Poetry from Ruth E. Foley
followed by Q&A
Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me
She wouldn’t talk about the time she stole
a pin I had—some sort of cheap metal
stamped into a woman’s head, hair
flowing behind her, a mermaid swimming
through the breakers.
Or the shirt she wore
until it thinned and softened into
something a fragile thread away
from lint, the reds faded to pink,
the time I found it in her things,
when she said she had forgotten
to bring it back again.
Or the jar of beach glass
my grandmother had collected—mostly
greens, a scattering of white, the rarity
of blue, a single drop of red like
the blood I imagine falling on the floor
beneath her wrists.
The blood or lack
of blood, the pills, the vodka she might
have used to wash it down, or not—I
have to guess, don’t want to guess,
can’t keep from guessing.
I think it must
have been blood, somehow, pooling
underneath her turquoise blouse, rising.
Shallow but deep enough to float away on,
Inevitable and silent, her private tide.
I’ve lost the words for him—
Flood, I say. The thing that drowns
and carries me away, turns me under foreign
gardens. Detritus, I say, lost
and floating with me, equally drowned,
decayed, flecked into pieces too small
to bring language. Then Nothing, I say,
as if he didn’t have a name
to begin with, as if I never savored
its taste in the time before the rains.
Cream, I say. Stone. Eggshell. Sandpaper.
Other things are lost as well—the way
he once held my fingers in his mouth, the names
I answered to, the foot I slid
from its sensible black pump and pressed
against him underneath
the table of the finest restaurant in town
while the waiter took my order, filled
our water glasses. Pomegranate. Palm.
These things never happened. My eyes
never left his half-open mouth for something
better, unfamiliar. He never had
a name. Liar, I say. Salt. Straw.
Single raindrop in the desert.
Love Poem for a Celery Stick
If you provide
less energy than
you use, a girl
can hardly blame
you. It’s just
your nature. What
should I expect?
If I don’t
recognize you by
now, don’t remember
you, cool and
crisp against my
say you’re good
for me. They
say your sinew
should be enough
to fill me.
If I give
us enough time,
I find truth.
They also say
I shouldn’t like
you unless I
learn to fill
your hollow channels.
But I do.
I crave your
bitter bite, crave
your peppered length.
You shouldn’t be
enough tonight. You
are. You are
full of water.
And I thirst.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming in River Styx, Measure, The Ghazal Page, and Umbrella, which just nominated one of her poems for a Pushcart Prize. She also serves as associate poetry editor for Cider Press Review.
Q: What was the inspiration for these poems?
A: “Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me” is the hardest for me to explain of the three, in part because it’s the one I’m closest to. I think it’s common, in the face of a suicide (or near-suicide) to wonder what we could have done to intervene. We beat ourselves up for not knowing things that we really had no way to know. We have many reasons for not talking to each other—sometimes it seems easier to let things go rather than make an issue of them. Sometimes we don’t have the language, or the comfort level with the specific language that a given situation requires. In “Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me,” I wanted that lack of communication to grow to the proportions that were necessary to reach the suicide attempt. The list of things “she” would tell me is long and boring and probably pretty trite, but this other list, while incomplete, almost built itself.
“Anomia” is part of a series of infidelity poems—I write a lot of persona poems, and this one character worked her way into my head and refused to leave. It’s one of the last poems I wrote for her, when everything was over. I quizzed a bunch of writer friends while looking for the vocabulary for that one—I wanted sensual words that weren’t necessarily sexy (although some of them are). I collected hundreds of words and gradually figured out which ones were right.
I have a poet friend who was writing love poems for all sorts of crazy things during a poem-a-day challenge we were doing together. Another friend was working on a poem about the complexities of wanting things (and people) that are simply bad for us. Several of us were exchanging poems, and we would steal each other’s lines, or give them away, or just respond to someone else’s work. “Love Poem for a Celery Stick” came out of my response to that particular juxtaposition of poems and poets. I thought it was kind of funny, the idea of writing to something that’s supposed to be good for you, like celery, as if it were the wrong man.
