Earlier this week, I went to a poetry reading, and the next morning, I began writing a poem–but this poem was not so much the result of being inspired during the reading as it was the result of being inspired during the dinner that preceded it. One must never underestimate the material that can be gleaned over plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits, especially when one is in the company of creative people. Phrases crop up that resound like a bell in one’s center, like the title of this new poem, “From Soup to Vermont.”
I don’t remember who uttered this phrase (it might’ve been me), but I do remember that when someone said, “That should be the title of something,” I called dibs. And because I called dibs, I had to use it, preferably before my dibs grace period ran out and the phrase went back on the table, up for grabs. I have no idea how long a dibs grace period lasts, so I figured I better get cracking asap. And since some rebellious part of me is evidently trying to become a fledgling poet, I have given the phrase a home in a poem.
I once heard Bonnie Jo Campbell give a talk in which she said it was perfectly fine to steal stories from people’s conversations and lives, so long as those people weren’t writers themselves. Well, the person I’ve stolen this story from is a writer, but I’ve decided that calling dibs on a phrase means I also get dibs on the story it was born from. Plus, as is my tendency as a fictionist, I have taken many liberties with said story, using it as more of a springboard, and pulling in details from my own life, as well as others’. I even stole a line from an unrelated conversation with another writer. So basically, this poem is a hodgepodge of thievery.
And I’m finding myself getting defensive about it–not because of the thievery, but because the thievery means that this poem is not “true to life,” at least not entirely. So I’m feeling the insistent need to ask readers to separate the speaker and the poet, all the while wondering why readers (myself included) almost always assume that the voice in the poem is the voice of the poet. Did we not do away with this notion in the Romantic period, when the likes of Wordsworth and Shelley began employing the dramatic monologue, if not before? And yet, to this day, we are too quick to assume, not just that the speaker and the poet are one, but that the poem is also nonfiction. Why? I don’t have an answer. Being primarily a fiction writer, I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for poets, though I am now getting a taste of it myself. Clearly, since I seem to be very riled up about these common misconceptions.
So with all of that taken into account, and without further preamble, here’s the poem. It’s not all me, but it is some of me–for instance, if anyone wants to take me to Vermont, I’m all for it.
From Soup to Vermont
by Jessica Lynne Henkle
I have a cold, and you invite me to your house and make soup: carrots
and potatoes steeped with chicken in brown broth, leeks rising like
seaweed to the surface of my bowl. I sit on the couch and take
sustenance from your hands, delighted to be cared for. You place
a buttermilk biscuit on a plate by my side, and with it, suggest a
trip to Vermont. I feel the edges of every bite of food in my mouth.
Logic says there should be mileposts from soup to Vermont–half
a dozen three-course meals, just as many if not more kisses unburdened
by clogged sinuses. Perhaps a day trip by car to the coast. This is only
our third encounter, but I, like you, fall too easily in love, am too eager,
when I feel something soft brush up against me, to stop and burrow into it
with all of my being, to dive heart-first without cumbersome prerequisites.
But I’ve been silent too long now, and you blink, turn away. And I am left
wondering–did I imagine Vermont? I don’t know, so when you return and
take the cushion next to mine, I tell you of my dream to visit India. What I
don’t say is, in the dream, cultures and continents confused, I see us riding
magic carpets over pyramids. So much space between your carpet and
mine, and I wonder how to span such air and distance–when you reach
out and take my spoon, bring a bite of sickness-addled soup to your lips,
swallow, ingesting my germs. Just like that, and I relax in the embrace of
your sofa, cradled by the arm. I see a cabin and fireplace, pine trees doused
in snow. I look at you and want with all I am to say, Yes, but for now, I stay
quiet, this unusually cool night. I glance out the window and pretend that
bright star, which may in fact be a plane, is our one magic carpet approaching.