—after Alfonsina Storni, Argentina, 1892 –1938
I’m reading a book on how to live and wondering if it’s true
that loving someone transfigures everything.
I doubt if anyone truly loves.
They just infuse all things with themselves and move on.
I might grasp the subtle order of existence if I could learn
how some people never let pain shadow their souls.
They seem to easily navigate the vortex of changes.
I’ve seen them calmly reading in diners while eating.
My life moves quickly past me as that’s how everything moves.
The river has been rising for weeks; should I put my boat in?
I know what matters most is a recognizable shoreline,
but sorrow has clouded familiar landscapes.
If want to learn, finally, how to live, I’ll have to allow
these red rain boots to take me somewhere.
He caught me by the scruff and captured my breath.
I wondered: from what ancient ocean did he arise?
I knew someday he’d ruin the sun
and leave even the sea gasping for air.
We spent our first summer in a room with no windows.
We imagined villagers outside, dancing around a bonfire.
The moon grew lace that shadowed her light
and the flames became a jewel ringing like a bell.
The second summer a wind from Africa blew in, disturbing the curtains.
The noise comforted us at night.
Ghosts of dead girls bent over the house
watching us dance under chandeliers.
I’ll still be here after he gets everything wrong,
when trash and tears are rivers of flowers.
I know he’ll leave me for a new lover;
in his wake, a shimmering haze.
Not all women have wings—some spend all their time
on the ground.
These loves have disintegrated me.
I’m ready to inhabit another country altogether.
She wanes gibbous.
He shimmers silver.
The portal is created.
She posits a path,
exits with weapons,
descends penumbral steps.
The harbor in darkness
is sacred acre,
altar of ritual sacrifice,
sister and friend,
bed and magnetized circle.
More liquid than solid,
she startles the Sirens
awake amid breakers.
Under velvet firmament,
her coral flesh floods.
The shoreline just visible.
Twelve hours out,
she never existed.
* * *
Biographical note: Alfonsina Storni was born in Switzerland in 1892. She moved to a small town in Argentina with her parents when she was three. At fourteen, a few years after her father died, Storni went to work in a hat factory while her mother earned a living from sewing. Around that time, she began writing poetry. Her move to Buenos Aires, and foray into the literary community there, was occasioned by a pregnancy and the desire to avoid gossip: she was 19 and in love with the father, a married man unwilling to leave his family. Her first book, La Inquietud del Rosal / The Restlessness of the Rose, was published when she was 24. Four well-received collections followed. Despite her successes, her frank, experimental (for that time) work was often met with critical opposition, even scorn. In 1935 Storni had a radical mastectomy; the cancer returned in 1938. At dawn on October 25, 1938 she walked into the sea. A few days earlier, she had mailed the last poem she wrote, “Voy a Dormir’ / “I’m Going To Sleep” to La Nación magazine. In my poem “after” her, I tried to incorporate the details of her life as well as her attitudes toward love. The first section is an unrhymed sonnet because that was the form she worked in. The form breaks down as the poem moves toward its end.
Mini-interview with Sharon Mesmer
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
SM: Wow. It’s hard, honestly, to pick one. Every day is full of formative moments! If I have to pick just one, I’d pick this one: In 1997 a Japanese literary magazine based in NYC put me up at the Chelsea Hotel for a week and told me to “have experiences and write about them.” I decided I’d include some interviews in my piece—like with the hotel manager at the time, Stanley Bard, and poet/playwright/librettist Arnold Weinstein, a longtime resident—and I also called Allen Ginsberg to see if he’d share some tales. Allen had been my MFA teacher and advisor at Brooklyn College, and he was always generous and obliging with my many (annoying, I’m sure) requests for recommendations and blurbs, and he remained a mentor after I graduated. He was out of town when I phoned, but called me when he got back; unfortunately, I’d already turned the article in. However: I should have interviewed him anyway about something else, for another publication, because he died two months later. This shaped me as a writer because it taught me to look at all the angles of a situation, to discern where I might find a surprising boon for myself and others. The whole time I knew Allen there were so many things I wanted to ask him, or talk to him about. And I discovered over the years that that “lesson” applies not only to life situations, but also to my writing—it reminds me to look deeper into my lines, whether poetry or prose, to find the surprising image or music or meaning there. So, even in dying he taught me something important. (Like: if I’d been more creative in my thinking, I would’ve conducted the very last interview with Allen Ginsberg!)
