Poetry

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Maidenhood

by Lionel E. Deimel

 

While passing by, I chanced to see

A maiden in her sitting tree.

 

How strange, a damsel there to spy,

So nearly hid from prying eye—

 

A girl ensconced in leafy cage

Who’d not yet learned to act her age,

 

Whose long, bare legs were hanging free,

Whose eyes stared past and over me.

 

Her breasts belied her childish pose,

As, with each breath, they fell and rose.

 

How came that girl to perch there so?

I cannot tell; I do not know.

 

Tree

 

Not surprisingly, this poem was inspired by a girl—probably about 17 years of age—sitting in a tree. She was not alone, having a friend standing beneath the tree, but the situation gave me an idea. I never considered explaining why the girl in the poem was in a tree, but I toyed with hinting at it or with suggesting possible motivations. In the end, I did neither. The poet’s job doubtless is not always to provide answers, though I sometimes worry that I offer them too seldom, which may be a sign of cowardice or lack of imagination. (See, for example, “Sunday Afternoon.”) In any case, in this poem, I wanted to preserve the mystery. The poem was written April 17–18, 2004.

I elicited many interesting observations when I subjected this poem to the literary scrutiny of friends. One was that “Maidenhood” is written in the same meter as Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” (My poem is a sequence of fairly strict iambic tetrameter couplets, whereas the Kilmer poem deviates from this meter in a few lines that I have always found troublesome.) This was a bit surprising, as the poem began as a series of irregular lines that went through several transformations before taking their final form. I gave no conscious thought to “Trees.”

Shortly after I wrote the poem, I took a copy to choir rehearsal and showed it to my friend Michael Plaskett. As it happened, Mike delighted choir members by rehearsing a song that he was scheduled to sing the following Sunday in honor of Earth Day, a once-popular setting of the Kilmer poem by Oscar Rasbach. As I listened to Mike, I realized that my words could easily be sung to the same tune and that, in fact, both poems have twelve lines.

The next day, I sent an e-mail message to Mike about these various coincidences and received in reply a poetic response to “Maidenhood” (and “Trees”) that caused me to break out in laughter. Mike kindly gave me permission to reproduce his poem here:

I think there's naught I’d rather see

Than some girl perched up in a tree

With dandling toes and calves of tan.

I might become her biggest fan.

With breasts delectable and pert

She’d catch my eye; I’d hope to flirt.

But at my ripe old age I’d be

Downright invisible, and she

Would stay, complacent, in her tree

Without a thought of fools like me.

The poem Mike responded to was slightly different than the version above. My friend Christopher Wilkins provided a long criticism of the original poem, and he raised particular issues he thought I needed to deal with. When I presented “Maidenhood” to my writers’ group, I also offered a proposed revision. Some of my substitute lines were well received; others were not. I struggled with the poem for several days, completing the version above on May 15.

Here is the original version of “Maidenhood”:

While passing by, I chanced to see

A maiden sitting in a tree.

 

How strange to spy a damsel there

Among the branches, in the air—

 

A girl within a wooden cage

Who had not learned to act her age,

 

Whose long, bare legs were hanging free,

Whose eyes stared past and over me.

 

Her breasts belied her childish pose,

As, with each breath, they fell and rose.

 

How came that girl to perch there so?

I did not ask; I do not know.

The more I considered this version, the more dissatisfied I became with the first three couplets, and particularly with the third line. My concern was mostly with meter, although readers had mixed reactions to “wooden cage,” and I had some ambivalence about it as well. I found revision difficult, but I like the final result, which adds to the mystery of the scene. I particularly like the second line, which is less literal than the original one, though I also worry that it is not literal enough. I changed “wooden cage” to “leafy cage,” which seems to have less connotation of involuntary confinement, an idea that was never intended. Notice that I changed the last line as well, though the difference between the two versions is subtle.

— LED, 5/17/2004

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