In Celebration of Poetry Month: Two Poems about the Making of Poetry

In Celebration of Poetry Month: Two Poems about the Making of Poetry


(for Lois Sasson)

“Sometimes you don’t have no control over the way things are. Hail ruins the crops, or fire burns you out. And then you’re just given so much to work with in a life and you have to do the best you can with what you got. That’s what piecing is. The materials is passed on to you, or is all you can afford. But the way you put them together is your business. You can put them in any order you like. Piecing is orderly.” – An anonymous woman quoted in The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art

Frugality is not the point. Nor waste.
It’s just that very little is discarded
in any honest spending of the self,
and what remains is used and used
again, worn thin by use, softened
to the pliancy and the translucence
of old linen, patched, mended, reinforced,
and saved. So I discover how
I am rejoicing slowly into a woman
who grows older daring to write
the same poem over and over, not merely
rearranged, revised, reworded, but one poem
hundred of times anew.

The gaudy anniversaries.
The strips of colorless days gone unexamined.
This piece of watered silk almost as shot with light
as a glance he gave me once. This sturdy
canvas shred of humor. That fragment of pearl velvet,
a particular snowstorm. Assorted samples of anger–
in oilcloth, in taffeta, in tufted chenille,
in every imaginable synthetic and ready-to-wear.
This diamond of tie-dyed flannel baby-blanket;
That other texture of deception, its dimensional embroidery.
A segment of bleached muslin still crisp with indifference.
This torn veil of chiffon, pewter as the rain
we wept through one entire July. These brightly printed
squares across which different familiar figures
walk through parks or juggle intricate abstract designs.
Two butterflies of yellow organdy my mother cut
when I was eight months old. A mango gros-grain ribbon
fading off toward peach. The corner of an old batik
showing one small window that looked out on–what?
A series of simple cotton triangles in primary colors.
And this octagonal oddment: a sunburst or mandala or pinwheel
radiating rainbow stripes against what turns out
upon close inspection to be a densely flowered background.
It’s striking enough to be a centerpiece.

Once I thought this work could be less solitary.
Many of us, I imagined, would range ourselves
along the edges of some pattern we would all agree on,
well beforehand, talking quietly while we worked
each with her unique stitch inward to the same shared center.

This can still be done, of course, but some designs
emerge before they can be planned, much less agreed on,
demand an entire life’s work, and are best viewed upon completion.
And then, so many designers bore too easily
to work the same theme over and over, with only
the slightest gradual adjustments, like subtly changing
your thread from brown to gray.

Still, the doorbell does toll in visitors, some of whom
slash rents across the section just perfected
–all without meaning to,
and some of whom admire the audacity or quality
of scraps–but rarely notice the order, which is
the one thing you control. But some contribute:
a quarter yard of paisley, or a length of gauze
fine enough for bandages. Once somebody left behind
an entire pocket of gold lamé, all by itself.
The challenge is to use it so
that the tarnished griefs she stuffed it with
to lend it shape need be no longer hidden.

Throwing such a piece away is not the answer. Nor
has hoarding anything to do with this.
And nobody really hazards piecework in the expectation
That someday all these fragments might inevitably

into a gentle billow of warmth, to comfort
the longest winter sleep.
Not even that.

It’s just the pleasure of rescuing some particle
into meaning. For a while.

Of course, this means that you yourself
Are placed where you risk being
worn all the more severely
into translucent linen, held up
toward the light.


Two thousand years ago, the Chinese
Princess Tou Wan designed herself
a burial suit which would preserve her
body for all time. This armor,
a mosaic of jade fragments tied
with pure gold thread, is still intact,
untarnished, the moss-blue veins still subtle
in contrast to the bright metallic arteries.
Within the shape of her own mold, Tou Wan
is safe as dust.

Birth is the mortal world,
life the infection entering in,
love is the fever, truth the chill.
Age forms of the scab dying alone rips free.
Some pick at it every day
while others try to soften it
by soaking in salt water. And some
do wrench it off with one swift motion.
Art lies in the x-ray, as you might have guessed—
the whole story in negative,
the diagnosis, treatment, relapses
and remissions. Unless this record is misfiled
or overexposed.

Outside it’s raining catatonics and dogmatics.
Inside, inside the room, inside the cover
of the cage, inside the cage itself, inside the head
under the hunched wing, the eyes of the poem
tick, unblinking, in sockets of oil.
When the cage cover is removed, everyone marvels at
such spontaneity of song.

Both the above poems first appeared in Depth Perception: New Poems and A Masque by Robin Morgan (Doubleday, New York, 1982), and were collected in <Upstairs in the Garden: Selected and New Poems 1968-1988 by Robin Morgan (WW Norton, New York, 1990). Copyright Robin Morgan All Rights Reserved.