Poetry

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The Conversation

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

I long had known her family,

Observed her many beaus;

I’d watched her as we both grew up

And seen her highs and lows.

 

I thought her the epitome

Of grace and charm and poise—

A friend to all the girls she knew;

A siren to the boys.

 

Though we were on familiar terms,

We seldom were alone,

For I was just a teenage kid,

And all her friends were grown.

 

She was a kind of sister who,

For many years on end,

Was more than just a stranger but

Was never quite a friend.

 

We had a conversation once

About our shared concerns

That, as we sat upon the couch,

Took unexpected turns.

 

We spoke of home and family,

Of politics and food,

And as we talked, our tender words

Bespoke a trusting mood.

 

I said I thought I loved her, and

Her answer punched my gut:

“I’m not sure about my feelings;

I can’t make a promise, but ...”

 

Plant with hearts

 

This was a hard poem to write, not for psychological reasons related to content, but on purely mechanical grounds. I found it difficult to find appropriate rhymes, and I had a hard time structuring the verses to tell the story I wanted to tell. In particular, I went through several revisions trying to clarify the relative ages of the principals without seeming too heavy-handed about it.

Even more difficult was the matter of setting up the conversation itself, preparing the reader for the last verse, which was actually the first verse to be written. Whereas the version above takes two verses to set up the climax, the original poem had but a single, somewhat inadequate verse:

We had a tête-à-tête one day

On family affairs

And shared our thoughts with honesty

That took us unawares.

I had never been completely comfortable with the final verse. This verse originally read:

When I said I thought I loved her,

Her words hit me in the gut:

“I’m not sure about my feelings;

I can’t make a promise, but ...”

This verse had myriad flaws, with corresponding constraints that made it difficult to remove them. The meter of the first line was inconsistent with the rest of the poem, yet I could not find a way, for example, of ending on a stressed syllable. My primary concerns involved the second line, however. It did not scan well either, and it was constrained by having to rhyme with “but,” a nonnegotiable for the poem. There are limited possibilities here, and words like “peanut” clearly had little potential. “Gut” seemed indelicate for the poem generally, and the line I had put it in did not, as they say, flow trippingly off the tongue. I considered lines ending in “what” (not-promising), “clear-cut” (missing the point), and “cut” (suggesting conflicting ideas). I seriously considered lines ending in the latter two words, but I was not really satisfied. On the other hand, recasting the line to use different rhyming words expanded my thinking of how it could be structured. When I returned to considering the use of “gut” at the insistence of reviewers, I found that I was able to achieve a more acceptable meter. I first used “struck my gut” instead of “hit me in the gut.” It was not until I introduced the word “punched” into the line, however, that I thought I might have found the right solution. The line became more vivid without seeming too crass. Perhaps the final line is not perfect—I would like to describe the reply as “breathtaking”—but it conveys the intensity of feelings evoked. To lead into the revised line, I reordered the first one a bit, adding “and” on the end. This put the right number of syllables in the line, though in a slightly defective meter. Perfect poetry is an illusive thing!

And, yes, this poem, too, is autobiographical. The story is one I attempted to tell before, but this was the first time I was able to work it all out. As for how the story ends—this poem concludes with what clearly is another beginning—all I need say is that my last poem, “Voyage of the Heart” is about the same young woman.

In case I did not achieve the clarity I intended, let me explain that I was smitten by someone who seemed, in my young adulthood, impossibly older. (I actually was somewhat older than the poem implies.) Neither of us had ever hinted at any interest in a romantic relationship, and I cannot recall anything that might be construed as an intimate conversation between us having taken place before the one described in the poem. As we got more deeply into truth-telling, I decided to disclose my feelings, and I did so without the slightest expectation—and probably without the slightest hope—that such a declaration would be taken seriously. What I heard instead was an acknowledgement that our romantic involvement would seem surprising and unconventional—the young woman was the older sister of my best friend, a detail that seemed an unnecessary and complicating fact in the poem—but that there was enough mutual affection to justify seeing where it might take us. I’m not sure that either of us were being very practical at the time, but I certainly was excited in anticipation of what might be. I would like to think that she was, too.

I worked on this poem for about a week, finishing on 3/5/2006. I made several minor revisions thereafter, completing the poem on 3/10/2006, after my writers’ group convinced me that my reservations about the penultimate verse were well-founded. The help of a couple of friends outside my writers’ group was essential to polishing this piece to my satisfaction, and I am very grateful to them for it.

— LED, 3/10/2006

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