Doing the Research

Today’s poem was written in response to a rather wonderful discovery I made a few weeks ago: there’s a Lake Gillian on Baffin Island. Best of all, the lake has a wonderful shape, almost human. Satellite imagery on Google Maps shows a mixture of hills and shoreline surrounding the turquoise water. I showed it to my husband and he immediately said I should write a poem to it.

I did, but it turned out to be such a bad poem, I’m embarrassed to show it to you. However, that’s what this website is for, so here it is:

First version:

She is spread like a lake, the map showing
the rough edges to those who would walk
her boundaries. All areas are open water
but many could use portage’s weight to hold
them down or they’ll drown like she
did, a body floating at the bottom
of a body. Only the most careful
of divers can reach her, after having
their hearts checked, the water that far
north is the kind of cold that stops
a pulse within a single plunge. Don’t wear
a mask, though, her face is already
hard to see under the tenderness
of algae. Though the simpleness
of a search on the web that holds
us all will yield her name, she cannot
be found.

I don’t edit all the poems I write. Some speak to me immediately and I work at them for days. Others catch my eye later and I’ll go back to them and see what I can do to redeem them if they have good bones. And some just sit there waiting to have the odd good phrase lifted when needed. They are consigned to what I affectionately call my crap file.

This poem got to live solely because of its origin. I winced every time I caught sight of it. Finally I decided I had to fix it. But how? When I’m stuck, I’ll often research what I’m writing about. Google and Wikipedia are old friends. I’ll spend time reading until a phrase or image catches my imagination and shows me how to move forward.

This time, Google got me started. I spent time peering at my lake in satellite view, examining its contours as closely as I could, poring over topographical maps that I found online so I could find where the cliffs are, where the shores slope down… and I was in and rewriting the poem. I stopped once to find out what birds nested around the lake and then chose only one to incorporate, being careful not to be obvious about my research.

While I rewrote, I had to think about what I wanted to convey with this poem. The first version was painfully obvious: ooh look, I’m using a lake as a metaphor. I wanted this version to be much more subtle. That meant changing the beginning. I now start with the lake and move to an image of shoulders, cold shoulders. But I also show hope: “There is open water here” – this person is not totally frost-bitten even if the face is buried. I played with these images very carefully, wanting to convey a troubled personality, someone distant but still reachable if people would take the time. I wanted to point out that she offers a map even as she lies drowned in her pain.

All this took many, many drafts. I’m still not totally happy with the result. The next areas I want to work on are this line: ‘north on the shield being the kind to stop’ which I find too wordy, and the last line which I think is still missing a certain something. But I’m getting there.

Current Version:

The Transparent Life

You offer a map showing the lake’s
rough edges to those who might walk
its boundaries, find where the cliffs
are, where the soft swaths slope,
frost-bitten, to a slide
of ice green shoulders. There is open
water here, places a murre could land, uttering
its harsh short cry as a single egg
is born. But also the need
for portage’s weight lest a rock thrust
cause another to drown, a body floating
at the bottom of a body. How to find it? Only
the most careful could try after having
their hearts checked, the water that far
north on the shield being the kind to stop
a pulse with a single plunge. Already,
the face is buried under time’s
tender tracing. Already, algae hold
skin to bone to sand. But so many turn
away even from the looking. It would take
a trek and they prefer warmer shores.



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