Q: The role of shared language in ordering our lives is evident in your poems. What might this say to the difficulties of translation?
A: I deal with translation every day in my teaching, both because I am an ESL specialist (working largely with international and/or multilingual students at Wheaton) and because I’m a 41-year-old woman trying to connect with people in their late teens and early 20s. Translation requires flexibility in thinking, the ability to find multiple points of entry in the hopes of encouraging understanding, and the desire to communicate—these are all essential to all poetry, not just in translating poetry. Translation also requires a balance between the wish to communicate and the wish to understand, and I suppose you could say the same for all poetry on that front as well. Really good, powerful poetry in translation is even more difficult to come by than really good, powerful poetry in a native tongue.
That said, commonality of language can cause just as many issues as it solves. Sharing a language does not always mean sharing an understanding. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the variability of interpretation is what takes the craft of poetry—or any craft, probably—and raises it to art. I have a couple of poems about futility and loneliness that often get interpreted as being about love or sex. That used to bother me, but I’m fine with it now—once it’s on the page, a poem is its own creature. If I’ve done everything I can to present it the way it needs to be presented, I have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to see what I see in it.
I haven’t done a lot of work with translations, perhaps because it comes too close to the work I do on campus. And when I do work on a translation, the resulting poem is usually terrible. The poems I write afterwards, however, are often some of my favorites. I tend to see difficulty as a challenge rather than a deterrent, even when it would be wise for me to do otherwise. These challenges continue to stretch me as a poet, although, like with much stretching, it can sometimes leave me sore for a day or two afterwards.
Q: Tell us about beach glass…
A: Some people call it sea glass, I gather, but my family has always called it beach glass. It’s pieces of glass that have been worn down by the surf and the sand—you can find it pretty much any place there’s ocean and sand, although I don’t have a great eye for it. Much of it is white or green or brown (think beer bottles), but if you’re lucky you can pick some up in red or blue.
My grandmother owned a house on the Rhode Island coast, and I grew up spending one or two weeks every summer there with all of the cousins on my father’s side of the family (and without many of the aunts and uncles, because my grandmother was a mixture of crazy person and saint). My grandmother also largely grew up on the coast, so she had jars and jars of beach glass. When she died, my father brought home a quart mason jar full of the stuff, which I put into a vase on my mantle. There’s a large piece of turquoise beach glass in there, which I love, even though it’s not fully “cooked” yet—it’s still got a little bit of roughness around the edges. The ocean works its way into all sorts of my poems, and beach glass—sharp and possibly dangerous pieces of everyday refuse turned into something beautiful through the combination of erosion and loss and time—is so highly evocative for me that I have trouble keeping it out of my writing.
Q: What poems or poets do you consider formative inspirations?
A: Oh, wow. There are a lot. Thom Gunn, certainly, is a poet who isn’t read nearly as much as he should be. His poems are like magic to me, especially his way of finding the beauty in ugliness, or the ugliness in beauty. His poems in the voice of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer are horrifying and awful and somehow poignant and even lovely at times, against all odds and common sense. Those poems (which are included in his last book, Boss Cupid) also showed me how to put together a series, something that I didn’t really understand, or at least didn’t understand as deeply, before I read his work. Molly Peacock uses forms and formal devices in unexpected ways, and I like that, too—I like formal poems that sneak up on you, and I like free-verse poems where the choices are clearly as deliberate as those made in any well-written form. I like that a lot. Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals have been a huge influence, in large part because of that blurred line between formality and free-verse, and also because of his own relationship to language. I fell in love with Yeats pretty early, and never quite fell out. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” All of that—the rhythm, the word choice, the straightforwardness of it—shows up again and again in Yeats, often even in his more difficult poems, where he’s creating his own complex symbolism. I like Louise Gluck’s use of myth and am drawn to her spare language, although I can’t quite figure out how she does that.