One of the poems we read in my creative writing course last semester that most thrilled me was “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas. Here is the original text of the poem:
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity-like music-withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl- she must have swept the corners of her studio-was full of dead bees.
An exercise – not specifically pertaining to that poem – was to take the exact syllabic pattern and length of any published poem and replace each word with an entirely new set of words, conserving the original rhythm and ebb and flow of the poem while drastically altering the speaker and meaning. The poems don’t have to relate to each other in any way. In this nonsensical story about a woman on an old seafaring vessel, I tried to keep the flowing watery sense of the original poem by Robert Haas while performing the swapping exercise to write completely different content. Here is my work, which may or may not speak to you. Feel free to try the exercise on any poem you choose, and tell me your thoughts!
A Voyage About the Harbour
The briny mermaid, somewhere en route between Maroc and Zanzibar, had slipped into her chest. Stop your wishy-washy dreaming, voices chided, from her skulldrum’s empty ammonites. I live for dreams, and if waves are rolling lullabies for seagulls, outside things, canvas skies exploding out of clouds as black watercolors, I shall keep them. You’ll see, pounded nightfall that Tuesday, you’ll feel and you’ll want and you’ll taste your breath like salt, you’ll lose your map of the chilled halls. Let me tie your rope, but the climb through this rainstorm will be on your own to sail, and when she didn’t understand, Your vessel sinks. No fairy veil nor trail of baby’s-foot pearls in a cannon nor rain at the stake – no sunset – could absolve it, this the nothingness splattered on her blank book: despite her own eyes could not cry. She flowed down the dim staircase without fear, for all the terror that wrapped her heart in warmth would cocoon her any fall. Her chamber knows she dreamed bells this night, but her son found a corpse at dawn bathed by barnacles blooming moss; he could not find prayer – the sun it seemed had wrung his Bible clean of words – the chest remained closed.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Camille Bellanger – →This file has an extracted image: File:Die Gartenlaube (1892) 387.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19165869
By Alberto Prosdocimi (1852-1925) – http://www.dorotheum.at, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15997196