An exercise in thievery

I am not a poet. Though I love to read poetry, though I’ve studied it for years, and though I’ve written it (badly) for even longer, I have no idea what I’m doing when I attempt to compose in verse. I more or less understand the structure of prose and how to revise it, how to bend it and reform it until it takes the shape it needs. But with poetry, I’m at a loss. I’ve said this before, but unless a poem comes to me fully formed, it remains in the half-finished state in which it was first written because I haven’t a clue what to do with it after.

Sometimes, if an idea or story needs to be told in a poem, but I’m not sure how, I decide to “copy” the form of another I admire. This usually means borrowing the structure, either loosely or completely. There’s a poem by Charles Simic called “Clouds Gathering” (read it here), which I’ve loved for a while, and when the concept of a poem came to me last week, I knew Simic’s was the one to mimic. It’s a little like copying the long leaps and graceful pirouettes of the lead ballerina in dance class—the poses will never be your own, but you feel more on track for moving this way nonetheless.

Altars Mounted
after Charles Simic

It seemed the thing to do.
Building monuments to all we wanted.
Glistening gold facades.
The bended knee and bowed head of demands.

One day, however, we caught ourselves
Praising the wrong god.
Like a fever-dream craving of medicine,
When what we’re after is a cure,
The shudder of too much,
The dry-tongue, raw-throat thirst of never enough.

We were back to where we started, alone.
Why always this unrelenting spiraling of stairs?
Altars almost too steep to climb
Mounted in cathedral of holy fire and blue smoke,
The water trembled as it touched our fingers.

Night seized the room, hot breath of wind snuffing candles.
We went blind, and a great crack thundered in the darkness,
The clang of precious metal on marble church floor.
Mary in the window looking on.