In the Margins
I’m eleven, sitting on the front stoop of our split-level with my Mead notebook on my lap, watching the last of the sun color the sidewalk. Palm leaves paint blue shadows on our neighbor’s stucco wall, and I tune my ears to their rustling, splitting the sound from the din of freeway traffic and airplanes.
It’s after dinner. Dishes clatter from the kitchen, where I know chores wait. The air is cool and the sun is sinking fast.
I lean forward, watching light and shadow, tuning sounds in and out until a word comes, then another. I watch-listen-write, watch-listen-write. When it’s too dark to see, I go inside, chilled and grinning to myself.
I’m twenty-something, in the field before the workday begins, fog hanging low to the ground. I hold a beat-up spiral notebook I found at Goodwill for a quarter. My hands are tired, cracked from planting and harvesting and weeding all summer. I pull a nub of pencil from my workpants pocket and make a list of what I see.
purslane growing under the corn
sunflower heads ripe with dry seed
seagulls circling overhead
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Sometimes.” I pay attention mostly to the urgency of watering schedules in summer heat, the ratio of perlite to sand in the seedling mix, the weight of berries on the scale as we divvy up CSA shares. I’ve been regularly astonished this year, working on a small farm and watching green leaves crack open seed shells and claw through soil. But the hours I have for telling about it are thread ends on a spool—just after dawn, my muscles tight with work and sleep or dusk, my arms, weak with fatigue.
broken edger blades
It’s three or four in the morning, and I’m somewhere between dream and consciousness. In the haze of half-sleep, I’m watching words form on a page, but I can’t tell if it’s my own hand moving the pen. Then I’m awake, grasping after those very same words as they slip away.
I run into the living room, fumble for pen and paper, and scribble as fast as I can, kneeling next to the couch in the glow of the streetlight through the window.
The next morning, I wake early and grab the paper, a wrinkled junk mail envelope. My handwriting is large and loopy in the gray light of day. I take out my notebook and work quickly, shaping the vestige of dream into a poem about longing for a child—something I’d been unable to express for months.
I’m at my desk in our spare bedroom. It’s August, and I can hear my daughter babbling happily in the kitchen with her babysitter. Hop little bunny, hop hop hop, the babysitter sings, and my girl claps her hands.
I tune in briefly to her small voice, then tune back out, glancing at the digital clock in the upper right corner of my computer screen. Forty-nine more minutes to write.
Stack the minutes up, and what do I have to show for it? My current manuscript is no more than a sheaf of pages. In my closet, there are banker’s boxes filled with over two decades of notebooks, draft after draft after draft—many false starts, many discarded.
This is the truth. The poem that reaches completion most likely began as an exercise, a dashed-off note on a receipt, a cursor blinking over a Word page on a Thursday morning when I can make a case for doing just about anything else. Few and far between are the experiences of sudden inspiration: being seized by an image, line, or voice and led straight into a complete poem.
The more I write—even and especially when I don’t want to or don’t have “enough” time to—the more I learn as a poet, and the better my poems become. After twenty-plus years of writing, I have more drafts than finished poems, but they are poems I can stand behind. My notebooks are evidence of my practice: the log of a life spent learning to shape words around breath and light and sadness and growth.
Melissa Reeser Poulin’s poetry appears in Water~Stone Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, Ruminate, and basalt. She holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University. She co-edited Winged: New Writing on Bees, an anthology on the relationship between humans and honeybees, a limited-edition book of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction from 36 new and established writers. Proceeds benefitted pollinator conservation and education efforts.
Check out her poem “Sunflowers” also released today.