WHM distrusts poetry and dislikes time travel narratives. So guess what he just wrote!

Image of a jar of pickled tomatillos
Photo by Angela Morris

return to preserve that perfect moment
return with a crust of salt, a cloud of smoke, a cube of ice, a cruet
of vinegar, a crock of butter
of duck fat
of varnish
of piss

return again with

a clear glass bottle in which to carefully rebuild it in miniature (but not out of matchsticks–of sensory details and flickering images and elusive feelings and
you don’t know what
because it always
just as

return again with

a dictionary in which to press it (the one you used in college bound tight with
your grandmother’s belt–the one with the extra hole punched in it
her waist
was tiny
and it was a man’s belt but she wore it anyway because it was sturdy and made of good leather
which she oiled religiously, and your mother didn’t know what she oiled it with when you asked her so you used leather conditioner which you
bought at a saddle shop
even though you knew that your grandmother would have scoffed at
such extravagance
or at least that’s the story you always told whenever you wore it)

return again with

a jar of sugar in which to nestle it in the hopes that it will speckle the granules with its essence as it fades (which it always does which is why it must be
constantly renewed
even though
the expenditure of energy required to do so is immense,
your reserves are burned to fumes,
and it’ll take years to build them back up again)

return again with

a bottle of gin in which to soak it (the acrid, desert smell of juniper replacing the fresh sharpness
of birch trees–a swap of sensory detail that corrupts the memory only a bit and in the right direction, which you know now
you think you know now
you can’t remember–even though you have returned
again and again)

return again with

a bucket of formaldehyde in which to plunge it
as if extreme measures were all that were left to you
as if the puckered slick thing you come back with is meaningful
as if the fumes rising from it didn’t clog your nose and prickle your skin and blind your eyes with tears (and you are aware that surely by now the controls must need re-calibration, but you can’t change the process–too much depends on keeping everything the same even if that same is veering off course
what if you over-correct your re-calibrations
what if veer so far off course you can never return again)

and it’s not that it never works—it’s that it never works quite right (and never for long enough)

the mind is peat, permafrost, silica, calcite

a bog for drowning
a tundra for burying
a desert for sinking

the mind is a ruined book, a yellowed ruff of pages

the mind is a minor playwright’s half-completed masterpiece filled with country bumpkins and withered vicars and lost sea captains and way too many cousins

the mind is an epic poem all fragments and heroes–all fire, ill winds and mistaken identities

and each return is a second too late, a minute too long–
you fill the kitchen counter until it’s slimy with
blemished fruit
fit only to jam
not a single one that optimal ripeness that bursts sweet and tart
and so fresh with life
you could savor it, devour it forever

it’s never that forever
the one with salt stinging your skin; smoke perfuming your hair, fat
glossing your lips
it’s the one
where you return again and again and come away with
hardtack and jerky
pickles and preserves
and they only last so long
before you have to go back again


Artists probably shouldn’t comment on their own work. But I want to interrogate my reaction to this poem because it was a strange thing for me to write. See, I posted a line to Twitter that I found evocative. Not an unusual practice for me. The line was: a crust of salt, a cruet of vinegar, a cloud of smoke, a cube of ice. I thought about that succession of images and thought, hey, there’s something there, and dutifully copied the line over to my big list of story ideas. My thinking was that perhaps I could build a short story around it where each line was a section of the story. Or perhaps four variations on a story. But then the thing kept gnawing at me, and the first stanza came to me, and I couldn’t let go from there. I had to play the whole thing out. What makes this strange to me is that I really do have a distrust of poetry. And I dislike time travel as a narrative device. I don’t write either and don’t read much of either. It’s not so much that I refuse to as that I avoid both genres as much as possible. Which is a stupid thing to do. But I have my reasons. Which are:

