, including those who hold to the belief that ‘good fences make good neighbors’ while patiently re-building each spring the walls of boulders loosened by frost-heave, but who are there, nevertheless, to help in these shared tasks.
Very few of us will experience our losses in this way, but Frost captures the experience of loss itself in poems expansive enough to include us without omitting the specificity of his own time and place. So much of our writing struggles with detail: what to include that reaches toward and connects with readers outside our own experience, and what to weed out that is more likely to distract and become irrelevant over time. Not easy to do, or even attempt. These poems that are rooted and enduring, inclusive while specific to a place, a time, but not to you – at least, not specific to the you that is the “I” we each cling to, but to the you moving in tomorrow, the you who came before us and the one already loading up boxes and signing a lease that we know nothing about.
Virginia Smith Rice earned her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her first full-length poetry collection, When I Wake It Will Be Forever, was published in 2014 by Sundress Publications. Her poems appear in Cimarron Review, Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Meridian, Rattle, Stone Highway Review, Superstition Review, and Third Coast, among other journals. She is co-editor of the online poetry journal, Kettle Blue Review, and associate editor at Canopic Publishing.