HFR: What are you reading?
SM: I’m working on a memoir about my three-year, post-concussion mental breakdown (and how I got through it without medication), so I’m reading—or re-reading—a lot of books about the brain, traumatic brain injuries, mental illness, memoirs of breakdowns and other illnesses, etc.: Where the Roots Reach for Water by Jeffrey Smith, Down Below by Leonora Carrington, The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, Anxiety by Allan Horwitz, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker, The Ghost In My Brain by Clark Elliott, Poets on Prozac (edited by Richard M. Berlin), Darkness Visible by William Styron, The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke, The Undying by Anne Boyer, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide by A. Alvarez, Bittersweet by Susan Cain, Black Sun by Julia Kristeva, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison (also her Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament), Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes … and that’s the short list! I also re-read The Bell Jar because even though it’s technically a novel, the experience paralleled mine (though with different antecedents). I found Memoirs of My Mental Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber inside a Little Free Library in my neighborhood! My model texts for style, and the perfect marriage of content and form, have been Diana Goetsch’s This Body I Wore, and Anne Boyer’s The Undying.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Like So”?
SM: That poem is actually the end of an underworld journey that began with the breakdown I just mentioned, snaked through the 2015 AWP conference, and ended with a poetry manuscript. Being at AWP is always fraught for me, but that year more so because I was still dealing with brain issues. I mainly hung out at the book fair, but being there led me to a fantastic discovery: at the Tavern Books table I found a poetry collection called The Fire’s Journey / El transito de fuego by the Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio. I fell in love with book and poet, and later published an essay about Odio in American Poetry Review. As I worked on the essay, I was dismayed that there was so little information about Odio on the internet. I had to order a lot of books—no grant to cover expenses, by the way—and one of those books, Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (edited by Stephen Tapscott, University of Texas Press) contained poems and a short bio of Alfonsina Storni—that’s where I discovered her. I also discovered, in that anthology, other women poets who deserved greater notoriety: Delmira Agustini, Julia de Burgos, Gabriela Mistral, Violeta Parra, to name a few. The lives of these brilliant women were tragic: Agustini was murdered by her estranged husband at age 27; Parra shot herself in the head; de Burgos literally died on the street in New York City. The anthology contained this bio note for Alfonsina Storni:
Depressed and in bad health, she walked into the sea in October 1938.
So, I had to find out more about her. She was 46. Her first book was published when she was 24. Her poems were frank and passionate, ahead of their time. I began to wonder: how had I survived, when those women hadn’t? I knew that during the breakdown poetry had sustained me. Now, I decided, I could use poetry to communicate my gratitude to these women for bringing beauty into the world—and to me, in a dark time—despite their despair. I Googled their faces, printed their images, and pasted them in the Tapscott anthology next to their selections. I read their work, stared into their eyes, and made notes. I ordered more books. I incorporated details of their lives into the poems and followed their themes and diction. I felt like I was following a breadcrumb trail. One day I realized I was creating a manuscript dedicated to thirty-five “underknown” women poets, from Canada to Chile, 19th century to now. I’m calling the book Even Living Makes Me Die, after a line by Agustini. “Like So” was the last poem I wrote for that book. I plan to write more.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
SM: As mentioned, the memoir of my breakdown, called Black is the Beauty of Brightest Day (a phrase from Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine). I chose that phrase because those three years were so hideous, so terrible, but also terribly beautiful, when I look back on them now. Somehow, I got through them without medication. And not because I’m anti-medication, which I’m not, but because … well, that’s the question I’m asking with the memoir: how did I survive that season in hell without medication? And what can I convey to other people who are suffering?
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
SM: Maybe just one piece of advice: Flood the world with beauty. Whatever that means to you. Because we really need it. That’s all!
Sharon Mesmer is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and teacher. Her most recent poetry collection, Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books), was voted “Best of 2015” by Entropy. Other collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch, The Virgin Formica, Half Angel/Half Lunch, and Vertigo Seeks Affinities (chapbook, Belladonna Books). Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013).She has also published three fiction collections, The Empty Quarter and In Ordinary Time, both from Hanging Loose Press, and Ma Vie à Yonago, from Hachette in French translation. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine/The Cut, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Purple, Commonweal, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. Her awards include a Jerome Foundation mentoring award (grantee: Elisabeth Workman) and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. She teaches at New York University and The New School and lives in Brooklyn.