Distrust of Poetry

I think I like poetry. But it’s hard for me to know how much I like most poetry because I distrust it. When I read poetry, I do not dive into the text with an open heart and mind. This is not because I was traumatized by grade school or high school teachers who over-mystified or over-analyzed poetry. Nor was it because college lit classes burned me out on it. In fact, my distrust of poetry grew after I started writing fiction. I think it’s because as I became aware of the rhetorical tricks of fiction, I became even more attuned to how poetry’s concentrated, intense efforts are intended to capture the reader (however meagre my own powers in this area may be). Poetry is spell working. Or to put it another way — I distrust poetry for the same reason I distrust film: because it uses atmospheric, powerful sound (and soundtrack) and striking images to manipulate my emotions. I mean, all art is trying to do the same. It’s just that poetry is so in your face about it. And that makes me distrust it. Which is a stupid attitude, I know, but even though I’m aware of it, when I approach poetry, it’s very hard for me to do so in an unguarded way. The distrust interferes with my experience of reading poetry, which means it’s a self-reinforcing barrier. Which means I don’t read much of it. And I certainly don’t write it*.

Dislike of Time Travel Narratives

Time travel messes with the causality endemic to narrative. I suspect this is why some people like it. I suspect this is part of why I don’t. Although I don’t think that’s the entire reason because I like work that messes with narrative conventions. Meta-fiction, flipped narratives, strange points of view, ambiguity — I’m cool with all that. So I suppose that part of it may be simple snobbery: time travel is too often reached for as a trope and too often it is deployed clumsily. But I think there’s something else: time travel stories inevitably become about time travel itself. Because time travel is impossible (or functionally impossible) according to our understanding and experience of physics, when used as a plot trope, it’s always having to justify itself (or awkwardly, blatantly ignore the need for such justification). It’s so inelegant a device (in most writers hands).

What Happened as a Result of Writing preserve

Writing this poem has reminded me that I’m definitely not a poet. Poetry—real poetry—-is difficult. Because I’m not a poet, I rely too much on repetition (of sounds and images). Those techniques are fine if used sparingly in poetic prose. They’re not the most sophisticated techniques when used in poetry. I lack that ability to find a perfect image or line and so overcompensate with a profusion of them. More importantly, I’m not good at laying those images out or twisting them up in a way that adds extra meaning to them. Oh, and: really good poets are remarkable with their transitions. Good transitions are difficult in prose — they’re incredibly difficult in poetry. I also suspect that a good poet would have been able to avoid the use of second person or used it in a more interesting way and would have been more thoughtful about line breaks. But I’m not a good poet, and I doubt that poetry will be a regular part of what I write in the near future.

Nor do I think I’ll be using time travel narratives in my fiction anytime soon. I do think I better understand the appeal to the writer. Narrative is history. Fiction is memory. Time travel messes with history and memory. Writers live to mess with stuff. And yet I still think that time travel stories tend to be about time travel itself and that’s not something I want to engage with at the moment. Memory and history are important to me — but I’m more interested in how they work in, how they haunt the present of the narrative.

And yet: while the poem showed me my limitations as a writer and gently reinforced some of my literary prejudices, what I can’t escape is that once I committed to the concept, the puzzle of working through the final form the initial idea should take was interesting and fun. This is a mundane observation, but I’m going to make it anyway: strong preferences (likes and dislikes) are important for artists. There are good reasons and strong forces that cause artists to specialize. But I wonder if sometimes we (especially when we = newer writers) limit ourselves unnecessarily. I’m not a poet. It’s not something I want to be. But that doesn’t mean I should avoid poetry. Two years ago I wasn’t a novelist and claimed that I was agnostic on the matter of ever writing a novel. I’ve since written one. If you asked me today, I’d tell you that I am not fond of memoir/personal essay and can’t see myself ever engaging in that literary form (and, honestly, that’s a form I’m going to continue to resist). I also have no desire to write horror, westerns or about the singularity. That’s not a bad thing. Most writers must specialize in order to be successful. But sometimes it feels good to be a dilettante. To try on other forms and genres and see how they fit. To discover that maybe you aren’t as fully formed as you thought you were.

Of course, if I was really committed, I’d start reading more poetry. Any suggestions of where to start with poetry from the past 5-35 years**?

*The exception is that I have written poetry that appears within the text of prose fiction, but it’s different when it’s in that context. And it doesn’t happen often.

**I’ve read the 18th to early 20th Anglo/American poets rather broadly and a few of them deeply (Rilke, Blake, Donne, Dickinson)