Thursday, May 05, 2005

Behind the Curtain: “Archangel”

Now and again, I like to lift the curtain and talk about how a poem was constructed, where the ideas came from, and so on. If, like Sam, you prefer not to have poems explained in this fashion, you may want to skip this entry.

Today, I'm going to talk about "The Unacknowledged Archangel", which I posted a few days ago. You may scroll down to re-read it, or see a "postcard" version here (with collage by Dr. Omed). I want to look at this poem because two different people whose opinions I respect had a very positive response to it. In fact, both offered to publish it.

In addtion to the poem's publication on this space and in my postcard archive, it has also been published in Dr. Omed's Poetry Salon, and will be published in the Long Islander. And my question is, what made it so good?

Is that a legitimate question for an author to ask? Can't make lightening strike twice, and you never step in the same river. But — doesn't hurt to inquire.

Let's begin with inspiration. The first two lines came from a report which aired on NPR's All Things Considered on April 21st. It sounded like the reporter said "After he lost his face, he couldn't speak. And when he tried, few had the patience to try to listen." As you might imagine, that first sentence caught my attention. I had the feeling a poem was lurking under the surface.

Well, I carried that line with me for a day or so. Then I thought of other words that might sound like "face" — the obvious ones being "faith" and "fate". That's when I came up with the rhetorical device of stating a period of time, then some quality that was lost, then the consequences of that loss.

A little over a week ago, I decided I better write all this out before it got lost (up to this point I was just playing with lines in my head). I started writing the thing in my e-mail program (I often e-mail works in progress to an account I can access at work). I had a feeling structure of the poem would be quatrains, but I wasn't sure how to fill out all the lines. So I used x's as place-holders, thus:
After he lost his face,
he could not speak.
And when he tried,
few would listen.

When he lost his faith,
he could not sing.
His path was littered with ashes.

Soon, he lost his fate,
and he walked like a free man.
He breathed stars into the daytime
and xxxxxx
There it sat in my e-mail program for about a week. On Monday of this week, I decided it was time to fill in some of those blanks. I pulled it up and typed in some results for the losses in the second and third verses.

I was stuck on the final quatrain. I was so tempted to fall back on one of my common devices — something or someone would dance. But I felt like that's become a bit too predictable. So I quickly stole an image from Bertolucci's Little Buddha - "Each footstep, a lotus flower." If you have not seen the movie (recommended), there is a scene in which the infant Siddhartha goes walking, and flowers bloom where he has walked.

I wasn't sure that last line was satisfactory. In fact, it seemed almost as much of a place-holder as the x's. But I chose to e-mail it to Dr. Omed and George Wallace. Doing so seemed to require a title.

A few days after that report on NPR was another report about people in a homeless shelter or mental institution, one of whom claimed to be an "unacknowledged archangel". It seemed a good working title.

I kind of expected both of them to make suggestions for improvement. Instead, both asked to publish it, saying they really liked it, or that it was excellent. I figured that if it worked so well for them, there was no sense tinkering with it.

And here we are. Seems to me the rhetorical device I mention earlier helps hold the work together, as do the "a" rhymes in face, faith, and fate. The last two stanzas mirror each other: the light images of stars, daytime, and flowers are the reverse of the dark images of a coal mine and ashes. There may be a narrative stream here, or even a moral, but it is not overt.

And I'm not going to spoil it by suggesting what that stream or moral might be.

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